At Franklin East Elementary School, Kacy Baxter is known by a name that’s a play on the school’s Firebirds mascot.
“I’m ‘Momma Bird.’ I mom everybody — doesn’t matter whether you’re 6 or 60,” she said.
She’s a hugger.
“I tell kids I love them every day,” she said.
It was no surprise when she ended a public address announcement this week with her usual signoff:
“In a world where you can be anything, always be kind. And don’t forget your Momma Bird loves you and I always will.”
The big surprise was what she said before that: “Franklin East just won a National Blue Ribbon!”
Franklin East is the only school in the East Valley, one of only five schools in Arizona and among 325 across the country to be named a 2021 National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education last week.
In announcing the winners, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said, “This year’s cohort of honorees demonstrates what is possible when committed educators and school leaders create vibrant, welcoming, and affirming school cultures where rich teaching and learning can flourish.”
Baxter called the award “a tremendous honor that is reflective of the commitment that the Franklin East community has made to excellence and each other.
“We are very honored,” the principal said. “It’s a great thing. We’re very proud.”
Baxter said she was informed via email in March that Arizona Superintendent Kathy Hoffman nominated Franklin East. She was told “You’ll hear back in September” which schools would receive the coveted award.
“I’ve been a principal for 15 years (the last three at Franklin East) and
had peers in other districts who got it,” Baxter said.
“As soon as Sept. 1 hit, I’d be lying if I didn’t check my email 20 times a day.”
Finally, a Tuesday email from Hoffman informed Baxter Franklin East will receive the top honor.
Franklin East is honored for its academic achievements; of the school’s 630 students, 48 percent are Hispanic/Latino.
“We have a back-to-basics approach to education,” Baxter said.
She said the school emphasizes grammar, spelling, reading and writing – “and even penmanship.”
“We also have a lot of seasoned teachers. We have five teachers with at least 20 years (experience) and five more with more than a decade,” the principal noted.
A big focus here in central Mesa, a few blocks from Mesa High School, is on family: “Parent involvement has a direct connection to student success,” Baxter said.
“We are very connected to our families. During the pandemic, we focused on connecting with families, being empathetic to what they were facing, whether it was loss of a job, people getting sick with COVID or passing.”
When classrooms were closed and students learning at home, Baxter took a call from a mother who was crying in frustration at not being able to get her child connected to the school system.
“She was about 3 minutes away, so I drove over, went to her home and got her logged on,” Baxter said.
“I didn’t go to everyone’s home, but where there’s a need, we just chip in.”
At the end of another long school day, Baxter was still revved up with energy.
“I knew in sixth grade I was meant to be in education,” she said with a laugh, when asked what keeps her going. “I’m an elementary school person. This is my hobby …God gave me a calling to serve in education: This is what I was made for.”
Baxter was born in Mesa, raised in Tucson, then moved back to the Valley 20 years ago. She was a principal in the Tempe Elementary School District before returning to her homeland.
The first week of November, Baxter will fly to Washington D.C. to receive the award on behalf of Franklin East.
The biggest decision she faces: How to celebrate the honor with students in the midst of COVID restrictions?
“I stood outside recess today and got lots of hugs,” Baxter said. “Kids were saying, ‘Are we going to have a pizza party?’”
With that, Momma Bird chuckled, remembering the PA announcement through which she shared the news.
“I always make a bird sound at the end, ‘Ca-ca, ca-ca.’ Someone opened the office door and I could hear the kids outside, ‘Ca-ca, ca-ca!’”