Kevin Baxter has been appointed the director and superintendent of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He will be responsible for the growth and development of Catholic education for students — from preschoolers to high school seniors.  

Baxter has decades of experience in Catholic education and school management. He has been serving as the superintendent of elementary schools since 2009. Before that, he served as principal at American Martyrs and St. Columkille.

He holds a doctorate in education from the University of Southern California as well as a master’s in secondary education from Loyola Marymount University, where he has been a part-time faculty member since 2002. He authored 2011’s “Changing the Ending,” a book about innovative approaches to Catholic education.

Baxter lives in Hermosa Beach with his wife Kim and their six children. He recently sat down with The Tidings’ J.D. Long-García to discuss his new role in Catholic education.

What brought you to L.A.?

After college, my best friend and I were both kind of intrigued by the acting thing — he more so, because he’s still doing it. He’s doing commercials and you see him on TV sometimes, nothing big.

He called me up because his sister was working in Palm Springs for the summer, doing kind of resort management and she needed some kind of volunteer intern-type position. He said, “Do you want to go to Palm Springs?” It was mid-fall and we were on the East Coast, so I said “Sure.” And we headed out. That was ‘91.

So we lived in Palm Springs for about six months. And we moved to L.A. right after the L.A. riots. April 1992 is when we came to L.A. So I worked in hotels and did that kind of stuff for a number of years.

When my wife and I got married, there was a shift for me. It was OK as a dream when you were single. But acting is one of those things where you work very, very hard, and you might still be in the same place in 20 years.

I believe that if you want to put your head down and do a lot of work, you want to make sure you have some outcomes that are more reliable. Right after I got married is when I started teaching in Catholic schools. That’s where it all has gone.

So then, did you make a decision that you wanted to be a principal, or was it that the need arose or what?

Growing up, I went to Catholic schools. We were New York Irish Catholic, you know, living kind of outside of the city. We were not wealthy. We were not poor either, we were middle class.

But it was a sacrifice for my family, to send all five of us to Catholic elementary school, Catholic high school and Catholic college. First time I went to a non-Catholic school was when I got my doctorate at USC.

But I joke that my parents made a sacrifice to do it and they never let us forget it. [laughs] Because that’s what parents do. They’d always remind you, this is a sacrifice for us.

I also always loved teaching and loved coaching sports. When the acting thing wasn’t working out, when my wife and I were getting married, I thought, you know what, I would love to teach. I kind of thought I would just teach and maybe at the high school level and coach football, basketball. And that would be great.

I started teaching at the middle school level and fell in love with that age group first of all. It’s just that great period of adolescence.

I always say, people who teach middle school either love the age, or they never want to go near it. [laughs] And I just fell in love with it. It was great.

I did that at Cathedral Chapel, they asked me to be vice-principal. And then I got my first principal position at St. Columbkille. I never really pursued it. It just became available and I was excited to do it.

That’s wonderful. I can see some beautiful pictures of your family there.

This is a great picture, actually. The archbishop baptized our sixth. And she’s 3 actually now, so this is about three years ago. But he hadn’t done a baptism, I guess, since his great-nephews were little. So that’s the crew right there.

Can you tell me about your family?

Sure. My wife Kim and I, we’ve got six kids. Our oldest is 16. And our youngest is 3, and there are three boys and three girls. You know, it keeps us busy. Our kind of tagline is that we just tolerate chaos better than the average couple. But it’s wonderful. It’s great. They’re all so uniquely different, and yet all so the same too. So it’s a great joy, great pride and it’s wonderful.

That’s lovely. Can you tell me just a little bit about the new position? How it’s going to work?

Well it’s a new position, so how it’s going to work will probably be determined a little bit as we move into it. What the archbishop is aiming for — and what my intent is — is to make sure that we’re more aligned and more efficient, more effective.

How do we think strategically from preschool all the way to 12th grade? How do we think of that from an alignment perspective? How do we make sure that what’s happening is connected from level to level?

In the office, we’re trying to make sure that we’re all collaborating more, dialoguing more, talking more. Obviously high schools and elementary schools are different. They’re different in how they’re organized, they’re different in how they kind of structure themselves. Teachers are different in how they kind of approach what they do.

From a Catholic faith identity perspective, from an academic excellence perspective, from a fiscal stewardship perspective, we can learn a lot from each other. And not necessarily take an idea from high schools and put it into elementary. It’s just saying, how do we communicate and dialogue better, so that we can be more efficient across the entire system?

What do you see as the main challenges Catholic education is facing?

Well, I think there are a lot of challenges. We have a vision of growth for our Catholic schools in L.A., and I think, while it’s not unique, I think it’s pretty special.

You might know that Catholic schools are in trouble across the country, and they have been, for the last 30 years or so. I think L.A. in the first decade of this century, from 2001 to 2010, we lost 17,000 students from our elementary schools.

Our vision is one that we grow significantly, and it’s based on the fact that we’re the largest archdiocese in the country. We’re only currently serving about 8 percent of our Catholic school-age population. So not even one in 10 kids are coming to our Catholic school.

And the incredible things about our demographics and our population are that if we could just get our own population to one in 10 Catholic kids, we’d increase enrollment by about 35,000.

We’ve talked about leadership — do you have a favorite leadership book?

Lots of them, actually. One is “Good to Great,” by Jim Collins. That’s kind of an oldie but goodie. There’s a quote in there, “No matter what you have achieved, you’ll always only be good in relation to what you can become.” And that’s kind of a theme, no matter where you are from a school perspective, that’s your baseline.

Even if you’re high achieving, you could be better. How do you improve on that? We use a couple of metaphors in the office, because we have this vision of growth.

One is leadership — leadership and faith, leadership and academic excellence, leadership and stewardship.

We use this metaphor with pebbles. So the leadership metaphor is that we’ve got this giant hole that we’ve dug for ourselves, right? We’ve lost 3 million kids in Catholic schools since 1965 nationwide.

When you have a giant hole, the leadership inclination is to find a giant boulder, solve the problem. Right? They want a silver bullet, “What can I do to solve the problem?”

What we tell principals is that there’s no big boulder. It’s not there. It would have been discovered years ago. So our job as leaders is to show up every day and drop a pebble in the hole.

We try to get our teachers to drop pebbles in the hole. And leadership’s a frustrating kind of enterprise, because you might be putting pebbles in the hole and someone comes along with a shovel and kind of shovels, you know, scoops it out.

Still, your job is to show up and drop another pebble in. This vision that we have of growth is beyond all of us. It might be beyond my term as superintendent, beyond all of us in the office.

Baxter is currently working on a book titled “The Pebble,” which will detail his vision for Catholic education for the 21st century.