Calvin Baker entire interview
Calvin Baker, Post Super-Man
an interview by Leon Boerup
(In its entirety for the digital version of the Vail Style magazine)
If you have spent any time in the Vail area, you probably heard the name Calvin Baker. Mr. Baker has served as the VUSD Superintendent for over 31 years, retiring in February 2020. His leadership roles have included time as the president of both the statewide Superintendents group and the AZ School Administrators Association. He is currently the senior member of the AZ State Board of Education.
Calvin Baker’s career has been showered with many recognitions and awards, such as; AZ Superintendent of the year, Mentor of the Year, Grand Canyon University Hall of Fame, best Chief Executive Officer in Public Education, and lifetime achievement awards from A for Arizona and the Tucson Metropolitan Education Commission.
Q. Do you enjoy writing? A. Yes, I enjoy history. Everyone and every place have a story and it's important for those stories to be told. The stories form the basis of our cultures and values. In a family, you tell the story of grandparents and ancestors, and family values. It’s the same way in your community. You tell the stories of your community and the district and build on that.
Q. Is the story always changing? A. Hopefully we're learning from experiences
Q. When did you graduate from college? A. 1973 from Grand Canyon school. I graduated mid-year my senior year. The first semester I did student teaching. I really started in the classroom in ’72 and never left. I settled down and got a regular teaching contract.
Q. How do you go from Peoria, AZ to the Arctic Circle? A. As a teacher I observed other teachers in the lounge complaining in their 40’s about how they were trapped and not appreciated. I promised myself that would never happen to me. I never wanted to feel like a victim. I completed my administrative certification at 26 years old, and the good people in Peoria would have said the same thing; hang around for a while and be an assistant for a couple of years and in a few more years you can be principle. That just seemed way too long. So, I quit. I let go of the rope and I forced change. We moved to Washington state where my wife's parents and family lived. I started applying for all kinds of jobs out of a necessity.
Q. You quite your job without a plan? A. Yes, other than forcing a change in my life. I got word ‘there’s a school district in Alaska that's doing interviews in downtown Seattle’… I applied for a principal and teaching position in Washington. I was applying for anything and everything. Even applied for a job with IBM. I applied for a Alaska school district and I was just totally fascinated. I didn't think anything would come of it, but a week later they called me and offered me to interview with the board in Alaska, as principle. I thought ‘A free trip to Alaska?’ Yea, sure. So, I went. It was amazing. A brand-new school district only a year old and was a beautiful school. 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle on the coast of the Arctic Ocean. All Eskimos.
Q. English speaking? A. Primarily, but the elders spoke Inuit. We moved up there and stayed for almost 10 years. This was 1977/1978
Q. How do you go then, from Alaska back to Arizona? A. After living there nine years, two things were happening. One, my parents lived here in AZ and they needed what I thought was assistance. I thought it was my turn to be there for them. Two, my oldest kids were starting high school and we wanted them to have a broader view of the world than what was there in this little isolated small community. The sense of community in Alaska was extremely strong because it was isolated. There were no road's coming in and the community was very close together. The routing of utilities was really expensive. It was a very compact village. There were no secrets. Everybody knew everything about everyone.
Q. From Alaska you came to Vail? Q. Yes, I came to Vail as the only principle which was a K-8 school and that was in 1987.
Q. When did you start as Superintendent? A. After about a year, there was conflict between the school board and the current Superintendent. They offered me the job. Most people don't realize the history of Vail in the 80’s was very different than it is today. There were no less than four recall elections against board members and three superintendents left in the middle of their contracts under duress. Nasty elections that the board and the district lost. Lots and lots of controversy. But more than controversy, there was great division. Finding ways of getting along was hard work. Personalities, different groups of people, and the district was starting to grow. This little rural community had the beginnings of a clash of culture; from working professionals coming in from IMB, to clash values and clash of economics and it all seemed to grow. When I started there was great division. We had to figure out a way to move forward.
Q. What did you start with? What was your first priority? A. Teachers, board members, community. All of those. Spent allot of time with board members and community trying to find common ground going forward. One of the first things we did was to development a mission statement. What are the values that we can all agree on and can we use those values as a guideline for making decisions. Otherwise, decisions would be all about what you like or didn’t like or based on emotions or loyalty to a group setting. 33 years later, the ‘ACT’ and ‘REACH’ statements are still the guiding principles and values used today.
Q. When did you officially retire? A. Last February, almost a year now. February 2020.
Q. What are your roles serving as the senior member of the AZ State Board of Education? A. The legislature passes laws and the state board passes policies. The legislature says, in order for students to graduate, there needs to be prescribed studies. The state board says, here are the minimum requirements for that study. It's a policy board and that's where I’m involved.
Q. How long have you served on the state board? A. 5 years. Actually, the first year and a half or so on the board, there was a lot of head butting and was very conflict orientated. Now, meetings are almost boring and that's the way it should be. Things work and problems are dealt with. We have disagreements, yes, but there is good leadership and a good executive director. They bring problems and we work through them.
Q. Do you see yourself on this board for a while? A. Actually, I offered my resignation a year ago because I fill a seat intended for a Superintendent. Someone else could probably do it. I haven't just sliced the cord for two reasons. One, I have a lot of history with policies. I know where they come from and have a contribution to make. Second, my colleagues are so incredibly wrapped up dealing with Covid, they don't need another job or something else to worry about right now. I'm not in the trenches day-to-day so I have time to deal with the pressing issues. Besides, this is a governor appointment, so whenever the governor decides he wants to put a different Superintendent in there, that's OK with me. That hasn't happened yet. I have offered and only hear crickets. The governor has other things to worry about besides choosing another Superintendent for the state board. It will happen, someday.
