Former special ed student now leads Utah school district
Eureka • As a boy, Kodey Hughes didn't think much about his future because it didn't seem very promising.
He grew up the son of a single father in tiny Mammoth in western Utah. He had a learning disability that made reading difficult. Hughes didn't read his first full book until seventh grade.
"I wasn't the kid in the class that was supposed to go to college," Hughes said.
But he did go to college, and much further. The former special-education student now leads the 250-student Tintic School District as superintendent. At 35, he is one of the youngest, if not the youngest, superintendent in the state.
Unlike most of those peers, he also still teaches. He spends about three hours a day in a cacophony of instruments and laughter as a band teacher, then often attends to administrative tasks in his office the same room where he attended sixth grade.
He's also technically principal of Tintic High and West Desert High, though he has delegated some of those responsibilities.
Hughes knows it's a pace he won't be able to keep up forever. But, for now, he has the energy and he's motivated.
He credits the schools and community for helping him make something of his life.
"I had all these teachers that were big parts of my life," Hughes said, "and I wanted to continue with that and do the same thing."
'What really turned the corner' • One of Hughes' most influential teachers is now one of his employees.
More than two decades ago, Paula Evans was Hughes' middle and high school English teacher. He was struggling with reading; sometimes, he'd reach the end of a page and not know what he'd just read.
He often sat in the hallway outside Evans' classroom with an aide, taking turns with her reading pages aloud.
Evans noticed that Hughes loved S.E. Hinton's "The Outsiders" in eighth grade. It was only the second full book he'd read to that point, and the first he'd read without assistance. She began buying him more books by the same author and with the same themes.
He didn't realize she was buying the books especially for him. But Evans' strategy worked. Soon, Hughes was reading more and enjoying it.
"That's what really turned the corner for me," Hughes recalled, "when someone said, 'He really likes these types of books, these types of authors. We need to make sure they're accessible to him.' "
Evans said it's the type of thing teachers in Tintic often do.
"Maybe if he'd have been in a great big school, he might have been lost," said Evans, who still teaches English at Tintic High.
But she acknowledges that something about Hughes, in particular, touched her heart.
Despite his reading troubles, Hughes was a happy kid. He was popular, a ringleader among his friends, and his nickname was "grinner," Evans said. He wrestled, played trumpet, was the school mascot and announced basketball games.
"He was just a unique kid, smiles on his face all the time," said Sonja Laird, the longtime high school secretary.
As a junior, he played the lead in the school play, "Grandad Steps Out." During performances, he ad-libbed most of his lines, deciding the material was too dry as written. He had the audience in stitches.
But his teachers and others worried about him. His family struggled financially. He sometimes came to school without breakfast or clean clothes. Hughes, whose eyesight is so poor he's considered legally blind, had thick glasses that were often clouded with dirt. An aide would wipe them clean.
"When he went away to [college]," Evans said, "I think people weren't so sure that it was all going to work out for him."
'The perfect fit' • Hughes hadn't necessarily planned to go to college, but he won a scholarship to play trumpet at Snow College.
He was a star player at Tintic High a plaque engraved with his name after he won a school music award in 1993 still hangs on the wall of the band room where he now teaches.
He met his wife at Snow, and he later went on to earn his master's degree from Southern Utah University.
In college, Hughes used the reading strategies his teachers had taught him in Eureka such as covering the parts of a page he wasn't reading so he wouldn't get overwhelmed.
After he graduated, Hughes' first teaching job was at a high school in Las Vegas. He quickly decided working at a large, urban school wasn't for him. "I didn't have the connections with kids," he said.
He then taught in Gunnison for a time before the job opened up in Tintic. Hughes and his wife decided to make the move to return to his roots and be closer to family.
He started as a teacher, but he quickly moved up the administrative ranks. Within five years of arriving in Tintic, he became superintendent.
"He had a lot of good traits. He was originally from here, had a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of good ideas," said Ron Nelson, Tintic school board chairman.
Nelson has served on the board for nearly 40 years and remembers Hughes as a student.
"He just seemed like the perfect fit for our small community and district," Nelson said.
'Let's go' • Hughes still always smiling and gregarious is a natural leader. But a big part of his attraction to helming Tintic schools was that he still would get to teach.
On top of his administrative duties, the father of three young children teaches three band classes a day, at the elementary, middle and high school levels.
"It's trying," Hughes said, "but it's the best 2Â½ to three hours of my day."
On a recent school day, he bounded through the high school band room, directing students through the peppy "Manhattan Beach." Hughes zipped from section to section, bouncing to the beat. He played along on a trumpet.
He occasionally admonished the students. But he smiled as he spoke, making his criticism seem more like jokes than insults.
"It's not as great as you think," he told the band before asking them to play a part again.
"Are you tired? Did you go to bed last night? Stop yawning. Let's go," he proclaimed to a student a few minutes later.
"Don't screw up!" he warned the room.
Smiles and laughter followed each comment. "He's a great teacher," said sophomore Noah Young. "He's fun and energetic."
His passion and energy astound even his teenage students. On a bulletin board at the front of his room hang four batons, all broken from him swatting them against his music stand during practice.
One of his students created a joking memorial to the batons, also posted on the bulletin board.
"He's very energetic and excited," said junior Zane Evans, describing the broken batons.
But Hughes' students also respect him.
"He knows his stuff," Evans said. "He's not afraid to tell you what's wrong. He's very truthful. He doesn't sugarcoat anything."
Evans is the son of Paula Evans, the teacher who helped Hughes learn to read better as an eighth-grader.
Small community, tough choices • Hughes, like other superintendents, faces challenges in running his schools. But he also deals with issues unique to heading the state's second smallest school district.
Tintic covers a wide swath of western Utah. He often communicates with the district's far-flung West Desert High and Elementary schools via computer.
Twice a month, he drives to those west desert schools a journey that takes about 2Â½ hours each way because much of it is on dirt roads.
When budgets got tight during the recent economic downturn, he laid off some of the district's custodial staff and reorganized teaching positions.
That included parents of some of his students.
"I've had employees resign," Hughes said, "and I'm still teaching their kids in my band class." He also has made big decisions that have helped the district in recent years, Nelson said, such as moving to a four-day week.
Hughes got permission from the state school board to make the change a few years ago to improve attendance. Because the schools are remote and so many kids are involved in sports and activities, students were missing days of school for games and other events.
Now, Tintic kids attend school Monday through Thursday. Their days are nearly an hour-and-a-half longer. But because the schools can now schedule games and other events for Fridays, students are missing fewer days, Hughes said.
Plus, he said, it allows him to have his teachers spend one to two Fridays a month receiving professional development something many districts have had to forgo since lawmakers cut funding for such training several years ago.
It's something Hughes believes is important. He wants to see his students get the same type of education he got as a pupil in Tintic lessons that propelled him to where he is today.
"It was really fun for me," Hughes said, "to come back to the school that I think made such a huge impact on my life."