For the past 11 years, Sylvia Baker has fought valiant battles against breast cancer, each time coming out on top and even writing books about it. This time, it's different.
For a while now, the co-founder of the Classical Christian School for the Arts has tried to hide her worsening condition from her students and staff.
"Not everyone in the school community knows how serious her condition is," said Laree Butler, a Tierra Verde resident whose two children attend the school. "We're not accepting a death sentence and we are just praying for her. I realized we have to quickly do something and show our love and support for her."
So last week, students and staff at the arts school demonstrated their support for Baker by doing what they do best: performing. The small school of just over 100 students and a dozen teachers and staff members turned their annual Christmas concert into a tribute to Baker, donning pink ribbons with her name on them and inviting her son to be part of the special event.
It was a last-minute plan spearheaded by a parent, said teacher Dan Stiegrest.
Baker said she was completely surprised.
"I knew they made some changes in the plan, and I was only there the day before. Then I started listening, and I was like, 'oh my goodness, you are talking about me,' " she said. "I was shocked. It made me feel very appreciated."
Parents such as Butler commended Baker's effort in providing an arts-centric education in Pinellas County.
"I am grateful to be there, I am grateful for the school and I am so thrilled with the way they treat my kids and what they are getting there," Butler said.
Nearly seven years ago, Baker and her husband, Daniel, co-founded the Classical Christian School for the Arts in Pinellas Park after running a church-based school in Maryland for 20 years.
That school was strict; church officials did not allow music lessons or proms for students. Though Baker said she found ways to work around those restrictions, she finally decided to start her own school in a warmer clime.
Growing up in a musical family — her grandmother and siblings play various instruments — Baker wanted to create a school that emphasized the arts and classical education. Along with piano, violin, dance and visual arts classes, students at her school also study Latin, logic and rhetoric.
Tuition at Classical Christian School costs $5,800 to $6,500 depending on grade level, and the school has used voucher programs like Step Up for Children and payment plans to make the school more accessible, Baker said. Students who are not enrolled in the school also can take music lessons for $550 over 36 weeks.
For a single mom like Adele Oliva, that's a big deal.
"So many schools are so business oriented, (but) they will work with your plans," she said. "Every year, I hope I can make what can cover my daughter being there. They have ballet, dance and music … I can't see any schools in the area that offer such amenities under one umbrella."
Since it opened, the school has added high school grade levels and violin classes for younger students. Recruitment efforts also are being expanded, Baker said.
She said she has tried to shield students and staff as much as possible from her battles so they wouldn't worry about her or the school's future.
"I haven't had serious issues with it recurring until recently. I didn't really want people to know that because I don't want people to be afraid what is going to happen to school," she said. "I began making provisions for school a couple of years ago, but I didn't think this was going to happen."
But Baker said she hasn't stopped fighting.
"My doctor said 'you have overcome this and worse before,' " she said. "So let's do it again."