Staying in Touch by Reaching Out
Like many of the 37,000 students in her district, Kay Baker looks forward to week's end. In fact, she readily admits that Friday is her favorite day. It's a statement some might say stands as a commentary on her approach to her job-and they would be right.
As superintendent in Salem, Ore., Baker covets Friday mornings, but not in a TGIF sort of way. Her weekly Friday walks through schools are a chance to chat with principals, interact with students and address any teacher rumors.
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"In a district this size, rumors run rampant," Baker says. "You can get four or five teachers together and say, 'Gosh, aren't there some rumors ... you would like us to address? Or ones that we need to know at the district office?' Those staff members, when they talk in ... grocery stores or to their neighbors, are the most believable people and our best public relations folks out there, so you want to give them the information."
Baker visits at least three schools in the urban district each week, keeping her connected to people and happenings. Principals and staff were surprised if they ever saw former superintendents outside the central office, says Craig Smith, a member of the school board for 14 years. "I think Kay probably has the best rapport with the teachers and the people in the school of any superintendent I've seen." In addition to her regular school visits, Baker holds weekly "conversations with Kay" in her office.
"Sometimes I get to the buildings, and the principals really want to talk to me for an hour, maybe [about] some issues they are dealing with in school improvement or with the parent groups," says Baker, who began her career in 1969 as a fifth-grade teacher in Stockton, Kan. "Sometimes they bring in a teacher leader. Other times I love to walk up to kids and ask them about the paper they are doing, or ask them about what they were thinking about when they were doing that math problem, or why are they writing that story."
Accentuating the Positive
Baker credits her mother with her friendly make-lemonade-out-of-lemons attitude. Growing up as the oldest of five in Topeka, she did everything from helping her siblings learn to swim to bringing home a good report card to set the right example. Baker seemed to always be teaching. Those positive big-sister qualities eased her transition from head of the class to top administrative professional.
The traits served her particularly well during the district's latest budget crisis, brought on by high Oregon unemployment rates (school funding is related to the income tax) and other factors. Baker and her cabinet had to make $25.5 million in cuts, nearly 10 percent of the total 2002-03 budget. Avoiding classroom cuts was their guiding principle. After using reserve funds, cuts to support staff and programs got the job done. Class size did increase, but only slightly-by half a student per class in middle schools and by one student per class in high schools.
As of press time, a pending ballot measure could mean $12.3 million more in cuts this year-a gash Baker says would surely affect the classroom. But every situation has a flip side. "This [is] an opportunity to look at what we can do, how we can act differently and again, like my mother would say, make something better out of this," she says.
"When you make a decision that you are cutting programs or ... having to cut back on people's salaries or trim their number of days work, it is hard for them, particularly if they feel you don't care about them or you don't even know who they are," says Smith.
With Baker, that's not the case. "It's a lot easier for [staff] to say, 'Well, she is in a hard situation and she is doing what is best,' " he says. "The rank and file feel that she has heard them, and that she is taking their thoughts and ideas into consideration. Her goodwill has bought her a lot."
Beth Kanter, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.