The Educational Experience at ASD: Theater + Music

The Educational Experience at Aspen School District: Theater + Music


Aspen School District (ASD) believes exposure to the arts is an essential component of a well-rounded educational experience that leads to healthy self-expression, self-confidence, and overall personal growth. Students from all schools within the district are lucky enough to have the opportunity to participate in theater and music, both in the classroom and in afterschool programs. Below, three members of the arts faculty at ASD hold forth about the importance of arts education and its lasting impact on the lives of our students:

Marnie White teaches choral and music classes at Aspen Elementary, Mark Thompson leads the choir, instrumental and concert band at Aspen Middle School and Logan Carter heads up the theater programs for the middle and high schools.


Why is theater important to the success of the students involved?

Theatre teaches us how to be human. It’s about communication and expression, empathy and compassion. These are critical skills needed in a digital world where our students are growing up on their phones. It’s about taking risks, getting out of one’s comfort zone and building self-confidence, learning how to work as a team, commitment and persistence. Students have come into the program with very little self-esteem or direction in life and I have seen what theatre does for them. They find a family, they are supported and they discover skills and talent they never knew they had and wouldn’t find in any other setting. I have seen theatre give a lost student a purpose and passion.
Logan Carter - Theatre Director, Aspen School District

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Why is music vital to the success of the students involved in the program?

Music is highly influential in so many ways. Studies show a direct correlation between participation in school music programs and increased test scores. Students who study music show better executive functioning skills, higher social skills, express greater feelings of happiness and contentment and are better listeners. Not everyone is terribly successful in school academics; for some students, the only thing that keeps them coming back to school is the ability to participate in the arts.
Marnie White - Choir/Music Director, Aspen Elementary School

What are the growth opportunities for the middle and high school choir?

2017 was the first year, in several years, that choir has been included as a curricular course. In the coming years, we are hoping to expand the program to include more students (in all grade-levels) while continuing the support into high school. The program has given students an opportunity to perform for a variety of audiences in locations across Colorado (Denver, Colorado Springs, Grand Junction, Rifle) and the country (Los Angeles). We are looking forward to providing more performance opportunities for students in the years to come.
Mark Thompson—Band/Choir, Aspen Middle School


What are the needs of the theater/music departments?

  • Purchase of new instruments or repair of existing instruments
  • Travel expenses for performance opportunities
  • Replacing 25-year-old choral risers for K-12 use
  • Hosting guest artists for additional exposure to new instruments/performances
  • Higher-quality, more professional theater programming 
  • Hiring professional designers and directors to work with students and elevate production quality




Educational Excellence at ASD: Outdoor/Experiential Education

Excellence at Aspen School District: Outdoor/Experiential Education

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1968 marked the beginning of outdoor and experiential education in the Aspen School District (ASD). Since its inception, the program has expanded greatly to offer beyond-classroom educational experiences in which students participate in a variety of challenges and outdoor activities--hiking, climbing, rafting, ropes courses and group initiatives in the wilderness. Over the years, the high school program has evolved to include a variety of national destinations for cultural, artistic, urban or community-based learning.   

Outdoor and experiential education across all grades within ASD involves carefully chosen activities that are supported by reflection and critical analysis--and are structured to require each participant to take initiative, make decisions and be accountable for results. These experiences offer significant growth opportunities for students that are often life changing.

Program leaders from the district share their passion for its impact on students: 

"It is rare for a public school to be able to provide a program like this. Outdoor education promotes the development of perseverance, empathy, compassion, and the ability to recognize and appreciate each other's differences. It's a learning experience that simply cannot be replicated in the classroom. Reaching the 50-year milestone is a true testament to the collective dedication and support of both the ASD staff and the Aspen community as a whole." Craig Rogers, Aspen Middle School Principal
"Graduates of Aspen High School consistently rank their Ex Ed experiences as the most formative in their high school careers. It is truly unique to have such an array of course offerings all steeped in teachers' passions. The opportunity to meet new people, experience new places, and build community is unparalleled." Sarah Strassburger, Aspen High School Vice Principal
"The outdoor experience is part of what makes our District so special. Students learn skills that they can use for a lifetime and learn the importance of being part of a team. Students can demonstrate skills and leadership that you might not necessarily see in the classroom." Chris Basten, Aspen Elementary School Principal
Ex Ed defines Aspen High School. Whenever we invite our graduated seniors to provide feedback about Aspen High School, it consistently ranks as the most beneficial program we offer for their success in adulthood. It is what sets us apart from all other schools, not only in Colorado but the country!” Tharyn Mulberry, Aspen High School Principal


What are the current needs of the program?

