EUREKA, Juab County — When Tintic School District Superintendent Kodey Hughes made an impassioned plea to restore music as a core requirement for seventh- and eighth-graders, it was personal.
“I was from a very deprived, poor family, a single father. He was a miner. His interest was not my education," Hughes said at a recent public hearing before the State School Board.
But because he attended elementary and middle schools that required music, learning to play “a rusty old trumpet” was life altering for the struggling student who required special education services for learning disabilities.
"That trumpet unlocked a relationship with a music teacher, which unlocked a relationship with Snow College, which got him a full-ride scholarship, which he was able to complete and get another scholarship to Southern Utah University. He became a teacher and then decided he liked education and wanted to change lives, so he got his masters degree and became a principal and finally a superintendent, committed enough that he still teaches music," Tom Nedreberg, who taught in the Tintic School District for 38 years, told the board.
Hughes was one of Nedreberg's students. Now 38, he’s the chief executive of the school district.
While it is common for teachers and administrators in small, rural school districts to wear multiple hats, Hughes stands apart from most Utah school superintendents because he is also a classroom teacher.
Four mornings a week, Hughes teaches three back-to-back instrumental music classes for elementary, middle school and high school students.
The day starts at Tintic High School, which serves students in grades seven through 12. Shortly afterward, he bolts out the door, hops into his blue Jeep Liberty and drives a half-mile to Tintic Elementary School for class with the "newbies," fifth- and sixth-graders who got their instruments two weeks ago.
His high schoolers get straight to work playing music, with Hughes occasionally stopping them to restart at a measure where the rhythm or notes aren't quite coming together.
The middle schoolers work through a list of songs for an upcoming concert. Some have been Hughes' students since fifth grade, but others are brand new, so the class requires far more direction than his high school band students.
"You're so worried about the notes you forgot about the rhythm. They're equal parts," he reminded middle schoolers during a recent class.
At the elementary school, things are, well, elementary. Hughes spends the class period teaching notes and scales, adjusting instruments and offering tips and repeated demonstrations, such as how to pucker one's lips to play brass instruments.
It's loud and not yet music, but Hughes' mornings spent teaching music, he says, "are the best three hours of my day."
He suspects those class periods may also be the best part of his students’ day, too. In a school district of about 250 students, Hughes teaches 110 of them daily.
Like their teachers, students in small schools serve multiple roles. In the high school band, the trumpet section is populated with baseball players. Girls on the school’s volleyball team stand out because they’re attired in dresses and skirts because they have a game later in the day.
The band room is a gathering place where they learn to work collaboratively to make music and support one another in good times and bad.
Shortly after the start of the school year, an 11-year-old student, Billie Petersen, died in a car accident. The car, which was carrying her and siblings to school, rolled after it got a flat tire.
When the students returned to school, Hughes acknowledged Billie’s death, extending the group’s collective love and compassion to her sister and brother, who are band members. Billie was in Hughes’ sixth-grade band class.
Band classmates had looks of relief on their faces as Hughes addressed Billie’s siblings. “You could just see on their faces, ‘Thank goodness Mr. Hughes is talking to them because we don’t know what to say,’" he recounted.
Hughes acknowledged that it is hard to know what to say after such a tragic loss, but he told them simply, “‘We care about you. We love you.’ And then we got to play music together.”
Billie’s memorial service was held in the district administration building. The band, as the largest student group in the school district, assisted with the arrangements, setting up chairs in the auxiliary gym for Billie’s viewing and memorial service.
“We took our band, as a family, which is the way I like to look at it, and what did we do? We set up 400 chairs. They set up the podium and they helped their classmates and their friends do that. There’s no other organization we have in our school that would pull that many together.”
In terms of camaraderie, there’s nothing quite like being a member of an instrumental group.
“I can’t replace that — in my life, either,” he said.
So testifying before the Utah State Board of Education in Salt Lake City was a high-priority for Hughes.
Because Tintic School District conducts four-day school weeks, students go to school seven periods a day Monday through Thursday. Add 3 1/2 hours of travel time on top of that to attend the three-hour hearing made for a long day.
But Hughes not only spoke out on behalf of music, he spoke up for health classes, too.
"The social and mental health of our students is far and above a more critical time than ever before. If you've ever been in a middle school, that's the game right there. That's where it starts. That's where the challenges, and our heading off the challenges, can happen. Health education, not just necessarily physical education, but health education is where we can make the greatest impact and prevent student suicide, student abuse, self-harm — the critical things I've seen from my own students," he said.
Unlike other school districts, which welcomed the rule change that will give school districts and charter boards more flexibility with course offerings and scheduling, shifting priorities could result in rural schools losing teachers who teach courses that will now be considered electives, and it will be very difficult to replace them, Hughes said.
"Local control often means lack of support," he said.
In August, the Utah State Board of Education voted 9-6 to change the state core curriculum by dropping arts, music, dance, theater or media arts; physical education; health education and college and career awareness as core requirements.
Under the rule change, school districts or charter boards can offer the courses as electives or establish their own core requirements that exceed the remaining state core curriculum for grades seven and eight, language arts, mathematics, integrated science, U.S. history and Utah history.
