PINELLAS PARK — As visionaries go, Sylvia Baker was probably on the quiet side. The co-founder of Classical Christian School for the Arts is not being remembered for performing great, brash acts, and there is no statue in her honor.
But Mrs. Baker still moved mountains. Sometimes she used a Caterpillar, as when she orchestrated the paperwork and funding for a K-12 curriculum that blended Christianity with artistic self-expression in a matter of months.
Most of her work came by the shovelful, one student at a time. Teachers saw her knack for handling each child a little differently yet without favoritism.
Mrs. Baker, the driving force behind the 7-year-old Classical Christian School for the Arts, died Aug. 10 after a 10-year bout with breast cancer. She was 56.
"They have got so much variety for the children there that other schools just don't offer," Bill Mischler, Pinellas Park's mayor when the school opened in 2005, said of CCSA. "Sylvia was devoted to children and gave her entire life to children."
In seven years, CCSA has more than doubled in population, to 130, and in recent years added a high school curriculum. The school stands next door to city hall, from which it leases space. A visitor cannot walk down a hallway without passing music rooms, dance studios and dozens of student paintings ranging in style from simple to highly abstract.
Students come from the Tampa Bay area but a few come from as far away as South Korea. All are required to develop in music, theater, dance or art. Those talents often merge in concerts and plays on the stage of the Pinellas Park Performing Arts Center just behind the school building.
Mrs. Baker founded CCSA with her husband, the Rev. Daniel Baker, after both had worked at a Christian school in Baltimore.
"She dreamed greater dreams, better dreams, larger dreams, bigger dreams (for students) than their own dreams for their own lives," said the Rev. Baker, 61.
The school prides itself on a small student-teacher ratio (about 15-1), a faith-based curriculum that includes classes on logic and critical thinking, and an accepting environment — all facets of Mrs. Baker's subtle evangelism.
"I knew right away I wanted to work for her because of her vision," said second-grade teacher Carla Joseph, who also teaches grammar, quilting and foreign languages. "I wanted to learn about her methods and her vision for teaching and reaching children personally."
The woman who nurtured artistic instincts in so many children did not paint or play an instrument herself, but loved classical music.
Sylvia Benner was born in Portland, Maine, and grew up in Freedom, N.H. She earned a master's degree in education from James Madison University in Baltimore. She married Daniel Baker 33 years ago. They had a son, Daniel, and a daughter, Karissa Hammer, who teaches violin at CCSA.
Volunteering in Baltimore led to an administrative position at Greater Grace Christian Academy, which expanded under her watch. In 2001, Doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer, which metastasized to her heart.
Instead of wilting, Mrs. Baker went on to her greatest achievements. In 2004 she published a book, Breast Cancer Be-Attitudes! She and her husband moved to Clearwater the next year, founding CCSA using their own money. She also spoke at conferences and participated in the Relay for Life.
As her cancer advanced, Mrs. Baker kept a "funny file" of amusing clippings.
"Blessed are those who cry when their hair falls out," she wrote in her book, "but have fun with fashionable wigs. Be quick to see the humor in ridiculous situations."
Pinellas Park spokesman Tim Caddell called Mrs. Baker a "really positive, upbeat figure in our community."
"I don't think I've ever met anybody who was as strong as she was," Caddell said, "and fought as much as she did to get as much out of this life as she could."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.