Suzanne Whitaker Altadena Middle School Mural

Suzanne Whitaker had nine days to finish the murals at Altadena Middle School before students returned from summer break.

Students at Altadena Middle School in Ahwatukee now have a visual reminder of what they’re learning to become: life-ready leaders.

That reminder comes in the striking form of a lighthouse, a compass, a reminder to “be a light, not a judge; be a model, not a critic”  — along with a huge rendition of the head of a panther, the school’s mascot — that now appear on some of the school’s main corridor walls.

The murals are among the latest works of Ahwatukee muralist Suzanne Whitaker in Kyrene schools that have fascinated children with their imaginative artistry while imparting subliminal — and at times not so subliminal — messages aimed at building character or underscoring the importance of activities like reading.

Altadena Principal James Martin said Whitaker’s imagery was directly tied to the school’s “Lead” program, a curriculum related to the writings of the late corporate leadership trainer and motivational author and public speaker Stephen R. Covey.

More than 20 million copies of Covey’s most famous book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” have been sold in the last 25 years.

The book also inspired a North Carolina elementary school principal and some teachers to develop the :eader in Me curriculum, whih teaches students vital social-emotional skills alongside academics — skills like leadership, responsibility, accountability, problem solving and adaptability that the educators consider just as important as math and reading.

At Altadena, the curriculum is simply called “Lead.”

And Martin felt a mural in each of the school’s three main sections, or pods — for sixth, seventh and eighth grade — would help reinforce the skills that are central to the Leader in Me program.

Whitaker had painted one mural at Altadena before Martin became principal four years ago and teacher Rhonda Hensley proposed adding more.

They then reached out to Whitaker because they were familiar with her work at other Kyrene schools.

For the longtime Ahwatukee resident, the message is just as important as the images she selects.

Last year at Cielo Elementary in Chandler, for example, Whitaker painted a huge oak tree whose leaves were representations of children’s books that reflected the importance of reading.

At Monte Vista Elementary in Ahwatukee, her bold depictions of mountain lions, palo verde and eagles reflected the school’s desert surroundings as well as its values of perseverance in the pursuit of individual excellence.

At Altadena, Martin said, “Our mission for our school is inspiring leadership in the classroom and the community.”

The challenge for Whitaker: “We were on a tight timeline,” admitted Martin.

In fact, he wanted the murals completed before Meet the Teacher nights just before the new school year began Aug. 1.

So on July 28, four days before that, several teachers showed up on their own time to help Whitaker complete the project.

Whitaker was thrilled by the teacher’s help. “I had them paint all the little dots that were stars,” she said, explaining how they stand out against the mural’s dark blue background.

A few days later, Whitaker was at Sierra Elementary School in Ahwatukee executing another mural — this one showing a huge sun with seven long rays extending along the corridor, each ray representing one of that school’s basic principles.

The lighthouse is symbolic of what Covey called his “lighthouse principles” that reflects a story about Capt. Horatio Hornblower, who was infuriated that a lesser-ranked seaman on what he thought was another boat at night had been ordering him to shift his boat.

After a while, Hornblower learns that the seaman’s voice wasn’t coming from another ship, but a lighthouse and Covey used the anecdote to underscore his belief that “some principles cannot be violated with impunity” — such as standing your ground as your boat heads for an immovable lighthouse.

“I think it’s just so indicative of what we want to try to inspire on our campus,” said Martin. “We want people to be a light that inspires the people around them. And I love that verbiage of being a model rather than a critic. We want people to lead other people but not be critical of the people around them. 

“We put that in our eighth-grade pod on purpose because we really view our eighth graders as that light to show the rest of our campus what it means to be a part of the Altadena in your community.”

As for the compass, Martin explained, “it represents kind of that concept of true north — that we want to really know where we’re headed.”

Martin said that the murals help brighten the typical drab white walls found in most school corridors — and that students and parents alike have raved about Whitaker’s work.

But he said the murals also serve another purpose, one that might be greater than just to serve as an aesthetic enhancement.

“We know that imagery plays an important role in inspiring people,” he said. “The images that we see on those paintings — the lighthouse, the panther, that compass, all of those things — but also the words…we want to use those as things that we can reference and inspire our campus.”

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