by Corianna Lee, Performing Arts Director, Coolidge Unified School District

Where can you find fine arts programs in Pinal County for middle and high school students that include a state-of-the-art piano lab and have passionate teachers serving students and the community? 

Coolidge Unified School District is the place. 

This wasn’t always the case for CUSD. Budget cuts and teacher attrition closed many arts programs, and after 2008, district performing arts programs were nearly nonexistent. 

In 2013, CUSD officials created a plan to return the arts to all grades by hiring new teachers and rebuilding the programs. It began with hiring a performing arts center director, rebuilding drama, dance, choir and band programs, as well as expanding the visual arts program. In 2016, the arts were expanded to the elementary schools with band and vocal music, after a more than 10-year absence. 

The unsung heroes of the fine arts department are the choir and piano programs.  Under the direction of Camille Coffey, the choir program expanded from three choir and 10 piano students to 20 choir students in grades seven through 12, and over 50 piano students in grades seven through 12. Ms. Coffey is in her fifth year at CUSD, and is one of several dedicated fine arts teachers in the district. She also serves as president of the Arizona Choral Educators organization and spent time helping develop and pilot assessments of the Arizona state music standards.

In the district, she played a critical role in the development, purchase and installment of the piano lab at CHS/CJHS that integrates the one-to-one technology initiative implemented by CUSD.

While many schools in Pinal County have a choir class, they are usually taught by a band or instrumental music teacher.

As Ms. Coffey grows the choir program at CHS/CJHS, support from administration at the site and district level is critical. Support is evident in the development of the class schedules and district, board and site administration attendance at events and performances.

Ms. Coffey is one of the few state-certified choir teachers working in Pinal County, making her expertise critical to the community she serves. She continues to refine her pedagogical skills by attending conferences offered by Arizona Music Educators Association, Arizona chapter of American Choral Directors Association, and by continuing to sing in choirs.

In the choir and piano classes, students receive individual feedback needed to develop technique and musical artistry. During the 2017-2018 school year, choir and piano students performed in various concerts at the Coolidge Performing Arts Center. 

Ms. Coffey builds relationships with her students, teaches vital music literacy skills and fosters musical independence, which she hopes students will carry with them as they continue to perform throughout their life.

It is evident students in her classroom are continually exposed to big ideas and are expected to develop and use higher-level thinking skills in their rehearsals and performances. It is her belief there is a place for every student in these programs, and she has a strong desire to continue building the programs.

Ms. Coffey credits the Coolidge Unified School District administration and school board, especially Coolidge junior and senior high school site administrators for being supportive and having a vision that allows for the expansion of fine arts programs.

Coolidge Unified School District has managed to draw and retain dedicated teachers like Ms. Coffey because district and site officials understand and recognize how important the fine arts are in the lives of students and the critical role it plays in student development.   

This allows teachers like her to make a difference in the lives of their students, and give them the opportunity to experience and develop life skills through musical performance. These are practices that draw and retain students. 

Many studies have proven that programs such as the arts keep students in school,  provide positive learning experiences and teach life skills that are transferable in every aspect of life.