Palo Alto school district's secondary-education director to retire

District has received two internal applications for Katherine Baker's position, superintendent says

Katherine Baker, the Palo Alto Unified School District's chief academic officer for secondary education and former Terman Middle School principal, will retire at the end of this school year, she confirmed Wednesday.

Baker has been in the district since 2010, when she became principal at Terman. She moved to the district office in 2013 to her current position, replacing Michael Milliken, who held the secondary-education post for two years before leaving to become superintendent of the Belmont-Redwood Shores School District.

Baker said Wednesday that she's retiring to spend more time with family in Ohio, where she's originally from. She will be relocating there to live closer to her parents, daughter, grandson and a second grandchild on the way.

"I'll probably do something in education eventually back there but for right now, I'm just going back to be with family," she said.

Baker became a teacher late in her life — in her 40s — and started teaching in the early 1990s. She taught elementary and middle school for many years. She also was a middle-school assistant principal, elementary-school principal and principal at an intermediate seventh- and eighth-grade school in the K-8 Oak Grove School District in San Jose before coming to Palo Alto.

Baker's tenure at Terman was, in part, overshadowed by controversy over the school's handling of a bullying case involving a special-education student in the 2010-11 school year. The case later became the subject of a federal investigation and resulted in a December 2012 finding by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights that the school district had violated the student's civil rights.

Baker described the investigation as hard on the school's staff and parents, but a "good learning experience" that resulted in "some positive outcomes," such as a new district policy on bullying.

"We've always got something to learn," she said. "We certainly learned to do things better and document things better and make sure that we really do an excellent job of balancing individual needs of students with collective responsibility for everyone."

Superintendent Max McGee told the Weekly that two internal applications have been made for Baker's district-level position, but declined to discuss personnel matters.


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16 people like this
Posted by Marielena, Lourdes and Bully Victim
a resident of Terman Middle School
on Apr 27, 2016 at 7:51 pm

I got so many things I want to say to this lady who was protected by Skelly that I do not know where to start. [Portion removed.] I remember attending the IEP's and meetings with her where we showed her one of the letters that the bullied student had written the night before that says something like this: My friends say that they do not want to be your friend because you are different, so I can't be your friend either" It was this the first time that your daughter's hart was broken, this was just the beginning of a difficult journey at Terman. [Portion removed.] Our daughter is about to became an adult, but she still has not recovered from the PTD that resulted from the bullying of so many children who thought that it was funny to do it. She is finally leaving, and all she says she learned is: to document? What about protecting our special ed. students. Last week the district had another serious case of bullying of a special ed. student at Jordan that involved a knife. I am sure she documented everything, but I really hope that they do stop the bullying and really protect the victim this time. [Portion removed.]
Baker leaving is kind of a way to find closure in this difficult experience. Hasta la Vista Ms. Baker, good luck to your family!

8 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 27, 2016 at 10:47 pm

Wednesday evening, April 27

Dear Fellow Onliners,

In replacing Ms. Baker, I think it would be a great boon if we could hire someone with an understanding about what makes our District and our high schools very different from others--which is that we've endured far more sorrow and loss than other places.

This sorrow and loss--and hurt, and other deep-seated and disturbing feelings--remains in the community's collective "system" like hurt in a body, taking a long, long time to work itself out and metabolize.

Even now, we have young kids in our schools who years from now will enter Gunn or Paly still with memories of our recent losses. Parents of those kids, too, will remember years hence and will still be anxious.

Our teachers who taught Sarah Longyear, not to mention the four kids we lost last year, will still remember them for many years to come, seeing their faces in other kids' faces.

To remember these extraordinary things "in one's bones" is a useful thing in a leader--someone who must win the trust of parents, teachers, and kids.

I think it will be an advantage to us to hire someone with institutional memory, community memory, stretching back for years--about what makes our high schools so very "special"--their history of sorrow.

I say this not because I think we should feel somehow extra sad, but because I think we should be practical.

In any case, whatever your preferences are, I urge you to write to Superintendent McGee and let him know. He will soon be making this decision, and it's a very consequential one.

Marc Vincenti
Gunn English Dept. (1995-2010)
Campaign Coordinator
Save the 2,008 -- creating hope for Palo Alto's high-schoolers

7 people like this
Posted by Terman mom
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 28, 2016 at 5:37 am

Katherine was an extraordinary principal at Terman. She cared about student wellbeing , was selfless, approachable and really changed the school culture for the better. Students loved her!
Which is more than what we can say about the current principal who the students do not even know/ who plays favorites/ culture is now so bad at Terman.
Hope Katherine's replacement would also make some changes at Terman as part of her job.

22 people like this
Posted by The Essence of Tragedy
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 28, 2016 at 9:56 am

I blame Charles Young, Brenda Carrillo, Holly Wade, and the district legal for the unhealthy environment that turned otherwise good administrators into people who shouldn't have been able to look themselves in the mirror for how they interpreted certain situations and behaved. I think things could have gone very differently for Katherine Baker in our district otherwise. I think Baker, like families impacted by the negative district culture, was really a casualty of the aforementioned administrators but she and families will probably always blame each other.

That said, I do not let the school administrators (not just Baker) off the hook for failing to be upstanders. This was a classic case of what Stanford Prof Albert Bandura describes in How Good People Do Bad Things and Feel Good About Themselves. I liked Katherine Baker personally but was repulsed by how the district handled that case. Everyone blamed Skelly, but I think they missed the real source. The kind of culture created by the aforementioned district administrators - it's alarming that we have no mechanism to root that out. If the teachers and school administrators just excuse themselves in the way Professor Bandura describes (and here I include the shameful behavior of Heidi Emberling and the then board with how they handled the OCR complaints), then the most vulnerable among us have no hope. The district should have mechanisms to weed out people who care more about erring on the side of padding their own resumes than doing the right thing in a tough situation.