The new policy says schools "shall offer" the following courses aligned with core standards in seventh and eighth grades: at least two of five arts courses, including visual arts, music, dance, theater or media arts; physical education; health education; college and career awareness; and as of the 2018-19 school year, digital literacy, and at least one of the world languages.
The state board took the public testimony under advisement.
Hughes’ other passion in high school was wrestling, which taught him to work hard and keep going.
"That's how you get through Math 1050 when you get to college, it's work and it's continuation. Music didn't help me get through math, but physical education did. If we can push our minds and our bodies we can last and push through other things, too — that textbook or that long night writing that paper," he said.
But it was music that has made the most lasting changes in his life.
He landed at Snow College on a music scholarship. He met his wife, Jodie, there. She is also a music educator and teaches at Tintic Elementary School. The couple has three children, two girls and one boy — Kaydence, Key and Khord “because it takes three to make a chord,” Hughes explains.
Jodie and Kodey Hughes both earned degrees in music education from Southern Utah University.
For his part, it’s a rather remarkable feat considering music had played no significant role in Hughes' life until he came to live with his father in Mammoth, a small mining settlement about 4 miles southwest of Eureka.
After their parents' divorce, Hughes and his three brothers spent summers with their father in Mammoth living in what he describes as a "100-year-old mining shack."
His father still lives there and there’s no running water. Water is trucked in and pumped into a large tank. “Growing up, I took more showers at Tintic High School than I ever took at home,” Hughes said.
Before the start of fifth grade, he asked if he could stay with his father. His mother wanted to keep the boys together, but Hughes was insistent.
One of Tintic's teachers commuted daily from Provo and she offered to take Hughes with her each day.
"I think my mom thought I would get sick of it," and he would return to his former school, Sunset View Elementary School in Provo.
But 10-year-old Kodey stood by his decision, and his mother finally relented.
In the sixth grade, he took a required instrumental music course. Students were asked to select from a pile of instruments.
"I get a trumpet and it's this beat up old trumpet, and I just started playing it. I did the same thing I do with those kids, learn those notes and this and that. It becomes a big deal to me. I was also a resource student. I really, really struggled with my reading. But I also started to really improve in those things because of small classes and because of a smaller environment,” he said.
By the time he was in eighth grade, Hughes was playing trumpet solos with the high school jazz band.
Teachers 'changed everything'
While he put in the work to improve his playing, he got a big assist from music teacher Vince Bates, who took a personal interest in Hughes' development as a musician and a student.
"He would come to Mammoth and pick me up every morning at 6:30 so we could have band practice. We went from 6:45 to 7:45 every morning for jazz band practice. He'd come over and pick me up because my dad would have left (for work)," he said.
After graduating from SUU and teaching briefly in Las Vegas and later in Gunnison, Hughes succeeded Bates as the instrumental music teacher in Tintic School District in 2006.
"Teachers, in their desire to do anything to get kids to love music, and my love for it, changed everything," Hughes said.
It’s a big reason why Hughes is willing to juggle his administrative responsibilities to remain in the classroom part of the day and attack other duties — keeping up with federal reports and state reporting requirements, preparing for school board meetings, meeting with administrators and faculty members, plus having regular contact with constituents and elected officials — with a like degree of enthusiasm.
Even while in the classroom, his cellphone is propped up on the music stand. He constantly receives texts and emails. Some require his immediate attention, others will have to wait until he gets a break between classes.
While wrapping up class at the elementary school, an overhead announcement adds another item to his day's to-do list: "Attention teachers. There is no water in the school right now. We're trying to find out why."
Fortunately, it was a quick fix. Someone had turned off the water when work was done on the school's boiler.
The sheer size of the school district presents challenges, too. Although it is the second smallest school district in terms of enrollment, Tintic School District covers about 2,100 square miles.
There are two schools in Eureka and two in Trout Creek in western Juab County, West Desert High School and West Desert Elementary School. The drive between the two is about 125 miles.
The October meeting of the Tintic School District Board of Education will be in Trout Creek, which happens to be on the same night as the band concert at Eureka High School.
"It just so happened it fell on the same night of my concert, but that's how it goes." He'll make it work, he says.
'Music did that'
As an educator, Hughes said he wants his students to experience life beyond the cocoon of Tintic School District, so he takes them to universities to tour campuses and play along with university bands.
Every other year, students raise money for a band trip out of state where they meet students from urban high schools and play music together, sightsee and get to know one another better.
The dividends are many. Three recent graduates enrolled at SUU this fall "because they made that connection," he said. One plays flute with the university band.7 comments on this story
“She didn’t get a scholarship, but she just wants to play for them,” Hughes said. The campus visit “made it less scary. Music did that for them, nothing else.”
As the district's top administrator, Hughes is younger than many of his employees. Some of them taught him when he was a student. He became their boss in 2010.
While he's deeply devoted to music education for students in the small rural community, Hughes said he's equally committed to helping educators refine their craft and hopefully, sink roots in the tiny community that has strong traditions in mining.
"I want to grow teachers and that will grow kids," he said.