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 Montpelier Magazine


"I was flying over Wink, Texas, in my Cessna 172, and out of nowhere another Cessna passes me like I'm sitting still," says Alvin Baird in his no-nonsense manner. Without any hint of arrogance, he pulls you into his story about one of his two transcontinental solo flights. Baird's just setting the stage for a good story -- one of his great gifts. "I'll tell you what I did," he continues. "I turned left and headed straight for the Cessna factory in Kansas to find out why this ship that looked just like mine had so much more horsepower."

Baird got his answer straight from the horse's mouth -- it was an older model Cessna that looked just like his, but did indeed have more horsepower. The results of his story seemed far less important to Baird than the importance of telling that he'd headed "straight to the source" for an answer. It seems that Baird was around the day that the phrase was coined. It's a lifestyle, a mantra, for this likable octogenarian.

When Baird couldn't find a visual flight rules manual for transcontinental flights across the United States, he wrote one. "I just wanted folks like me to have a booklet that talked about what you'd find flying a transcontinental trip," he says.

When Baird couldn't find help to better understand his math learning disability, he and his late wife, Nancy Chappelear Baird ('39), established JMU's Alvin Baird Attention and Learning Disabilities Center in 1999. Their gift of $1.5 million was, at the time, JMU's largest. The duo also supported the Baird Professorship in psychology. When Nancy passed away in 2002, she remembered the Baird Center in her will. Though JMU was Nancy's alma mater, Alvin has remained closely involved in the center's operation. Every Tuesday he joins staff and students as they dispense vital information to educate professionals and parents, conduct research and offer services for people with attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder and learning disabilities.

He's so pleased with the center's results, he's given JMU the fourth major gift from his family. In his estate planning, Baird has designated another $1 million to the Alvin V. Baird Jr. Centennial Chair in Psychology in the College of Integrated Science and Technology. "This will be the first of two endowed chairs in the 96-year history of the university," says JMU President Linwood H. Rose. "We are very excited."

On this particular Tuesday, Baird visits the center for a discussion with four students, all of whom work in Baird Center programs. The center offers three services, including the Challenging Horizons Program, a school-based treatment program for middle-school students with an ADHD diagnosis. Also funded is the Learning Leaders program, through which JMU students tutor children who have ADHD and other learning disabilities. Evaluation and consultation services for college-age adults are available through the Center for Learning Strategies.
All of these services involve training and research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students in psychology, education and health-related fields.

Greeted at the front door by students, Baird strolls by a bulletin board full of pictures featuring him with staff and students. His 87-year-old ears, or his modesty, don't allow him to hear the "Wow, it's him," exclamations or notice the rock-star treatment he's afforded by students. Baird greets one and all and makes his way to the conference room. He has come to hear from students just how his investment is making a difference in the lives of children.

Undergraduate psychology major Kristen Perret ('04), who spends about 10 to 15 hours per week with two ADHD-diagnosed children in the Challenging Horizons Program at Montevideo Middle School, tells Baird, "I work individually with students and parents to change my students' study habits and to teach them how to organize their assignments, organize their book bags, take good notes and organize their entire day. My students' counselors and mothers say that this is an incredible program, and it has helped how these children act at home and at school … It's all about early intervention. We intervene to teach children how to study and organize."

Intervention, experts agree, is key to addressing a learning disability that affects nearly 2 million children nationwide and challenges classroom and special education teachers, parents and the children themselves in delivering and obtaining a high-quality education. "ADHD is the most prevalent disorder among children," says psychology professor and Baird Center director Steve Evans. "It's a neurobehavioral disorder that affects 3 to 5 percent of all American children."

"How are these numbers affecting classrooms?" Baird queries, noting research by Medco Health Solutions that shows a 49 percent rise in the use of ADHD drugs by children under 5 in the last three years and that spending on ADHD medications now has topped spending on antibiotics and asthma medications for children.

It's not just the number of new cases that complicates the issue, notes Evans. "Increasing enrollments in special education classes put a lot of strain on teachers and school systems because of increased demand and no increase in state and federal funding," Evans says.

"Virginia has not addressed the federal language around impaired academic progress, which leaves the definition of special education to vary from school district to school district."

Even without consensus on the definition, however, the prevalence of ADHD means that at least one student in every classroom of 25 to 30 children will have the disorder. The Baird Center chips away at those statistics by intervening in area schools with, among other programs, Challenging Horizons.

"While we're teaching children things like study strategies, skills to develop constructive friendships and anger management," says
Perret, "we're helping parents to learn to follow through on their child's behavior at home, to consult with teachers and school nurses on medications, to actively participate in teacher conferences -- skills which help them be better advocates for their child."

