In April 2015, Dr. John Baker, a former teacher and school principal, was named as the superintendent of the Redwood City School District, and began leading the district on July 1, 2015. Dr. Baker has worked for the district for more than 30 years and has seen many changes during that time. Recently, he spent time to answer some of the most common questions he hears from community members.
Why did you decide to go into teaching/education?
I was a tutor in East Los Angeles while in college. I then decided to change majors and went into education. I was originally going to become a lawyer.
What was your first job in RCSD?
I was originally hired to be a kindergarten teacher at Garfield, but was moved to 5th grade after four weeks due to enrollment changes.
What were the biggest challenges facing the Redwood City School District at that time?
There was declining enrollment and when I started the District had just closed and sold some schools. The demographics were also changing. More students were coming from México and we needed to meet their needs since many were not able to speak English. Over the years, I have seen our district become expert at helping students reach proficiency in English. This year we celebrated more than 700 students reaching the same level of proficiency as if they were native English speakers.
What was the district like when you were first hired, and what was Redwood City like?
During that time students walked to their neighborhood school or rode their bike and there was no traffic congestion during morning and afternoon dismissal. Also, there were very few after school programs for students to attend. Today the District offers a terrific program to support new teachers, but then you depended on tenured teachers at your school to help you with curriculum and instruction. Many materials that I used for teaching then were outdated and teachers needed to make up their own. I am proud that we offer much more support and training to teachers today.
When you first started, did you aspire to become a principal or even a superintendent? How did your path to administration begin?
No, I thought I'd always remain a teacher. I was encouraged to go into administration by my principal. Since I was taking leadership roles on committees, he thought I should attend information sessions on becoming an administrator. I then decided to get my administrative credential and graduate degrees in Education.
How has your Latino heritage impacted your thinking about education, particularly here in Redwood City where a majority of our students are Latino?
My mother is Mexican and my father is Caucasian. Both of my parents had to work very hard for their education. My mother went to school during a time when it was forbidden to speak Spanish. There was no bilingual education. She was totally immersed into English my grandparents couldn't really help her with her school work. She later paid for her own college education and graduated from San Jośe State. My father received his education while he was in the military, and was sent to college and law school. My mother was insistent that her children maintain their Latin heritage. Today, my siblings and I are all bilingual and bicultural. This has really made a difference in our lives. The approach to language acquisition today is quite different: while the goal is for students to read, speak and write English at the level of a native speaker, we also offer Spanish and English speakers the opportunity to become literate in both languages. Next year the district is also offering a Mandarin immersion program in addition to its award-winning Spanish immersion programs.
Are you in touch with any of your former students? What are they doing now?
I keep in touch with one of my students I taught my first year of teaching, in the East Bay. I taught Kindergarten and many of my students were from México. This student today is an oncologist in San Francisco. One of our kindergarten teachers at Taft School, Jennifer Mercado, was a student at Hoover when I was principal there.
What is the biggest change in RCSD you have seen over the years?
Less money from the state for our students has created many challenges. It is a shame that the funding we receive for our students is less than many neighboring districts, when our students share classes with students from these other districts in high school. We have made the most of every dollar in Redwood City, and our students have continued to have access to art, music and enrichments.
What is your proudest moment as an educator?
My proudest moment was when one of my students came to me and told me they were accepted college. They were the first in their family to graduate from high school and then go on to college and graduate with a degree in engineering.
How is education different today than when you entered teaching?
21st century learning skills are a must. Students need to think creatively and pursue innovative solutions. They must be able to use technology that targets and supports their learning. Teaching so that students gain these skills is very different for teachers and we must be able to support them to make sure our students can achieve and surpass the skills needed for them to be productive citizens in the 21st century.
Why are public schools important?
Public education offers every child in the community a chance to an education. Many children remain limited in their ability to take full advantage of that opportunity due to circumstances at home. Education ought to be about lifting students up. Without a free, public education system open to all, those who are born without money and power never will have a chance to make their lives better by developing new knowledge and/or 21st century skills. Over the years I have seen so many students in our Redwood City schools who beat the odds and achieve success because of access to great teachers and supportive community.
What is the best thing about RCSD?
The best thing about RCSD is that we have qualified teachers that believe all students can learn. Our teachers are preparing our students for the future and not our past.