Q. How often do they meet? A. Once a month and right now its remote.
Q. How big is the committee? A. There's eleven people on the state board. They're all designated positions. The state Superintendent is one. One or two people from the charter school community. There's a teacher and there's a couple of public spots for non-school people.
Q. How are they focused on the task at hand with Covid? A. The local superintendents are on the front line. They are the ones having to deal with trying to figure out a pathway and how we do school and how do we respond to the one group of parents who are absolutely passionate they want their kids in school. While others don’t want masks compared to those that don't think this is a big deal; vs. those that are hanging on the other extreme who are very afraid. Unfortunately, the Covid issue has become a very polarizing political issue. It's really a tough job for local school districts and local superintendents and school boards. The state board is a policy board. The state board does not try to govern or operate local districts. Operation of a local district is the responsibility of the local board.
Q. The local district can’t go rouge so-to speak? Q. NO, they have to stay within the guard rails. But the guardrails on Covid are pretty wide. The governor in some states have set down very specific statewide regulations. But the governor in Arizona has provided school districts with a lot of autonomy on how to deal with it. Personally, I know a lot of people think everything should be statewide, but Arizona has such a wide variety of different types of communities; isolated, not isolated; and it's appropriate that the local school addresses their own concerns and their own issues.
Q. Do you enjoy your grandchildren? A. There spread all over the place. When we moved to Alaska, I remember my parents standing in the driveway crying leaving for a great adventure. Now I'm the one crying. I have kids in Alaska, Pennsylvania, Atlanta, GA and in Oregon. All over the place. We try reunions and go visit them, but Covid put a restriction on a lot of that. I welcome the day when we can travel more freely.
Q. How did you meet your wife Nancy? A. We were both attending a small private church College in the Chicago area.
Q. Has it been all flowers and roses? A. No, we have challenges too. A marriage, like every other relationship, is hard work. We have been successful for 47 years. We got married and then I started my student teaching and have been there ever since. She's a good support. Nancy got her degree in teaching but she never taught a regular classroom. Nancy got a totally fascinating job in Alaska as an early version of online learning before there were computers. There are natives who lived out in the bush, outside of the village. There was another group of people, kind of the leftover-hippies who were living off the land off the grid. If we enroll those kids in school, we received just as much money as if they were in school which is a lot in Alaska. Nancy served as the teacher for these kids. She would go out and see them in their home. In the fall time she would contract with a local native on a boat or floatplane and in the winter, she would travel by snow machine or ski plane. She had a very exotic job. It was a totally unique opportunity.
Q. Do you have any favorite or unique friends? A. I'm personal friends with a lot of people in the school district. A lot of administrators and colleagues. I'm good friends with a superintendent who’s currently in Morenci before he was in Benson. We were two of the longest serving superintendents in the state and we're both runners. We did a lot of marathons together and training runs were a place we solved problems in our own school districts.
Q. Did you bounce ideas off of each other? A. Absolutely. Challenges and things of that nature for sure. For example; we started what is now called ‘Beyond Textbooks’ program when it was just an internal program, on a run one day. I was explaining to him what we're doing, and he asked, ‘can I do that in my district?’ I don't know. I suppose so. It's all on the web, password protected so if we give you a password and train your staff how to use it, I suppose we could start to do that with Benson. We had a lot of kinks to workout in terms of sharing it with another district. But out of that (at the time we were the number one ranked school district in the state) and two years later, Benson was the number one school district in the state. They had been down in the 50% ranking. Today this program serves 130 to 140 different school districts. ‘Beyond Textbooks’ is in every single county in Arizona and in 15 to 20 other States. This all came from a long 10-mile training run on a Saturday.
Q. What was the initial idea behind ‘Beyond Textbooks’? A. The initial purpose was to set up a very specific calendar on what should be taught and when it should be taught. Then we tied specific resources into those standards and the times they were to be taught. In essence, we created a road map and an efficient way for teachers accessing materials. All those materials came from teachers tried in classrooms, that they had created themselves and had uploaded. It was a sharing system. Stuff that didn't work they didn't upload. Teachers only uploaded stuff that had been effective in their classroom. This is a culmination of experience coming from actual teachers who are in the trenches. It is built on the work that teachers have done and philosophically, it's built on a belief that the real experts in the classroom are teachers.
For example, you hand a teacher in the old days a textbook, and tell them to march through cover to cover. The textbook was created by experts at the University sitting around conference tables at a publishing house in New York. Very smart people, very capable people but they are not the people presenting the material to children. It’s the people who are day-to-day and face-to-face with the kids who really know what works and what doesn't work and that's what the system was built on. A belief that the true experts are the teachers. Every grade and every subject had a calendar. The purpose of the calendar was twofold. One, to clarify what exactly should be taught at each grade level and each subject; and then secondarily to create a pace for that. When teachers used to plow through the textbook, say 12 chapters, they wanted to be at chapter 6 by a certain time. That wasn't necessarily correct. The state of Arizona has said here's the standard. Here's all the things that should be taught in 3rd grade. We would pick out the most important ones and would structure it so the teacher kept that pace and would be done at the end of the year. Even more important, when that student went from the 3rd grade to 4th grade, the 4th grade teacher would know it doesn't matter if this kid came from Mrs. Jones class or Mrs. Smith class. They all have been presented the same material, same standard. Now the new teacher can just take off and continue on because we're on an extended school year calendar unlike other schedules having to spend the first month trying to recover from summer and figure out what kids knew and didn't know. That's some of the reasons why we were able to achieve a high degree of success activating this ‘Beyond Textbooks.’