Challenging Horizons focuses on four primary areas, including interpersonal behavior, academic success, family functioning and disruptive behavior, she explains.

Impressed, Baird prods for numbers. "How many people are we reaching?" he asks.

The program has helped 60 children at Montevideo Middle School over the last few years, as JMU undergraduate and graduate students work one-on-one with children and involve their teachers and parents, Perret explains. A tribute to the program's success is that modified versions have been developed and implemented at Pence Middle School and Stuarts Draft Middle School.

"Challenging Horizons began on a shoestring budget," Evans says. "We helped around four to six students per semester. Now JMU students are working individually with 12 to 16 children each semester."

It's another exemplary hands-on learning opportunity for JMU students. "Challenging Horizons has also made a world of difference in my undergraduate experience. It's taught me more about psychology than just class work," Perret says. "I'm able to gain real-world experience in counseling techniques. The program's secondary effects are even farther reaching -- yielding aid for teachers, extended family and most any environment the child is involved in."

Ruth Brown, a graduate assistant in the psychological sciences program adds, "It is an amazing feeling to make a true difference in the life of one family. We had one child who, after one semester in Challenging Horizons, was able to try out for the track team. His behavior is better at home and at school and he's able to organize his day and participate in extracurricular activities because of the skills he learned in our program."

Across the table, Baird smiles and shuffles his traveling companions, the day's newspaper and two books. A voracious reader, Baird scours everything he can find on the complex issue of learning disabilities. ADHD, he has learned, is not caused by poor parenting, family problems, poor teachers, food allergies or excess sugar intake.

"How are we doing on raising awareness about issues like these?" Baird asks.

Baird Center graduate assistant Carey Masse says, "Our education of the public includes involving community partners in the center's mission." Masse, also in the psychological sciences program, serves as liaison between the Challenging Horizons Program and two local pediatric practices that work with staff on diagnoses and the medication aspects of treatment. "We teach parents to work closely with teachers, physicians and school nurses on how to best manage a child's medications, and JMU's future teachers are being taught how to identify and teach children with ADHD," she adds.

The approach the Challenging Horizons Program uses is supported by leading authorities in ADHD research. According to, "Clinical experience has shown that the most effective treatment for ADHD is a combination of medical (when necessary) and therapy or counseling to learn coping skills and adaptive behaviors."

"Challenging Horizons offers a combination of services," says Evans. "JMU students mediate among students, parents and the school for the betterment of each child. JMU student counselors teach parents to work with teachers on medications, and they teach students different skills to help them learn. Even if a child doesn't qualify for special education classes, he or she may qualify for other classroom accommodations. Challenging Horizons counselors encourage parents and teachers to seek ways that improve the chances of a child's success. Challenging Horizons addresses every environment that affects a student's day."

The Baird Center's collaborative educational approach also includes offering an annual state conference aimed at improving services to those with ADHD. "The third Raising the Bar Conference was very well done," says Baird, who didn't miss a minute of it.

The conference provided specific information for teachers, physicians, mental health providers and parents about steps to effectively help children and families affected by ADHD. Keynote speaker Linda Pfiffner, director of the Hyperactivity, Attention and Learning Problems Clinic at the University of California, San Francisco, discussed her home-school intervention program for children. Like Challenging Horizons, her psychosocial program helps children with ADHD be successful at home, at school and with friends.

"Education conferences like Raising the Bar offer opportunities for JMU students to present research and learn from teachers and parents," says Masse, who won second place for her research poster presentation at the conference. "And there's no substitute for hearing the practical advice."

Harrisonburg pediatrician and ADHD expert Frank Gearing, who served on a panel at the conference, addressed Virginia's soaring school suspension rate and offered teachers constructive advice. "ADHD kids need to be kept busy, don't take away recess or use suspensions as punishment. Have students come to your desk with assignments and keep them actively engaged in the learning process."

Addam, a 17-year-old panelist who has ADHD, concurred: "Individual sports and positive reinforcements are the best at helping me stay focused and out of trouble."

"Being a part of the Raising the Bar conference and Challenging Horizons and working with Baird Center community partners is extremely beneficial to my overall educational experience," says Masse. "It allows me the opportunity to really make a difference in the lives of the adolescents who have ADHD. … The effects of Mr. Baird's gifts are innumerable. Mr. Baird's money is not shown in a building that just benefits JMU. His programs reach people. Through his gifts, we're able to help people change their lives." u


Story by Michelle Hite ('88)

Photos by Diane Elliott ('00)