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Higley district boasts most youth indoor performing arts teams in Arizona

 HUSD Winter Performing Arts

In a large, open room, dance students at Cooley Middle School face a wall of mirrors as they independently wave and swirl large flags in arcs and figure eights. The group continues to practice as Pam Edgar, the instructor, pulls out a large binder full of photos -- looks up and smiles -- then points to a group of starry-eyed performers on the cover: “My seniors this year. This is when they were in eighth grade.”

Edgar doubles as the color guard instructor for both of the Cooley winter guard teams and both of the Williams Field High School teams, all Gilbert campuses in Higley Unified School District. She also instructs three of five elementary guard teams in the district, which make up three of the eight elementary guard teams registered in all of Arizona. The development of Higley’s youth teams has resulted in Higley accumulating the most youth indoor performing arts teams in Arizona. In a practice largely unique to the Higley Unified School District, students are being introduced to the “sport of the arts” at a young age -- as early as the fifth grade.

Natalie Guajardo, eighth grader at Cooley Middle School, is one such student. She started performing in district color guard teams her fifth-grade year when she joined Gateway Pointe Elementary Color Guard.

Guajardo said she was nervous when she first joined guard because she was afraid to “drop the flag on my head.” Four years later, Guajardo tosses quads with a wooden rifle for Cooley Colorguard Black. Tossing quads on a wooden rifle is a hard-earned skill usually reserved for more seasoned high school performers.

“We just started learning more harder things and it made me want to stay and do it -- do it well and get it done,” Guajardo said.

As Higley youth begin their training at younger grades, the teams become like family and are able to perform at a higher level in high school, according to Pam Edgar.

“The kids amaze me every day. The things that they can do, nothing phases them,” Pam Edgar said. “They are so eager to learn and they try everything, which has helped us take them to that next level.”

Winter Guard Arizona 2019 championships has 147 teams registered for competition across all categories. In the elementary percussion section, or “trash-can band” section, seven out of eight teams are from the Higley Unified School District. In the scholastic elementary division, there are eight elementary color guard teams -- five are Higley. There are only three marching winds teams in all of Arizona and Higley’s was the first. They had the newly established WGAZ Winds Championship all to themselves in 2016. In fact, the Higley district has a staggering total of 24 teams, which means more than 15 percent of registered WGAZ teams are Higley.

Chesley Sharp, Higley High School band director, said that the challenge and the social bonding that comes with being on a competitive team keeps students coming back, in spite of the large time commitment.

Emphasis on time commitment. Guard and percussion students at Higley High School have to attend a daily “A hour” class, a class that extends school time by an hour in the morning, as well as two, three-hour practices on Tuesday and Thursday evening, according to Sharp.

“There are often Saturdays where they will have camps -- especially in January and February -- to help prepare them for the season,” he said.

These Saturday camps are often eight hours that aim to expedite the process of memorizing music and floor movements. Sharp said that the following Saturdays are filled with up to five or more competitions extending through March that require students to be present for six to 10 hours. But the challenge and camaraderie is the appeal.

“The kids are finding a niche that they enjoy. It gives them a creative outlet,” Sharp said. “Even though it is a pretty big team and a pretty big-time commitment, it gives them something competitive to do in music.”

Williams Field High School band director Bob Edgar, Pam’s husband, helped launch the district’s winds team, North Side Winds, and several of the district’s trash-can bands. He directs the winter percussion groups at Cooley Middle School and Higley Traditional Academy, as well. According to Edgar, introducing elementary and middle school Winter Guard programs helps increase numbers and performance quality at the high school level.

“With the foundation really solid at the entry level, and the continuity all the way through the grade levels up to the high school, we are seeing it in our numbers, in the bands as they continue to grow,” Bob Edgar said. “The quality keeps getting better.”

Erigitta Tifft, a senior, is the percussion section leader at Higley High School and inspires Higley youth to participate in the sport of the arts by helping teach at the Sossaman Middle School percussion ensemble. Tifft said she, herself, had been inspired to join a few years ago by her older sister who performed with Williams Field’s winter guard. During Higley High School’s 2018 marching season, Tifft marched with freshmen she taught just months prior.

“Just seeing them grow from the summer between eighth grade and freshman year, it’s crazy to see how much they have grown -- and through this year as well -- as musicians and as people.”