Q. Is this still functioning today? A. Oh yes. We have a staff of I think eight people. It is self-sustaining. Vail charges a fee to other school districts and they pay us and we use that to maintain our technology, to pay our staff, and then as a bonus Vail gets to use this resource at no cost. Vail is the source. We are like the lab school which puts a tremendous amount of pressure on our staff. Other districts sign up for beyond textbooks because we're very successful and if we fail to be successful, who then wants to follow a mediocre leader. People follow what Vail teachers do because Vail teachers have a very high degree of success. If we lose that, then ‘beyond textbooks’ loses its appeal in the market.
Q. Where do you see the future of ‘Beyond Textbooks?’ A. It's a strong future. It has been in place now for 12 to 13 years. Other curriculum packages come and go. We were afraid that if the marketplace were to shift so-to-speak, and the pendulum swings one way, that we would lose momentum. But we have not. We have stayed very strong. It’s an entrepreneurial project yes, but we didn't go whole hog on that idea. The way we present it to other school districts is to come along side of them. Shoulder to shoulder. We want to help you. We are not a vendor and want to learn from each other and your experience. You can upload your own material into the system because we respect your teachers. It’ a two-way sharing system. Our staff has been able to keep the program very relevant. This last year with all the Covid stuff, they've been doing a lot of training on how do you do online learning. How do you engage kids when they're sitting at home and the teacher is sitting behind a computer?
Q. What's your favorite pizza? A. Pepperoni. Doesn’t matter the brand.
Q. Favorite ice cream? A. I like vanilla, and then I like lots of toppings.
Q. Favorite burger joint? A. In-N-Out is the default.
Q. What is your favorite vacation spot? A. My kids house, visiting my kids. We we're looking forward to busting loose when retired and spending more time with kids. We don't have a pattern yet since Covid hit. We would typically get to each kid once a year and then vice versa they'd be out here.
Q. Why Vail? A. It’s where I belong.
Q. Do you have a favorite movie? A. Not really. I rarely watch movies twice.
Q. Cats or dogs? A. Dogs for sure. We’ve had lots of dogs and cats. Kids are gone, dogs and cats are gone. We have tortoises in our backyard now. We go somewhere and they're perfectly fine there. Neighbors never complain about them barking and they don't have to be groomed. It’s wonderful.
Q. Ever play sports or athletics, school or college? A. No. I was too small and too slow. When we moved to Vail I started running and cycling. I think I've run something like 25 marathons and the Boston marathon 3 times. Done a number of ultra-marathons. An ultra is more than 26 miles. I've paced people too, which is talking and distracting the participant while running 100 miles or more. I actually am better at pacing that I am at being the participant.
My most memorable one was with my nephew several years ago. Ran an Ultramarathon ‘Cold Bath Water’ which starts at the lowest point in Death Valley. You run across dark Death Valley, across 3 mountain ranges, and then up Mt Whitney. 130 miles in 24 to 25 hours. He was the 1st place rookie and I ran with him all night. It was epic. The job as a pacer is to keep the pace obviously, but also to distract and tell stories taking your mind off the pain. I never shut up the whole time. I typically run towards the top of my age group. Never first, but never last. I think the best I did was Saint Louis marathon where I was third in my age group. A couple times I've been right at the cusp there. I like to run and stay fit, stay healthy; to counterbalance all the mental and emotional stress of being a Superintendent. You have to like pain to run a marathon. For many years we had a tradition with some friends where we run across the Grand Canyon from the Northside to the South side, about 21 - 22 miles with a lot of elevation. It's very challenging. I’ve hiked to the bottom and back up twice since I've retired.
Q. When were you first diagnosed with cancer? A. February 2019.
Q. Walk us through your health in making a decision to go and see a doctor? A. I started having a lot of bone pain. I had trouble running. My hip hurt and I had a lot of chest pain in my thoracic structure. I thought possibly pleurisy because my chest hurt. My fitness level just dropped. I vividly remember the day hopping on my road bike and riding one mile then having to turn around and come back. I knew something was way wrong. I've done the tour de Tucson 4 times where it's 115 miles, and I can’t bike a mile…?
Q. When was this? A. Just a few months before diagnosis. I don't know how long I had the cancer. It's called multiple myeloma. There's many different strands of multiple myeloma and the particular kind that I have is a very rapidly growing strand. There's a condition called smoldering and I think that’s a great term because it's like a fire, smoldering. I think my myeloma was smoldering for a long time and it caught fire and just exploded. I was in bad shape when I was diagnosed, physically. I have blood work done every month or so, this is going into detail; but just to give you an image there's a particular reading called the light chain reading. The normal range is around 30. Currently today I am sitting at about 50 to 60 every month. I'm out of the norm. The scale that the lab uses goes up to 14,000. When I was diagnosed, my reading was literally off the chart. What was happening is my bone marrow was producing these errant cancer cells at just an absolutely prolific rate and were eating at my bones. That's why my hip was so sore. That's why my chest hurt. Literally, when they did the X-Ray there were holes in my bones from the cancer. It was really a very scary time.
