How do you leave your mark on a school?

Maybe you were the star goalie, or the class clown. It could be that the senior prank you played will be looked on with awe for generations. You could have been the one kid who made it into an Ivy League college. Perhaps you struck a sour note by defacing your school with grafitti.

The summer school students at Anoka's Sandburg Middle School are doing it another way: They're making a tile mosaic of the school that will be mounted on the wall of the cafeteria for all to see during lunch break. School administrators hope that will make these students -- many of whom are in summer school because they struggled with reading and math during the school year -- feel more a part of the school.

"Now, they are getting more ownership in the school," said Kari Brisbois, who teaches Spanish and world languages during the school year, and is in charge of the mosaic project for the summer school program. "They have more pride in the school. And that goes into [making them think], 'I want to do better.' I wanted to find students in the kind of category where they needed more help finding success."

Summer school program coordinator David Treichel views the project as an opportunity for kids who might shrink away from involvement during the school year to let their school spirit and artistic expression show.

"To have the students be a part of the building and have a place to come and be successful, that encompasses what we want for middle school students," he said.

A methodical art

It's the sort of expression that's common at Sandburg. The building is festooned with student murals, either painted directly onto walls or onto plywood that is then hung on the walls. This, though, is the school's first tile mosaic.

Brisbois got a $600 grant from the school district to buy the materials for the mosaic, which will be a square two yards per side when mounted.

That mosaic w ill depict the front entrance of the 105-year-old school and the trees and shrubbery that make up its grounds. All this will be contained within a heart shape, and with a motto: "We all grow together. One heart. One school" at the bottom.

The mosaic is divided into 81 squares, 8 inches per side, which are assigned to students singly or in pairs. Those squares have been divided up and numbered on a drawing mounted on the cafeteria wall.

The students choose which of the 81 squares they want to do, and pick the appropriately colored tiles out of several grocery bags placed along the wall. They trace their part of the mosaic onto paper then put a piece of plastic and a tile mesh over that. Then they start gluing the tile pieces onto the mesh, cut to make the square. They use special snippers to cut the tile pieces into tiny triangles and squares to fit, puzzle-like, into their part of the mosaic.

By Thursday morning, the mosaic was taking shape on the cafeteria floor, with only 20 squares remaining to be finished. Still, with a week left in summer school, it's crunch time, and Brisbois has summoned 16 of the summer school's rising 7th- through 9th-graders, instead of the usual eight, to work their 45-minute shifts on the mosaic. Once it's done, it will be placed, piece-by-piece, onto boards mounted on the wall and grouted together.

The atmosphere Thursday was chatty, yet focused.

"If we goof off, we have to go back upstairs," said 12-year-old Brittany Hlavka, who was working on an especially difficult square with partner Brandi Davis, 13. Difficult because they've got parts of the motto, including letters and parts of letters.

"Words are hard to do," Brandi said. "There are turns and all that." Brandi pronounced working on the mosaic "way more fun" than the reading and math work going on upstairs. But Brisbois let on to a little secret here: By studying the dimensions of the mosaic and its parts, then fashioning pieces meant to fit together to form a recognizable shape, she has been sneakily exposing them to math.

"They might not realize that they're doing math, but they are," Brisbois said. "It's a real-life integration of math and art."

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547