Coolidge High School graduation 2021

Principal Ben Armstrong speaks during a commencement ceremony for Coolidge High School and Coolidge Alternative Program on Thursday, May 27, 2021, at Larry Delbridge Stadium.

COOLIDGE — The roles are changing, but the players are largely remaining the same among leadership within the Coolidge Unified School District.

With Dawn Dee Hodge taking over as district superintendent this month, Coolidge High School Principal Ben Armstrong steps into Hodge’s former role as director of human resources, while CHS Athletic Director Tres Chapman is set to become principal.

Hodge said that internal promotion of staff was no accident and spoke to a unified vision for student success between staff and the CUSD board, especially coming out of the pandemic.

“We like to promote from within,” Hodge said. “That’s always been the goal. We try to grow and build capacity in our people, and as people are ready for change or growth, we like to honor that. It gives us a level of consistency.”

Hodge did note that the latter kind of approach could also lead to stagnation in some circumstances, but that CUSD leadership, including outgoing Superintendent Charie Wallace, had found ways around that pitfall.

“What we have tried to do is look at people who have that desire to push the district forward even if it’s a bit uncomfortable for us,” Hodge said. “We need to be ‘comfortably uncomfortable’ and push into areas we are not necessarily versed in.”

Chapman said he felt “blessed” to be named the new high school principal and that he had received strong guidance from Armstrong, Hodge and others within the district.

“He never micromanaged me or told me what to do,” Chapman said of Armstrong. “He allowed me to make decisions; some weren’t so good, but they were mine, and that’s how you learn best, by doing.”

Chapman said he brought a vast array of experiences to the role, having previously worked in the English and special departments at Vista Grande High School.

Armstrong, who was also principal of West Elementary before working at the high school, said he loved being principal but was excited when the opportunity arose for his new position. Armstrong suggested that in both roles, “unfun but crucial conversations” take place in dealing with various stakeholders — students, staff, parents, etc. — but that the HR position is also fundamentally about supporting each of the school sites in the best way possible.

Armstrong also had high praise for both Hodge and his successor at the high school, Chapman, who he said represents an “upgrade in leadership” over himself.

“I feel like my role under new leadership with Dawn is to make her job as easy as possible,” Armstrong said. “She’s a visionary; she will lead us in the right direction.”

Armstrong also said he is “super proud” that the student body remained more or less intact throughout the pandemic, despite the different learning models and the highly unusual and uncertain timeline everyone faced over the last year and a half.

Hodge said she is hoping that Armstrong would take on more of the PR and marketing side of the HR director position. Unlike some other districts, students have private or charter school options in the region, so Hodge said it is important to partner and communicate with residents.

“That is the person who goes out to recruitment fairs,” Hodge said. “It’s not just about recruitment of teachers and staff but in promoting the great things that are happening within our district.”

During the CUSD board meeting last week, Hodge spoke of the need to focus on learning recovery, and Chapman echoed that priority, saying that the immediate challenge coming out of the pandemic would be to meet students “where they are.” Chapman said he feels the administrative team and school counselors are ready to facilitate a return to normalcy.

“I am excited to be back on campus with students again full time,” Chapman said. “It hasn’t been that long but this past year was the most different and difficult year I have had in 20 years in education and so I am looking forward to having activities, rebuilding school culture, school spirit.”

Hodge credited both students and staff for what she saw as successful summer school sessions thus far. The district will have a “welcome breakfast” and vendor fair for new and returning staff on July 22, which Hodge said she hoped would set a positive tone for the upcoming year.

Chapman said that Assistant Principal Anthony Gonzalez would be in charge of athletics at the high school, while Assistant Principal Yvette Dix would be continuing in her role spearheading curriculum and instruction. The district has also hired Scott Lovely, a basketball coach at Desert Edge High School in Goodyear, to be an assistant principal, and Coolidge FFA Adviser Jadee Rohner was promoted to a master teacher position at the high school. The FFA program at the high school will be run next year by Paige Gangloff and Wyatt Carpenter.

The 2021-22 school year is set to begin on Aug. 2.

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Aaron Dorman is the Casa Grande reporter at PinalCentral, covering government, schools, business and more. He can be reached at adorman@pinalcentral.com.

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