9 people like this
Posted by Hopeful
a resident of Terman Middle School
on Apr 28, 2016 at 10:31 am

Let's hope that Max appoints someone who isn't just a bureaucratic status quo type like Ms. Baker but who has real passion around students.

Denise Herrmann at Gunn has been an awesome choice.

Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 28, 2016 at 11:40 am

Denise H. has not been an awesome choice - she advocates merging algebra lanes. This will be detrimental to the lower performing students. She should take a page from previous principal's books on this issue.

7 people like this
Posted by Ferdinand
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 28, 2016 at 11:45 am

To "The Essence of Tragedy" I would like to agree with you about the administrative failings, but also suggest that you do not go far enough. The blame extends to us parents as well.

Do we all have meaningful conversations with our kids about appropriate behaviors with peers as well as their teachers, particularly if we have a spunky, spirited kid who we know can be harsh?

Do we ask if anyone is being rejected, lonely, or picked on?

How often do we parents extend ourselves to students/families that are different from us?

Do we communicate respectfully with teachers and administrators when problems arise, or wait until the dam is about to break?

Do we check in with our kids about how they are treating their teachers? Some affluent, "smart" kids bully adults and then get their parents behind them, criticizing a teacher for not being good enough for the esteemed Palo Alto system. They demand their personal definition of quality they have paid for! What sort of role models are these kids and their parents?

We send our children into a system and they become a part of that culture. Yes, they cannot instantly change it, but if we send in kind students who show respect to their peers, talk with us about things they notice are wrong, and we communicate that information with our schools, then we help to shape that culture.

We parents have a part in this problem.

13 people like this
Posted by The Essence of Tragedy
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 28, 2016 at 1:31 pm

You make some good points, and yet none speak to our experience, at all. Particularly about trying to communicate with administrators about problems. They deliberately ignore you until you have no choice but to either continue to suffer and accept it, and hopefully avoid past retaliation when you did persist to try to solve problems they didn't want to deal with, or pursue really aggressively so they can't ignore. The dam breaks because administrators believe if they just ignore most things they don't want to deal with, they disappear.

That goes for bullying by administrators and students, serious problems with schoology getting used to bully and exclude, and even to this day, problems with students at Gunn who try to crush the spirits of other students by denigrating them at every turn. What can parents do amid the culture of coverup, when you can't ever get an honest answer, a good faith meeting, or accurate and open records, and letters come so riddled with errors and outright falsehoods, you can only wonder what is going to happen to others as those people further their careers off of vulnerable children and families who have no defense? If faced with a chance to cover up something difficult or delve in to fix it, even McGee is inclined to cover up, and it doesn't help that he has retained the very worst ones under him who have a lot to answer for/hide, and who sucked Skelly into that mode.

If you are a family subject to the machinations of the above administrators, it's like the family is shunned, whispered about behind their backs (much of it not true and imagined because of district legal, but destroys any hope of connection and solving problems), the children may even suffer negative social or academic "framing" by administrators and teachers who go along with them, and all the children pick up on it. I have seen this many, many times, so much that I would say it's the norm. That kind of thing can hurt kids their whole lives.

Given what I know about the individuals, this is not simething that will be fixed until the district decides it will only employ unfailingly honest, kind, open, caring, and competent people at all levels, and that at every level, teachers and staff, parents and children, feel they have trust, recourse and someone on their side when things go wrong (as opposed to a whole system of adults engaged in denial, coverup, and even retaliation. It continues.) i don't think Katherine Baker caused that environment, and I think would even have thrived under better administrators, but she went along with it. Parents have no real power in the district unless they are wealthy influential community members, and they aren't the ones getting the treatment.

8 people like this
Posted by ferdinand
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 28, 2016 at 2:05 pm

E of T….It's apparent you have had some dreadful experiences with the district, and I do hope they consider what you and others have suggested with respect to the quality of new-hires.

There is a shift happening in our local culture that needs to permeate the administration: honesty, true concern/empathy for kids across the entire academic spectrum, professionalism, and competency. It would be interesting to get some honest opinions from valued teachers in the district. I fear we'll be losing more and more of them to this storm of obfuscation and lack of clarity of what is important.

4 people like this
Posted by The Essence of Tragedy
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 28, 2016 at 4:35 pm

I would agree wholeheartedly with what you just said. The teachers I know who have stood up in the Skelly years over management problems found life so difficult they all retired or left. I heard the complaints, and most seemed like they were worried to even voice them. I think it's been hard on people most inclined to do the right thing in tough situations.

But however much I remain hopeful, I see no sign of anything improving from the standpoint of our own experience. I do appreciate the kind wishes, thank you.

5 people like this
Posted by Essence of PAEA
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 29, 2016 at 6:23 am

Teachers are part of the problem, if not the core of the problem, especially those who coalesce around PAEA protection. Many of the OCR complaints originated with complaints about teacher behavior, then it got kicked upstairs to principals and district office administrators. It's deceptive to blame management when they really don't run PAUSD. PAEA runs PAUSD.

7 people like this
Posted by Meanie
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 29, 2016 at 9:55 am

Meanie is a registered user.

I tend to agree with the first poster.

Ms Baker handled bullying issues in a very lazy, old-fashioned way: just ignore it.

Really? Even if the bully injures your child? Even if he stalks and makes harassing telephone calls to your child?

But that's the way she handled things: aggressive when it was uncalled for, lazy when action was necessary. Always the wrong reaction.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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