Q. What were your first thoughts and impressions? A. It's like when you get in a car accident… me? Other people get in car accidents. Other people get cancer. I’m healthy. I take good care of myself. I exercise, I eat right. I have no history. What? Why me?
Q. Where you mad? A. No, I wasn’t mad. It’s very sobering. Very humbling. I wasn’t angry.
Q. What's your daily routine now? A. I take a daily chemo pill that attacks the cancer cells which are very, very fast-growing cells. When they start to multiply really fast, the pill is designed to tamp them down. Multiple myeloma is classified as an incurable cancer, at this point there is no cure. It's treatable on a daily basis. I get blood work done every month to keep an eye on those cancer cells. The chemo attacks red blood cells, white blood cells and plasma production. Anything that grows fast. Before I received a stem cell transplant, I got a really heavy dose of chemo and I lost all my hair. This pill is a small dose. One of the strange things is that I have no hair on my legs, which is a side effect. I have less hair on my arms than I used to. I still have a reasonable amount on my head, but was thinning anyway. Not only does my blood work give a reading on my cancer cells but it also gives a reading on the side effects of chemo.
Q. With these monthly checkups, are you staying in control of the cancer? A. This is out of my control. That's a fundamental understanding of cancer. You are not in control.
Q. Is that something you had to learn, that you are not in control? A. I think I knew that. It's something I have to keep reminding people of. People have been so kind and so gracious. I've got boxes full of cards and letters, and hundreds of emails. One of the most common statements people make is, ‘well you're a fighter and I knew you would conquer this.’ Yes, I work hard at doing the right things and take care of myself, but I have no control over cell production inside my bone marrow. I don't have any control over that.
Q. Let’s rephrase then. Are you able to manage it? A. What I am doing are the things I'm supposed to be doing. I'm watching to see if it flares up. In essence going back to that smoldering stage. It’s back to a smoldering stage and that’s good.
Q. How ARE you doing? Not the friendly in passing comment…, but how is Calvin Baker doing? A. It’s all wrapped up in retirement because its two big life changing experiences. One of retirement and one of living with cancer as being retired.
Q. Was retirement needed because of your treatment and diagnose? A. I stayed on for a full year after my diagnosis and part of that was, I wanted to leave on my own terms and not because cancer chased me out. I did my job with cancer. I wanted to be able to do that. My style of being a Superintendent was 150% all the time. I worked really hard and I put in monster hours and I couldn't do that today at the same pace, physically.
Q. Would you still be super had you not had cancer? A. Good question. I don't know. Everything changed with the diagnosis so I don't know. Everything worked out the way it was supposed to. I feel very comfortable with how it worked out.
Q. How long did John Carruth, the new superintendent work with you? A. John has been the associate Superintendent and worked with me for many years. In any other normal school district, he would have been the Superintendent 10 years ago, but I just kept hanging on. Every year I said to John, I'm so sorry but I'm going do this another year. It was the timing. The timing was perfect. John spent that last year as chief of staff in the state board of education. In this position he accomplished two huge things there. One, he established a reputation apart from me and apart from Vail. He demonstrated and has a superb statewide reputation because of his work there. Two, he came back to Vail as his own, as his own man and that's the way it should be. It worked out just perfect.
Q. Does this give John a different perspective from a state vs local level? A. Yes. His state perspective now is very valuable to what he's doing in Vail. John has relationships and contacts at the state level that he would have never had, which took me years to establish. Once you know the system you can then function in that system much better. John knows the statewide system and also knows the local system very well.
Q. What does the future hold for Cal Baker? A. Your questions are good questions. I'm still figuring all that out. I was superintendent for over 30 years. Yes, I took vacations but the computer and the cell phone were always on my hip and anything that happened I was engaged. When I retired, I looked at the first year as a vacation I never had.
Q. Almost like a hiatus? A. Yes. It’s like growing up on the family farm in the Midwest. My dad would work really hard six days a week, and the 7th day would only work for absolute necessity. On Sundays, often I would go with my dad and watch him as he would walk the farm. He would look at the cattle, the pasture, the pigs, the chickens; he would look at the crops, the corn and the alp alfa, the soybeans, and he would look at all that stuff and he knew that it was good because he worked really hard. He also knew that it was good because there hadn't been a hail storm or flood. It had been spared. It was a combination of appreciating his hard work and being grateful for the unearned blessings, so-to-speak. I've looked at this current chapter in my life as being my Sunday. I look back, and I worked hard, and got a lot done. I also realize that so many good things happened that I had no control over. My career and the Vail school district have been blessed. I mean, we have done very, very well. We worked hard and there hasn't been a hail storm or flood.
