Superintendent of Bellingham Public School for the last 5 years, Dr. Greg Baker is leading the district through some important changes this year.
How did you get to Bellingham?
I’m originally from Spokane, and I came to Bellingham for graduate school. After a few years, I was working Portland Public Schools in Portland, Oregon and the firm looking to fill the Superintendent seat here in Bellingham knew of me and my Bellingham connection, so the invited me to apply. And it seemed like a good fit for me. That was 5 years ago.
What is your favorite spot to relax in Bellingham?
Anywhere on the water. I love to be on a sailboat or a powerboat. We have a ski boat, so we love to take that onto the lake. When I was at Western, I took a sailing course and became a sailing instructor, and started racing. That would be my preference. I don’t have my own sailboat though, but I have several friends who do.
What is your perfect Bellingham weekend?
I have 3 kids, so we would have to finish at Mallards. We would probably start in Fairhaven with kids running from store to store getting candy and donuts.
What do you love best about your job?
Everyday we find inequities in the system. I love finding them, and with our team finding ways to tackle them. That’s how we can make a difference for kids who don’t have an opportunity. The whole team gets involved in that, in working the process to find solutions. The problems we work on are not easy to solve, but when we can solve them, we can make a major impact.
What inequities have you addressed?
Early on in my tenure we did a little experiment about school supplies. We got required supply list from all of our schools, and took them to 2 different stores and priced them out. We found that we had supplies lists costing everywhere from $20 to $200, so that’s a huge inequity. And we learned that the poorest schools were requiring more supplies of students, because they have less to work with. That quickly becomes an access issue.
So we decided to eliminate all supply lists, so that every child can succeed at school.
What do people not understand about Bellingham Schools or your job?
We never have enough funding. Most people hear that, but I’m not sure if everyone believes it. There are other places in the country that fund education at a much higher rate than here. There are districts on the east coast where they fund education at 2–2.5 times the amount that we do per child. Resources to do everything we want for 11,000 kids is a constant challenge.
A lot of people think I just sit in my office and make decisions, but very rarely do I get to do that. I do a lot more management of processes to bring about change. For example, right now we’re engaged in a huge discussion about having our High Schools start later, lengthening the high school day, and offering more course opportunities. All things to which some might say: “why don’t you just do it?” But it’s been a multi-year process to get us to this place of it even being a possibility next year.
What’s the driver for a change like that?
First, the American Pediatric Association has released a series of studies, the latest one last year, which makes clear that adolescent bodies are just not functioning very early in the morning. They recommend that no high school start before 8:30am. But our high school starts at 7:45am.
Second, we have a 6 period day. Students are taking 6 classes at a time. With graduation requirements from the State going up, we have a lot of kids who now cannot take the variety of courses that they want. Also, there’s no room left for any mistakes. There’s no margin for error taking just 6 classes at a time.
So right now we have kids in our district coming to school at 0-hour which starts at 6:30am. And that is only available to kids who can get there on their own without transportation assistance from the district. So we have an access issue there.
That creates a huge complex puzzle. In order to have High School start later and extend the school day, we need to have Elementary students start sooner.
But if we do it, it opens the door for students to take courses that they want to try but can’t fit into their schedule today.
And I’m out there meeting with thousands of students and parents building the case so that folks are supportive of the change.
For folks who may be thinking about moving to Bellingham, what should they know about the schools here?
Schools are a community asset—in Bellingham, one of our greatest. We have a school district that isn’t perfect, and we’re always striving to be better. But we are well supported by the community, we have a great staff, and are working with many community partners.
A lot of people imagine education as the K–12 and 8am–3pm, and that’s it. But we’ve found that if we limit our thinking to those parameters, we’ll never accomplish what we want. So we think of it as prenatal to 12th grade and beyond and 24/7 as we work with community partners to wrap around kids and families.
That message in our strategic plan is called the Bellingham Promise. We promise to do everything we can on behalf of kids and that means pushing ourselves beyond what we might normally think of doing.
What are Bellingham Schools known for?
We are on the forefront of early childhood education. Acting on the research that shows early investment in kids sees the largest return, we eliminated several gaps and inequities especially in our kindergarten programs.
When I arrived in Bellingham there were 2 kinds of kindergarten—part time and full time. The kids who received full time kindergarten were getting it because their parents could afford to pay the other half. So we had this inequity of kids coming into first grade with twice as much education as others.
In our first year we took our highest need elementary schools and made them exclusively full time kindergarten mid year. Which, school districts never make big changes mid year, so that was a big change. Then in the fall we took all 14 elementary schools full time.
And that’s not something the state funds. We did that with our own local dollars because we saw an inequity that needed to be fixed.
Now we’re looking at the years prior to kindergarten. The government funds the Head Start program which is great, but there are a lot of kids who don’t qualify but yet their parents cannot afford private preschool. So we’ve created our own early entrance kindergarten for kids who fall into that gap. The next class starts in January, so they’ll get basically an extra half year of kindergarten.
So we’re done some things that the State doesn’t fund, but have now put us at the forefront of early childhood education.
That’s probably the thing we’re known best for around the state and even the nation.
Is there something new you’d like to see in Bellingham?
Well the waterfront would come first in my mind. We got down to Fairhaven often to walk the boulevard, and I tell my kids that someday we’ll be able to walk all the way into downtown. That would be a very nice addition.
Is there a favorite book you’ve been reading recently?
Switch. It’s about change and how to lead people through change. Our leadership team has been working through it lately. It’s a good one, and very relevant to our work at the school district.
Do you have a favorite spot downtown?
With the kids it’s definitely Mallards, and we also like Bayou on the Bay too. My kids like to try frog legs.
What are people surprised to learn about you?
I was a teacher up in the Arctic for a time. I lived in a log cabin, drove a snowmobile to work every day, and taught Inupiaq kids.
I lived in Alaska for part of 5 years, taught and coached wrestling. We had a group of kids who had never won anything in terms of wrestling. But we had an awesome head coach—I was an assistant coach—and he pushed the kids beyond anything they ever thought possible. We went on a 18 day road trip to Anchorage to compete in a tournament there against all the big schools in the state. We got beat up, but in the process got really tough. So when the state championship came along, we won it.
Alaska is the land of extremes, and we had some extreme experiences up there.
If you had to enroll in Western today what would you major in?
Probably History. The longer I’m a superintendent and the more I think about change, the more I’m intrigued by the ways in which people in the past led organizations and societies through change.
Do you have a cause or organization that you’re involved with?
I’m deeply involved with Rotary, and the Muscular Dystrophy Association. My sister had muscular dystrophy and died from that disease, so there is a deep place in me that is connected to that.