WOODLAND PARK - Music teachers in Woodland Park School District RE-2 aren't saying "I told you so," but they're right. And they have a national award to prove it.

Choir, band and music class instructors in the district's five schools have known for years that their programs are above ordinary.

"I thought this award was a long shot," admits Connie Campbell, choir director for Woodland Park High School. "But Woodland Park has always been respected for its longtime tradition of music, and for a small school district, we do a lot. It's nice to be noticed."

In March, the district was one of two in Colorado named among the "Best Communities for Music Education in the United States."

The program of the University of Kansas and the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation recognizes "outstanding efforts by teachers, administrators, parents, students and community leaders who have made music education part of the core curriculum." Kit Carson School District RE-1, on the far eastern plains, was the other 2014 Colorado recipient of what those in the industry say is a prestigious award.

"It's humbling and thrilling. It's another confirmation of how important music is here and how it's supported," said Brenda Goolsby, who teaches music at Summit Elementary in Divide. "We don't know what this is going to mean, but we hope it opens doors."

The music program has benefited from strong community support, both financial and moral. Citizens show up for performances, and there's lot of back and forth between the schools and the local arts community.

A push to strengthen arts education began more than a decade ago. Woodland Park voters approved a 2003 bond issue allowing for a $14.6 million expansion of the high school, which included a new band and choir room and a state-of-the-art auditorium. The work was completed in 2005.

Until then, "We had no performance venue. We did performances in the gym," said Craig Harms, a former band director for the middle and high schools until he left in the mid-1980s to develop music education software.

The facility laid the groundwork for improvement, he said, because, "Like a football team, if you don't have a good stadium to play in, you aren't going to attract the fans."

The Dickson Auditorium, named after a long-time teacher who championed the cause, features professional lighting and sound, along with a green room, a drama room for building sets and a separate pit for an orchestra - extras that many schools don't have.

Harms said the venue brought high expectations to develop a worthy program and justify the cost of the investment.

Many now believe the program has arrived.

"We feel like they are very strong part of this community. The contributions the school district has made through its arts and cultural programs have been very beneficial to Woodland Park and have helped pull community members into a cooperative-type effort," said Ralph Holloway, founder of the Woodland Park Arts Alliance. The group is working to obtain a Creative Arts District designation for downtown, a project in which the school district has been involved.

Opportunities abound

Performances, including two musicals each year, an all-schools concert and combined extravaganzas with other groups such as the Colorado Springs Children's Chorale, in addition to small cabarets and orchestra events, draw hundreds of people, including many who don't have children at the schools, said Cherese Bennett, choir director at the Woodland Park Middle School.

"Just getting people in our buildings helps them support us because they see and hear what's going on," she said. "It's not just a test score coming back."

While the nation's recession meant across-the-board budget cuts districtwide in recent years, the music program wasn't targeted for deeper reductions, teachers say, which has helped sustain its quality.

All three elementary schools have full-time music teachers, and the middle and high schools each have full-time choir and band directors.

"That doesn't happen often in a district this size; it's quite significant," said Campbell.

The district also recently hired an accompanist for the middle and high school choirs.

"She's become invaluable," Campbell said. "Having her aids the learning and the things the kids can achieve."

The district has nearly 2,600 students this school year. Many want to study music. At the high school, 30 percent of students enroll in at least one music class as an elective, Campbell said. About 300 students, roughly half of the student body at the Woodland Park Middle School, are involved with a music class, Bennett said. All elementary school children take music lessons and can join before and after school choirs.

There also are travel opportunities. The middle and high school choir and band classes went to Disneyland to do a recording session and make a soundtrack and movie snippets. The middle school jazz band recently had a gig at a Denver radio station.

Some students excel enough to be competitive at the state level, qualifying for honor choir and all-state band. And for seven of the last eight years, the marching band has been a state finalist. This year, for the first time, the district had a winter percussion ensemble that competed statewide.

For the past three years, the high school marching band has hosted its invitational, bringing in 20 of the best bands from around the state, as a fundraiser.

"It gives kids the opportunity to perform in front of their peers instead of going to someone else's community," said Darren Dukart, high school band director.

The diverse program and the ability to help the program grow cinched his decision to teach in Woodland Park, he said.

"I got offers for three different jobs, but the emphasis on the fine arts here and the community support is why I took this job," Dukart said.

Reaching into community

The music program has become one of the main ways the school district fosters relationships with the community, Bennett said.

Not only do students go into the community to perform at an annual hospice ceremony, Kiwanis Club events, a senior citizens' tea and holiday festivals, but they also get a taste of the professional side of music.

This school year, they presented a dance with a local jazz band, The Swing Factory Big Band, one of Harms' many projects.

"It's amazing the amount of talent we have in the school and the community," he said.

One reason, he believes, is that people often move to Woodland Park, a mountain town west of Colorado Springs, because of the spectacular scenery, which goes hand in hand with the arts.

"The geographic beauty ties in with the beauty of the performing and visual arts, so we have a lot of amateur and professional artists," Harms said. "Our symphony alone has 50 members, most locals."

Some graduates of the Woodland Park public school system have gone on to study music at prestigious institutions such as Yale, Princeton and the Cleveland Institute of Music, Campbell said.

"We're also graduating students who have a high amount of stage time, from performing solos to conducting, to running the lights and sound," she said. "They get a lot of experience, working independently for a common goal."

Dukart said the music program will continue to draw students who hear of its benefits.

"We seem to get a high number of kind, dedicated, talented students," Campbell acknowledged.

"You can tell we're grateful," Goolsby said. "I don't know what it is about Woodland Park, but it is a small but alive hub of arts. It's nice to be a part of something that's healthy and active."