Q. Are we in a hail storm of flood right now? A. We've been through hard times before, yes. Actually, in the mid ‘90s, growth here just exploded. In one year in 1996, we grew by 33%. 33%! Our school district couldn’t accommodate that growth. Think of it like a credit card. You can only borrow up to a certain limit and we maxed out our credit card. We couldn't go to the voters and ask for more money. There was no money coming from the state, yet people were moving in one right after another. We had to find a seat in a classroom, with a desk, and a teacher, for that kid. Something had to give. We had a bunch of large community meetings. We studied all kinds of variations and looked at renting space or shipping kids to another district. We looked at going to double sessions where we would have half the kids going in the morning and the other half going in the afternoon. We looked at a multi-track calendar where you take all the kids and divide them into four color coded groups. If you had four groups of 200 kids let’s say, you started the year with 600 kids and then after a month those kids came back and you just kept rotating a group every month. The school that was designed for 600 kids could handle 800 kids. This was really a traumatic time. One of our board members, trying to come to consensus, was very angry and moved out of the district with his family. We had other families that felt like we were taking away their family reunions, there Boy Scout camps, or other vacations. Families were really upset.
Q. You saw this as more of a challenge then compared to the current situation now? A. It was a similar traumatic event. We spent three years where school never closed. We ran 12 months of the year. Wrap up say third grade the last week of June and then started 4th grade the second week of July. We did graduation at the same time we were doing new teacher induction. It was a really, really hard time. Really hard. But we did it well and we survived. The same year we were fighting for more funding and the last year on multi track, we built three schools in one year. We built Cotton Wood, Desert Sky and Cienega. Just managing those construction projects while we were managing this rotating calendar, were hard years. There was a lot going and we did well. We made it through. It was a grind; it was hard on staff and hard on the buildings. It was breaking away from tradition.
Out of this came our extended school year. Once parents busted out of their paradigm and traditions, and we finally had enough schools, the parents didn't want to go back to the traditional nine and three (month) calendars. We came up with this alternate which has been a big part of our success.
Q. What are your favorite hobbies? A. I’ve done a lot of running and biking. I used to spend a lot of time working on cars. When we first got married, my wife had a Datsun roadster. It was the little two seat darling they made before the ‘Z’s’. They had originally called it the Datsun Fair Lady. They started with a 1600cc engine, then went to 2000cc. It was a sort of a poor man's sports card. They were fast.
At one point we had seven of them. We kept buying and selling until we had the 2 liter and a recently nice one which we kept for 25 years. I rebuilt the transmission and the engine, multiple times. Back in those days, you have points and a carburetor. Keeping all of that in sync; your air and gas mixture, the timing, the points; it was a real art. Today it’s all computer.
Q. Do you have a bucket list? A. No not really. Living in northern Alaska is about as adventurous as you can get. We did some amazing boating trips and snow machine trips. Our school district was the size of the state of Indiana and we had a little over 1500 students. There was lots of open space. Weekends, we would hop on the snow machines and ride to that mountain over there. So off we went. There were no roads and no fences.
Q. What advice would you give someone recently diagnosed of cancer? A. Every kind of cancer is different. I sought people with the same cancer. The big decision was a stem cell transplant or not. It's a traumatic process. By the time I qualified for one, things were under control and back to smoldering. I thought ‘why should I go through all that physical damage?’ My oncologist said, ‘the data is very clear; people who get stem cell transplants live longer than people who don't. If you want to live longer you get a stem cell transplant.’
“You follow the advice.” I was fortunate to have a strong support system; wife, family, doctor, and friends. People advised me to accept that. We tend to be macho, the ‘I can take care of myself’ mentality. There's a time to accept support. My family, friends, and school staff were just amazing.
Q. Was it tough to tell others about your diagnosis? A. I wasn’t embarrassed or shamed of it. It was very emotional. I think it was toughest to share with my kids. When your young you think your parents are invincible.
Q. How does this change your perspective? What’s a priority to you now? A. If I had been living in any other time or place outside of America, I wouldn't be here. I try to be intentional every morning waking up saying, ‘today is a gift’. If it’s raining or maybe I've got something unpleasant to do or just in a foul mood, I push that aside and say today is a gift. Honor the family relationships in particular.
Q. Describe your perfect day? A. Family. Growing up on a farm and then being a superintendent are things a good day is ‘when I get a whole lot done’. It's funny, when retired you cannot escape that completely. ‘Don't put off till tomorrow what can be done today?’ When you retire you have to tell yourself, ‘if it doesn't get done today, it's OK.’ I have 60 years that tells me it’s not OK...
Q. What is something no one knows about you? A. Most people assume since I was a superintendent for so long and since Vail was so successful, that certainly I came from a lot of academic success. The truth is I did not take a single college prep class in high school, and I barely passed. I worked on a dairy farm; milked cows and made a lot of money, and had a nice car. School was far down the list of priorities. I couldn't wait to get away from that institution. Life's ironic sometimes.
Q. How long did John Carruth, the new superintendent, work with you? A. My executive secretary of the time was a lady named Cass Burkhart. She was older than me and had been there awhile. John Carruth brought his application and Cass went right into my office and said, ‘you hire that young man!’
John worked as a teacher then as assistant principle and a special Ed director, before he became assistant Superintendent. I hired John over 20 years ago and in any other normal school district he would have been Superintendent sooner, but I just kept hanging on. John spent that last year as chief of staff in the state board of education. He accomplished two huge things there. First, he established a reputation apart from me and Vail. He demonstrated a superb statewide reputation. Second, John came back to Vail as his own man and that's the way it should be. It worked out perfect.
“I knew John was special early on”, says Cal. “He and his wife were living in Winter Haven as a young administrator when they decided to move. Their kids were getting ready to start school when they decided on a home in Vail. I knew John was in and we were hooked.” With emotions, “I knew that day, the future of Vail was better. John wasn't going anywhere. He locked in and was putting roots down.”
