Prominently displayed on the front wall of Baird Middle School is an art project that reads:
A Magical Place Where Children Thrive
The mosaic is not simply used for advertisement – it has become a mission statement, the heart of a school that is finding exceptional ways to motivate and enrich its student body. And possibly no way is greater than the school’s Block 8 Program. Although the program has been in place for many years, it has grown recently under the direction of Principal Janetta McGensy. The system is simple: At the end of each day, the students take an eighth period class of their choosing. But these are not ordinary elective classes, because Principal McGensy allows her teachers to develop their own class and curriculum.
“The teachers are given the chance to teach something that they are passionate about,” Principal McGensy explains. This freedom has led to the development of many incredible programs. For example, there is a hip-hop class run by Ms. Debbie McCoy. Available to 5th and 6th grade girls, the class involves an accelerated program of dance sequences, rhythm and music that culminates in several performances throughout the year.
“A lot of girls will come in without any rhythm,” McCoy says. “But they watch me, and I tell them to listen to the music – some of them will learn visually, by watching me, and others will listen to me, and some of them just get right in and do it along with me.” In four weeks since the program’s inception, the students have already learned both basic and intricate dance moves and are working to perfect a routine that they will perform at the Fresno Fair.
However, the performance is only a minor part of the class; the most important part, McCoy explains, is that the girls will gain self-esteem, confidence and friendship.
“I watch them when they come in here, and I’ll see one girl standing off to the side, so I’ll tell her, to make friends you have to be a friend,” McCoy says. “The light bulb just goes off and suddenly that girl will be involved in the class.”
“I try to build my class around life lessons,” McCoy continues. “I remember being that age, and I wasn’t the popular girl, and I was often left out or I wasn’t picked. In this class, everyone is involved, and you can see them develop not only in their dance routines – they become friends.”
That positive energy is evident throughout the Baird cafeteria, which serves as their dance studio. McCoy counts the steps and studies the girls as they move through their routine – she offers positive encouragement and correction, and her energy passes into the students. Suddenly she calls out, “Let’s show our steps!”
“Free style circle?” one student asks. The girls gather in a circle, the music pulses and echoes through the building, and one by one a girl will dance her way into the circle, showing her best moves, while her classmates cheer and shout and clap. It is enough to make bystanders smile and tap their feet, drawn into the energy of the group.
Principal McGensy smiles, too. “You see this? The students and the teachers get to do what they love – and at the end of the day, everyone goes home happy.”
They are happy, but also educated and enriched. In a separate class – this one covering Art History – students have finished a unit on Matisse. Paper collages hang from string stretched across the room. They are now focused on Vincent Van Gogh. Their instructor, Ms. Becky Harper, is reviewing Van Gogh’s falling out with one-time friend and contemporary Paul Gauguin. When she poses a question, hands fly into the air.
Ms. Harper laughs, “I was told this course would be too boring.”
The wonderful reality, however, is that no student appears bored. Each student is bent over a representational piece of Van Gogh’s art; some students try their hand at a portrait. When asked if the class is boring, they emphatically shout, “No,” as though to even consider the possibility is absurd.
In a Prehistoric Art class, Ms. Judith Pansarosa guides her students through Australian Aboriginal art.
“You know, Aboriginal art is really experiencing a renaissance right now,” she says, “and it is the closest art we have to the prehistoric cave drawings.”
In this course, students study and discuss the art before trying their own work. Later in the year, the students will create artwork in the method of the Aborigine – including a final step which involves placing a hand on the artwork while spraying paint overtop.
“We tried one year to do it the way the Aborigine actually did it, by spitting it onto the page,” Pansarosa says, laughing. “But that didn’t work out so well – so now we use a squirt bottle.”
Pansarosa does not only teach Aboriginal art; she changes each session, going to Chinese ancient art, Egyptian art, and art from the 1960s. Students will create anything from a Shang Dynasty bronze cauldron to a tie-dyed shirt.
“I’ve had parents tell me that, years later, that cauldron still sits on the mantle,” Pansarosa says. Then, however, she becomes serious. “We don’t just come in here and play. The students learn about the art that they are creating. I tell them that if they are going to become insightful artists, they have to understand what it is that inspires them.” She enriches the course with music from each period and with history lessons.
“Also,” she adds, “I line up my courses to go along with what the students are learning in class. I take a lot of time to develop the curriculum.”
She is not the only teacher willing to put in extra time and work to create a long-lasting, valuable course. The Baird Block 8 Program also offers, among others, classes in computer technology, Spanish, French, calligraphy, beginning and advanced band, and science.
“We even have a class that teaches students how to play board games,” Principal McGensy says.
So far, this system has proven to be exceedingly successful. As a lottery school, Baird accepts students from many different backgrounds and at many different levels of academic development. But because of its unique curriculum and dedicated staff, the school is able to foster an environment where students do not simply learn, but (as their mosaic proudly states) thrive.
“This is not a GATE school,” Principal McGensy explains. “We do not take in only GATE students. But by the time they graduate here, all of our students can take GATE classes.”
And there is one more element that Baird provides that makes it different – there is the sense that Baird truly is a family environment. Walking through the Block 8 classrooms, it is easy to feel the community that has formed within the gates of the school. There is a sense of wonder that floats down the halls. Perhaps it is this sense of wonder that makes so many former students return to the same halls they once walked.
“Oh, yes,” Principal McGensy says, “there are high school students here all the time.” Walking around campus, you can often spot them by their slow strides, by the way they gaze at the mosaics on the walls, and by the way they return again and again to the same scene, revisit the same teachers and remind themselves of a different time, perhaps trying to reclaim some of that old magic.
“I can understand why they come back,” Principal McGensy says. “Here, they were really treated like a person.”
There is something different going on at Baird Middle School, and it is having an extraordinary effect on the young students who call the school home. Walking away from the school, you can look back and see that mosaic again – with the sun slanting flat over the houses it shimmers – and you can read those same words, words that, after visiting this school, you know must be true.