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Vail’s Magician Pulls Off Stunt After Stunt

by Jay P. Goldman

When the 1,300 staff members of the Vail, Ariz., district gather for the school-opening assembly each year, they have come to expect a rousing pep talk by Superintendent Calvin Baker, usually flavored with colorful references to his own upbringing or his family.

Baker outdid himself last summer. To vividly deliver a point about the school district finding ways to truly distinguish itself, the superintendent brought his 6-month-old granddaughter Audrey to the stage, where he proceeded to balance the upright infant on one raised palm in front of him. He called the carnival stunt a family tradition that’s been passed down among generations of Bakers. He talked about the importance of mutual trust as a value critical to the success of the school district.

“People want to feel connected, that those they’re working with are real people and they’re not just a cog in the operation,” he explained after the unique motivational pitch.

Now in his 20th year in Vail’s top post, Baker has often come off looking like a ready-for-prime-time magician as he deftly manages the burgeoning growth of a suburban residential community outside Tucson. During his tenure, Vail has exploded from a 500-pupil elementary school district to a unified district with 9,000 students and three high schools.

“In many ways, because we’ve been growing so rapidly, I’ve been the superintendent of many different districts, all in the same place and all with the same name,” he says.

Through meaningful involvement of community members on what one school board member says “must be 10,000 committees,” Baker keeps the citizenry working cohesively for its public schools. He ascribes this accomplishment to basic human relations. “It’s the same as a marriage or friendships,” he quips.

The challenges of such unabated growth take many forms — regenerating school attendance boundaries constantly, expanding facilities that quickly fill and presiding over the integration of long-standing rural residents with the new-arriving families. The superintendent has helped the school system respond in unconventional ways by seizing opportunities.

One of the high schools he opened during the past few years teaches exclusively with laptop computers and without any textbooks. Vail also was the first district in Arizona to form its own charter high school and subsequently launched its own charter elementary and middle school, all under the control of the school board, while many other school districts distanced themselves from the state’s aggressive charter laws.

Bold actions of this nature have fueled parent and business community perceptions that Vail’s public education system is responsive and innovative. “He’s not a one-size-fits-all believer,” says Anne Gibson, Vail’s longest-serving school board member at nine years. “He believes in offering students and parents options and I admire that.”

Baker’s long-uninterrupted leadership tenure has brought about some unique advantages. He has been involved in hiring virtually all of Vail’s 600 teachers and has promoted most of the current administrators from the ranks. This results in a staff that subscribes to the same notion of community buy-in and personal accountability that Baker exhibits.

Says parent Tony LoMonaco, a site council president: “He clearly, definitively and vividly describes in detail what he wants done, and he follows up on it.”

Vail’s professional staff members feel a genuine kinship with their leader. Last summer district employees raised $6,000 in order to send Baker, his spouse, six children and grandchildren off on a surprise three-night retreat in the mountains of southeast Arizona.

“His leadership not only makes his staff want to get the job done,” says Thelma Grimes, a local newspaper reporter, “but they also work hard to go well beyond what is required.”

Jay Goldman is editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org

BIO STATS: Cal Baker

Currently: superintendent, Vail, Ariz.

Previously: principal, Kotzebue, Alaska

Age: 56

Greatest influence on career: I grew up on a Midwest family farm, operated by my parents. Day in and day out, they modeled the virtue of honest, relentless hard work, as well as a servant attitude in their relationships with people.

Best professional day: In 1999, a variety of financial and political barriers prevented our community from having its own comprehensive high school. After a year of intensive planning that involved dozens of working meetings with hundreds of community members, our application for a high school was denied by a state agency. In response, various factions of our diverse, growing community rallied together. A few weeks later, in a room filled with anxious supporters and TV cameras, the board for the state agency unanimously overturned the initial decision and approved funding for the school. Winning a seemingly impossible political victory was a huge thrill.

Books at bedside: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell; A Year with C.S. Lewis by C. S. Lewis; and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Biggest blooper: On one of my first days as a superintendent, I rushed to my office to attend to the “crisis” of an exceptionally rare blanket of snow in southern Arizona. In the process, my new district car somehow slid off the snow-slicked road and into a signpost. Because it was common knowledge I had spent nine years living in the snow-abundant reaches of northern Alaska, I was subjected to an endless barrage of tips about how to drive safely in snowy conditions.

Key reason I’m an AASA member: AASA provides me with critically important opportunities to form and maintain support systems of my peers. These support systems provide professional information and assistance as well as highly valued personal relationships