Q. Does this give John a different perspective, state vs local? A. Yes. John has relationships and contacts at the state level that he would have never had, which took me years to establish. Once you know the system you can then function in that system much better.
Q. How has public education changed? A. At its best, public education is the ‘leveler’. When I started in Vail, (1 small school and 425 square miles) there was every kind of person from every kind of demographic, race, and income. Just off X9 ranch were 40-acre lots with gated communities. Architects, doctors and lawyers living there; compared to people living out at the end of dirt roads in an old RV with no running water. ALL these kids sat in the same classroom. They all went to the same Christmas program, invited to the same Thanksgiving feasts and the families would come to the feasts. The kids brought cornbread and mothers brought Turkey, and they all came together. ‘It was a thing of beauty.’ That’s the way public education is in my mind.
As the district grew, there seemed to be a particular type of group that settled here; kids that go to elementary school, about the same salary range, typically young families with young kids all living in pastel color, stucco houses on a street with small lots. In Vail we sidestepped that by having high school choice. We are the largest district in the state that doesn't have boundaries. There's this wonderful crossover where kids from different areas of the district go to different high schools. In AZ, we're getting further and further away from that wonderful mixed classroom that existed in Vail in the late 80’s.
“We have segregated ourselves economically. Our differences in values and politics are causing a great separation.” You've got parents who are segregating out into different charter schools. These charter schools often serve a specified demographic. In AZ it’s called empowerment scholarships. If you get one, with that money you can choose a micro school or private, or you can hire a tutor. You can customize education and there's a lot of positives. However, we're segregating and separating ourselves because of that empowerment.
You wouldn't have empowerment scholarships if there wasn't political support for it. Maybe this is a bad analogy, but one that pops into my head; long ago if you wanted to know the news you listened to Walter Cronkite. He reported the news and we trusted him. Now, if you want the news as a conservative you go to Fox News. As an ultra-conservative you go to Newsmax. If you're liberal you go to MSNBC or if you're an ultra-liberal you go someplace else. Everybody goes to their own, and similar things are happening in education. If they belong to a particular demographic, they go to the charter school that serves that kind of demographic. The analogy… ‘sitting at the table, all in the same classroom’… is not happening.
I think that successful American democracy has been in large part, the success of the public school system. We all come together and we figure it out. Everyone gets a similar quality of education. When you separate out, that's not happening and nor are we figuring out how to work together. We're existing in our own little group. I'm very sympathetic to parents wanting to do what they believe is right for their kids. I have a lot of friends and relatives who have vacated the traditional public schoo. My niece, who was raised in our home; she homeschools her younger kids. My own daughter in Oregon, home schools too and they're getting a great education. But they’re not part of a group.
The children who are really suffering are the kids who don’t have the economic advantages and are left in systems that are not functioning. They can't get out. Many would say ‘they can get out because they have all these other options available to them.’ But their parents might be working 2 jobs, or somewhat dysfunctional, and they don't… so it doesn’t happen. The beauty of that early Vail system was that kid who was living in the old camper at the end of the dirt road with no running water…, was rubbing shoulders with the doctor's kids. They interacted and would say, ‘I could do that’, or ‘I could be that’. ‘We’re the same’. They play on the same playground, they could be friends, or have the same kind of friends. But if the kid living in the old RV with no running water at the end of the dirt road is only going to school with other kids like them, they would never see something else.
I had a vivid experience with this in Alaska. The first year and a half I was in this tiny little village on an island with about 250 people. All the kids were native. There was no tradition of excellence. I’d see a high school class, as an example; and everybody was supposed to have read chapter 22 or whatever the assignment was. The teacher would say, ‘Let's talk about chapter 22’. A lot of times the response would be ‘we haven't read it’, only to find out that nobody did it. That was the norm, that was the standard. It was difficult to break that standard. Then I went to a little bit larger village, about 4500 people. It was the communication and transportation center for the region. People from the park service where there, some airline people too, with many Native American people who owned stores, who had become successful in western society. These kids were being told that you have to exceed, that you have to compete.
As a high school principal with kids who were performers, I could point out and say, ‘look, see with John is doing.? That’s what you're supposed to be doing.’ John had his work done. He worked on his project. That's what's supposed to happen. ‘We're going to have homework night tonight in the library.’ John attends, you attend, and everybody does their homework. We're all very responsive to what's the social norm. We learn from each other and we either rise to the norm, or you know what your mother told you… if you hang out with the wrong friends you slip down to the norm. The same thing happens in school. It’s so critical. There are kids you could point out, that everybody else can escribe to. In Alaska basketball was king. If my one or two, star basketball players were really good kids who did their work, were nice to other people; it would change the whole flavor of the school because everybody wanted to be like them. If my star player was a total jerk, sure he was talented; but he treated other people badly, talked back to teachers, didn't perform in class; the whole school struggled because the little freshman boys who are all looking to him would say, ‘that's the standard? That's the way that works? When you get to the top of the heap, that's how you're supposed to act?’
If the basis peels off the very highest performing kids, then you lose those performing kids. You lose those examples. You lose the guiding stars that you point the other kids too. I'm very sympathetic, but I'm also very concerned. What’s driving a lot of the segregation in education is not just academic performance, it's also values.