  • Scholarships – Additional funds would ensure that all students have access to courses, no matter the cost. Courses range in price from $150 to $750
  • Scholarships – Additional funds would ensure that all students have access to courses, no matter the cost. Courses range in price from $150 to $750
  • New equipment
  • Training for teachers to guide/lead courses

Note: Outdoor education is predominantly funded by the annual ski swap hosted by AMS each November.







Funding Aspen’s Future: Aspen Education Foundation

Funding Aspen’s Future: Aspen Education Foundation

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In 1991, a small group of visionary parents created the Aspen Education Foundation (AEF) to bridge the gap in state funding for Aspen School District through private donations. Almost three decades later, AEF continues to fund programs and positions that enhance the student experience, and that otherwise wouldn’t exist due to a $1,300 per student annual deficit in public funding.

Below are two examples of how AEF makes a difference.


Supporting Higher Education

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Did you know Aspen High School’s college counseling department wouldn’t exist without funding from Aspen Education Foundation? This department consists of three professionals whose positions are made possible by AEF. Their main goal is to assist students and parents with college planning, which is made possible by maintaining relationships with colleges and universities nationwide. At the helm and well-known in the Aspen community, as well as in college admissions offices across the country, is Dr. Kathy Klug. She has been an instrumental part of the Aspen School District for 22 years, first as a teacher and now as a shrewd, effective college advisor to hundreds of AHS students. In addition, she co-founded the Colorado Western Slope College Fair that brings admission officers from 250 colleges and universities to Aspen each year. Learn more about Dr. Klug and college counseling.


Robotics = Learning + Fun


Robotics is one of the many programs that AEF funds.  It teaches students to become builders, engineers and problem solvers while introducing programming skills and fostering creativity. Caroline Hanson, Aspen Middle School’s enrichment coordinator and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) teacher leads 5th through 8th graders in this innovative and fun program that is designed to provide students with tools for success in college and STEM fields. In addition, robotics is also offered for Aspen High School students.

"Robotics involves public speaking and research; it also involves teamwork, core values, respect and cooperating in the process of competing," states Hanson. "It has the technology piece, the coding piece, the robotics piece, the building piece, which is really the main hook for the students."

The class culminates with local and regional tournaments that inspire friendly competition and real-world learning. Learn more about the robotics program.


Both college counseling positions and the robotics program are being supported by AEF’s Spring into Action annual fund campaign that kicks off this week. Join us in making educational excellence a priority.



Why Music Matters: A convesation with music educator Steve Heldt

Why Music Matters: A conversation with music educator Steve Heldt

Steve Heldt, affectionately known to his students as Mr. H, joined the Aspen School District as Instrumental Music teacher in 2012. Since then, the music program has flourished--and Heldt has distinguished himself as one of the busiest and most visionary teachers in the district. Along with his colleague Kyle Jones, Heldt directs music education for grades 5-12, a job that involves presiding over various jazz bands, a jazz combo, the Double Black Diamond Band (an advanced wind ensemble), a rock band, as well as the IB music program at Aspen High School. Just over 200 kids from AMS and AHS participate, including one dedicated student who drives over from Aspen Community School.

Heldt works long days during the school year. He can be found at AMS at 6am coaching the jazz ensemble, and he is often still there well into the night conducting rehearsals for the Double Black Diamond Band. His students compete and perform throughout Colorado, travel to gigs at the Disney theme parks in Orlando, and just returned from an engagement in Los Angeles.

Band life at school is rigorous, intellectually engaging, and, according to Heldt’s enthusiastic students, a whole lot of fun. The program is open to all students who wish to play an instrument. For the last few years, AEF has helped provide salary and equipment support to the band program.

AEF recently asked Heldt a few questions about music in the Aspen schools and his plans for the future.

Why is music education an important part of a student’s life?

