Classes resumed recently for students all over the state, and for some, getting back in the desk is about as fun as a bad dream.
But at one Saginaw school, students are there because they want to be, not because they have to. You find this mentality at many schools for gifted and advanced students, and the Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy
is such a school.
SASA is a high school and middle school, a unique educational facility in the Saginaw Public Schools system. The 600-plus students here can excel outside of the standard general studies curriculums offered at most schools, public or private. Gifted students in select curriculum areas can nurture and galvanize their abilities at SASA, whether that’s exploring trends in nanotechnology or mastering the violin. Students come here because they are driven and gifted. And the school’s staff creates an environment at SASA that can be a harbor in the tempest of trying to match a student’s comprehension with the right learning programs.
Principal Melleretha Moses-Johnson says SASA offers full- and half-day programs. Students can attend a different school in the afternoon or can attend SASA for a full day.
"Our school is unique in that our classes are designed around concentration programs, in which students focus their efforts and may specialize in the areas of dance, language arts and global studies, math and science, theatre, visual art and voice and keyboard," Johnson says. "We offer a challenging curriculum and provide a unique learning environment that allows students to fully develop their special talents. We are rich in cultural diversity. Our students come from many school districts, communities and a broad range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds."
SASA is a special place, to be sure. It sits on the city’s west side, along the Saginaw River, in the shadow of the now-empty Michigan Bean elevator building, a massive remnant of industry with an unlit neon sign on its crown. It reads the word "Beans" and has a huge neon bunny as a backdrop. It looks like no one has been around it for years. Yet, as lifeless as it may appear, a block away SASA glows with the vibrant sights and sounds of learning and growth.
At any given moment in the building you can hear students vocalizing or fine-tuning a harmony a few rooms away. Dancers stretch in the hallways and get loose. Someone might break off a bass riff within earshot, with no warning. Artists are prominently showcased in assorted mediums, including 2D and 3D work. Somewhere in the building, a student has a rainbow’s worth of latex paint colors crammed under their fingernails. The air is rich with camaraderie. They’re here for a reason; because they want to be.
Johnson outlines a course of study she defines as "very rigorous."
"It involves courses from honors to advanced placement," she says. "We allow our students to expand their knowledge by developing research studies in areas of choice with mentors from SASA’s highly qualified staff to university, and college professors, as well as chemists, chemical engineers and research scientists."
It works, too. Consider these facts, from the school’s 2010-2011 annual report: Students exceeded the state average in MEAP and MME tests; there were two National Merit Finalists
, including one National Merit Achievement Finalist, and three National Merit Semi-Finalists; more than $4 million in scholarships were won by SASA students; students received awards in band, solo and ensembles, Michigan Youth Arts, Scholastic art and writing, and mathematics and science; and had a Bill Gates Millenium Scholar
SASA is more than just a district’s runoff facility to house the smarties and eggheads. Those days, and the unflattering nicknames, are gone. Success is the new cool. And SASA is the fertile ground where it begins; an incubator that gives strength and growth to future engineers, authors, modern dancers, scientists, singers, musicians, mathematicians, and film makers. Johnson says SASA alumni have advanced to become well-known in the fields of fashion design, advertising, science, medicine and acting.
It’s a distinct and necessary educational environment because it demands the best from the best students. Johnson says SASA students comprehend complex ideas and learn more rapidly and in greater depth than their age peers. They think and learn on different strata than other kids their age; and SASA fosters that.
"Their scores on entrance and statewide and/or national exams do not define them," Johnson says. "They are dancers, artists, singers, actors, scientists, authors, and overall very unique individuals, which is why they choose SASA for their education and the vision that provides a glimpse of what greatness lies ahead."
John Q. Horn is a freelance writer based in Michigan.