Q. When you say values; values from the school or values from the family? A. “One of the most effective things we have done in Vail is embraced people of faith.” It's easy for a school or district to say, ‘oh we have to separate church and state. If someone is religious, we can't work with them because of separation.’ In reality, the separation of church and state has to do with institutions. We should never have the Baptist church telling us how to run the school district of course. But just because somebody's a good Baptist doesn't mean that they shouldn't be involved in the PTA, or the school board, or on the curriculum committee. We've been very intentional about embracing people of faith. It’s been so critically important for the development of the district and the community. It contributes to the health of our schools and community.
Q. Do you think this puts them in a disadvantage if they want to peel off, as you say? A. Oh no. The people who peel off often do great things and they provide wonderful opportunities for their kids. But what happens to the kids who are left? Look around in our greater community how Covid has been handled, as an example. Vail has been working really hard whenever they can, to having in-person instruction. There are disagreements, obviously. But here’s what we know; we know that it's best for kids to be in school and we know the transmission rate among kids is very low in school.
Q. Does the current administration feel this way too? A. Oh yes. If you look around at the greater community, Vail and other school districts have done the best they could in these circumstances, to create opportunities for kids to be in school. Most charter schools have remained open. They are providing in-person lessons. They are actively soliciting more students. Many parents have shifted to online learning and to empowerment scholarships. They've shifted to home schooling. People have shifted. Across Arizona there has been a clear trend of parents moving to other options when local schools did not provide in-person education.
Q. Is this to their detriment? A. Of course it is. It's to the detriment of the kids. Here again, you've got involved and engaged parents, like we have in Vail, like a lot of charter schools have; who can do the online learning or the home schooling. Then you've got this other group of kids, that don't or can’t. They are being left behind. Looking from a statewide perspective, “if the state does not figure out a way to serve kids in poverty, we are in deep trouble.” Our future is at risk. That's the greatest challenge facing AZ education right now. ‘How do you serve kids in poverty?’
Q. From your experience, what would you suggest? A. I’ll give you an example. At our last state meeting, we dealt with a federal grant that gave money to new charter schools based on specific criteria. One being, at least 40% of the students had to be on a ‘free and reduced lunch’ program. In other words, if you put a charter school in place where 40% of your students qualify for free and reduced lunch, you would get this money. I spoke out against this because the bar was set too low. We have lots of schools across the state that have 40% free and reduced lunch, and kids in those schools are getting a really good education. When you get up to 70, 80, 90% free and reduced lunch, which a lot of schools in our greater community have, that's where education is suffering. That's where there are fewer opportunities.
Charter schools were supposed to provide parents a choice and provide opportunities for kids who were in struggling school systems in poor neighborhoods. Where’s our most recent charter school here? Its Leman Academy at Golf Links and Houghton. There are some kids in poverty in this area, but Leman Academy sits next to Soleng Tom Elementary, a TUSD ‘A’ rated school. Then you have Senita Valley nearby, a Vail school also ‘A’ rated. Leman Academy is sitting right between 2 - ‘A’ rated schools. Why?
And if you didn’t know this, they broke ground right next to LA Fitness for a new Heritage Charter school. Heritage by the way is getting that federal grant. Leman Academy and Heritage Charter are not locating their schools in high poverty areas, where they should be and are designed to be. That was the promise. In their defense, in AZ you get extra money if your school is ‘A’ or ‘B’ rated. If you have turned education into a business model, or into a commodity instead of a service, you open a charter school. You want it to be financially successful because you have to pay your stockholders and investors, which means you want to have an ‘A’ or ‘B’ rating. How is the most efficient and effective way to have an ‘A’ or ‘B’ rated school? You want it to be in a neighborhood where you can attract students who will help you attain an ‘A’ or ‘B’ rating.
Leman Academy and Heritage have located their schools in areas where parents already have options to send their children to highly rated schools. From a state-wide perspective, those schools should be located in areas where parents to not have the opportunity to send their children to highly rated schools. Go to a high poverty neighborhood. I tell you this from experience because I did this in Alaska; educating high poverty kids is the toughest job in the world. It's really hard. It is especially difficult if highly involved families and your high performing kids have gone elsewhere. I’m passionate, because you hit stuff that is dear to my heart and that I've spent my life on.
Q. Are you still engaged with the school or board? A. I’m still engaged with state board, officially. I’ve been doing a lot of history stuff for the district. Obviously, we can't have Vail Pride day this year. Can't do the fairgrounds thing. Their doing a lot of virtual stuff. Vail is video documenting some of the amazing things that our teachers and kids have done in spite of what’s been going on. I've been helping with that and related projects.
Q. Ever received a phone call from an administrator asking for help or direction? A. Oh yeah. I just had lunch with a colleague yesterday who asked me to just talk with him dealing with a really difficult issue. They just needed a sounding board. We all need encouragement and a safe ear. I may not be able to help, but encouragement and talking about it out loud can often help.
Q. What advice would you give parents? A. Obviously I’m a huge advocate for parent engagement. I felt we got that right. The effort and work we put into engaging parents as volunteers, committee members, as site councils; zero amount of that effort has been wasted! Part of what motivates me is I watched my parents and how engaged they were. My dad served on the school board and mom would scrub desks before school started. They did humble things, but they served. It meant nothing to me at the time but as an adult I look back and say ‘holy Toledo…’ They were teaching me without saying anything.