Music is going to be a part of everyone’s life, whether they get a music education or not—so why ignore something so central to the human experience? Through the study of music, students develop practical skills, of course, but they also develop intangible skills, such as grit, self-discipline, teamwork, sensitivity, the ability to give constructive criticism, the capacity to gracefully receive criticism, and the ability to set and achieve long-term goals. Some may say that these same skills are learned on the sports field, but don’t forget that while all this is happening, students are also strengthening their literacy and numeracy skills, creating art, engaging in nonverbal coordinated simultaneous group communication, and learning about their culture. The list goes on!

Does a student need to have an identifiable musical talent to participate in your program?

Does a student need to have an identifiable mathematical talent to participate in a math class? Of course not. And the reason is the same. Music is for everyone.

What aspect of the music program are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the "band family" that has developed over the years. The students are so tightly knit, so supportive of one another. Watching them and seeing the young adults they are becoming fills me with more pride than any performance ever could. I strongly believe that I do not teach music to people, but instead teach people through music. The difference is important.

You’ve had an interesting career as a professional musician. We’ve heard you’ve played trumpet professionally since your early teens. Why do you choose to teach?

I love watching kids grow. I love to help kids discover new abilities and skills. I love empowering young people to realize their potential. At the risk of sounding trite, the saying goes that if you love something, give it away. I, therefore, give music.

What’s your big vision for the music program in the Aspen School District?

I want the schools to be a reflection of the community. In Aspen, a community that so deeply values the performing arts at their highest levels, schools should have performing arts programming of the same quality and rigor as their professional counterparts. I would love to see music treated as the core subject it is. I always wondered what it would look like if schools treated music as if it were going to be tested on the ACT/SAT.




The Aspen School District Band Program is honored to welcome esteemed jazz educator Ronald Carter as a guest educator from May 29 – June 1. Professor Carter will lead a concert with the AMS Jazz Band on Thursday, June 1 at 6 p.m. at the District Theatre in the Aspen Elementary School. The event is free and open to the public.  

Professor Carter, who literally wrote the book on education,, has dedicated much of his career to teaching jazz. His residency at the Aspen Middle School is at the invitation of Steve Heldt,  and has been funded in part by Thrift Shop of Aspen. 


  • 5th grade band (2 sections)
  • 6th grade band
  • 7th & 8th grade band
  • The Double Black Diamond Band (advanced wind ensemble)
  • AHS Band (Rock Band)
  • Jazz Combo (AHS)
  • Jazz Band (AMS)
  • Beginning Jazz (AMS)
  • IB Music

For more information about the Aspen School District Bands go to or follow them on Instagram (@aspenbands) and Facebook (@ASDBands)


The Lichtenwalter's dreams for The Aspen Promise

For longtime Aspen residents Daylene and Gary Lichtenwalter, contributing to The Aspen Promise reflects their lifelong commitment to education--and their desire to give back to the community they love.  

“We love the school system and really value the teachers’ support throughout the years,” said Daylene.

Daylene and Gary both recall a conversation they had one evening that seemed to crystallize their vision to do something special for the Aspen School District. “We decided we wanted to give to the children of this community and assist students on their path to college,” explained Daylene. The couple reached out to AEF to discuss the possibility of creating scholarships for AHS graduates, and The Aspen Promise scholarships began to take shape.

Daylene and Gary both value the role that education has played in their own lives. Daylene, who graduated from Maryville College in St. Louis, noted that her parents scrimped and saved so that she and her siblings had the opportunity to attend college.

A graduate of Joliet Township High School and Joliet Junior College, Gary found inspiration as a student from a quote by the Greek philosopher Diogenes, which was emblazoned on a wall in his school: “The foundation of every state is the education of its youth.” Gary also graduated from the University of Illinois, where he was a scholarship recipient. That experience became the basis for his decision to establish a family foundation that would create scholarship opportunities for students.

Daylene and Gary have created four The Aspen Promise scholarships in their sons’ names, (in addition to one in their names) with the hope that their sons continue the family tradition of education and philanthropy as they grow older. Both acknowledge that The Aspen Promise scholarships will be game changers for the students who receive them.

“If we don’t educate kids for the future, what future is there?” asked Gary. “I do hope that The Aspen Promise scholarship recipients know that people are caring for them and rooting for them to finish their education. We hope and dream that these kids persevere because these opportunities will give them a step up in the world.”

The Lift interview

Aspen School District teachers Sarah Graber and Becky Oliver discuss the AEF mission