“Parents who get involved in school are presenting an incredibly powerful model to their children as to the value of education and the value of community service.” Not just being a taker but being a giver. We've got parents in Vail who have done so much. Just like kids go to the norm, parents also go to the norm. Choosing that model for the Vail district has been huge, as education is a community effort. It sets the standard. This is the expectation. Everyone is involved and everybody contributes.
Q. Where would you like to see more parent involvement? A. At all levels. We need parents to run for office and serve on the board. We also need volunteering in their kids’ classroom or do some humble and menial things and everything in between. We also need parents to be involved at the state level. “If parents aren't telling the legislators what they believe in, then somebody else will.”
Q. What would you recommend to teachers as some don’t want to teach right now? A. I do not for a second regret my choice of vocation. I think education is the most honorable and important function. I would say, “embrace that reality”. Teachers are doing critically important and gratifying work.
Q. Could we have handled the closure from Covid differently? A. The issue with Covid that made the issue so hard for my colleagues is that it seemed every week or two that the rules of the game changed. It would be highly hypocritical of me to say, this or that should have been done. They were trying to play a game when a week or two later all the rules were different, then all the numbers and data were different. They were trying to stand on shifting sand. I think they did, and I'm speaking to my friends in Vail, the very best that you could do with what information they had at the time.
Q. Is public education influenced by political systems? A. It has to be. When it's operating the way it should be, school boards are some of the purest form of democracy we have left in the country. I’m very proud of the way we have embraced school board members from all different walks of life and income levels. I always looked at the board as being the other representatives of the community. “If I can't convince the board members of a good idea, it's probably not a good idea.” They are locally elected and represent the community. It works well. On a state level it gets a lot harder.
Q. Can this change? Can politics get out of the school system? A. The more we segregate out, the greater the challenge becomes. The most expensive kids to educate are high poverty kids. If we peel away higher income kids out of the traditional public school system into alternative systems like charter schools and empowerment scholarships, then the high poverty students left in the traditional school system will suffer.
Q. Is there anything you would have done differently? A. I don't look back that way very much. If we had known how hard it would be when we started, we would of never done it. Sometimes it's best you just don't know and go for it.
Q. From your experience, has public education improved? A. It certainly has changed. The jury is out on whether all this separation that's occurring is going to work. There’s no question that education has improved in Vail. For example, with ‘beyond textbooks’ we have significantly improved the technology of education. Not technology in computers, but technology in what's the best way to get kids to learn and how you promote student achievement. The technology and systems of getting that done, there’s no question, yes.
Q. Where do you see public education going? 5, 10 years? A. I don't know. Setting Covid aside, in my perfect world we’d go back to that picture that I painted in Vail in the late 80s where every kind of kid from every kind of parent are all sitting around the same table eating the same feast all together. I don't think we're heading in that direction.
Q. If you could talk to yourself 35 years ago, what would you tell him? A. I would just say ‘go for it.’ I just started reading Eric Larsons book about the World Expo in Chicago of 1893 and the architect who built this amazing expo center. In less than one year, 25 million people went through it. The entire population of the United States at that time was 65 million. The guy who put this together is an American architect by the name of Daniel Burnham. I had often used his quote; “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir mans blood.”
Over the years we made some big plans and have been able to accomplish a lot. We also struck out a lot. As Babe Ruth said, “Never let the fear of striking out get in the way.” That's part of success; you learn from your failures.
Q. What would your autobiography be titled? A. I had a post on my Facebook the other day, ‘every day is a miracle.’ Then one of my friends said, ‘that needs to be the title of your book.’ That’s actually not a bad idea. Einstein said you can have a choice of living two ways; ‘you can live as if you believe everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle.’
Q. What's the future for Vail? A. I think it's good. We've got a wonderful tradition of parental involvement and ownership over the schools. We've got parent choice at the high school level, which is really parent empowerment. You can talk all you want to parents, but when you say ‘here, it's your choice, you choose’; then you're giving them real power. I’m extremely proud of the staff in Vail and the leadership and examples in the teaching ranks. It’s high quality and I think that will continue.
Q. You do any genealogy or family history? A. Yes. I kind of dip in and out of it, but we were just going last night on ancestry.com and got updated DNA results for us and also our two youngest kids who are adopted. I enjoy it. Some of my LDS friends have helped me out when I've got stuck on stuff. I’ve gone back to the 1600s on my side of the family. Both Nancy’s and my family are from Holland. In Holland, it was Bakker.
Q. Anything that you wish you could have made a bigger impact on? A. Going back to the Burnham quote. At the beginning of the book, it starts at the end and then goes back. They first talked about him as being an old man. He makes the comment to the effect of, ‘it's good to look back and know that you worked hard and you got stuff done. Teddy Roosevelt said, ‘one of the best things in life is to work hard at a job worth doing.’ I think, “I worked hard and it was the job worth doing.” You tend to remember what’s last. People were so incredibly gracious to me and when my cancer came out. Like surrounding their wagons around me. They did that. That's what I choose to remember. It ended well.
Calvin Baker, Post Super-Man.
Editors note; Calvin has been more than gracious in discussing personal matters with his thoughts and feelings. Mr. Baker is very talented, and getting to know him through this interview has been a privilege. Thank you Calvin, for your willingness to share your knowledge and wisdom and to enlighten us, the Vail community, yet again. I think it would be fair to say, ‘you are a friend to us all.’