Near the end of the recent Onward Leaders celebration, an Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ (ADLA) Catholic Schools program that focuses on mentoring principals, Kevin Baxter, Ph.D., was called up to the podium.
As the superintendent and senior director of the entire ADLA school system, Baxter just heard several speakers talk about all that he has meant to their educational progress, appreciating how he helped launch and energize the organization with the John H. and Cynthia Lee Smet Foundation.
Now, receiving a going-away gift from the group during this end-of-school-year reception at downtown LA’s California Club, Baxter opened the box and pulled out a trophy — a bronze shoe with a pebble in it.
He smiled and completely understood the metaphor. It’s one he has preached to leadership teams in the ADLA school system for years.
Baxter leaves the position of senior director and superintendent of schools at the end of June after serving since 2015, which follows six years as the archdiocese’s superintendent of elementary schools going back to 2009. And he leaves a sizable pair of shoes to fill, with or without a pebble, as a reminder about how small problems are easy to fix.
Baxter soon embarks on a new role as chief innovation officer for the Virginia-based National Catholic Educational Association, where his focus will continue on leadership formation, governance, and financing.
Even with this larger scope, Baxter said he will always be thinking of programs he and his staff were able to implement in LA that could be expanded on a national scale.
Before he takes on his new role, Baxter sat down with Angelus News to reflect on his last 10 years at the archdiocese.
Tom Hoffarth: What is the meaning of the pebble-in-the-shoe metaphor you’ve used since you became superintendent?
Kevin Baxter: There are two metaphors we’ve used actually with this vision of growth, something that can be broadly defined but really meaning school success. We rest that vision on two core principles: leadership and innovation.
With leadership, no matter where you are, if you have a challenging situation, like enrollment decline, you might think of your problem as a giant hole. At times, a new principal might come in and say, “Where’s the big boulder that we can just put in this hole and solve our problem?” But the pebble-in-the-hole idea is meant to convey there’s no simple solution.
It involves doing deliberate, intentional work on a daily basis — dropping a pebble in the hole. Sometimes, you even hear of someone having a challenge, so they end up taking a scoop of pebbles out of the hole. So now your job is to show up and drop another pebble in and inspire others to drop a pebble in.
As for innovation and how to be creative in how we approach education and Catholic schools in a changing environment, we’re constantly thinking of building a culture of continuous improvement. It’s improving on past performance. So with that, there’s the idea of the pebble in the shoe — create a little bit of discomfort so no matter what level of success you’ve achieved, you celebrate and honor that, but pretty soon you’ve got to feel: How do I continue to improve?
We feel like those two concepts together — leaders showing up to drop a pebble in the hole to build cultures with a sense of continuous improvement — will continue to achieve that vision of growth. That’s essentially how we’ve modeled a lot of our programs.
Hoffarth: Is it bittersweet to leave this job?
Baxter: Absolutely. I love the work. I’m going to a position with a national scope, but in so many ways I think of this job with nearly 80,000 kids, 5,000 teachers and principals, three counties, 8,800 square miles — to have a position with a capacity to influence and impact that broad diverse range of geographic and demographic areas is an incredible blessing.
It’s the professional gift of my life to serve here. That being said, it’s been 10 years, and it can take its toll, even with a commute (from home in Hermosa Beach to downtown LA), so I started to think of ways to transition out and this seemed to be the right time.
Hoffarth: You can quantify ways of improving attendance and growth with statistics and numbers. How else can you sense achievement through things you’ve witnessed and helped start and implement?
Baxter: An event like this with Onward Leaders is a clear example of where I feel pride in what part I’ve had in it. There are so many people who play parts in the successes we’ve had, with the Smet family’s generous participation.
For example, I was recently at the first graduating class of a dual language immersion school in our history — All Souls School in Alhambra. In my first year as superintendent in 2010 I had to stand up in front of that community and announce the school was closing, for all the reasons we have to close schools: low enrollment, finances.
But in the back of my head, I wanted to see if we could do something new there and create a new model for Catholic schools. Two years later we launched it as a dual-language immersion school — Mandarin and Spanish — with 20 students.
We just graduated our first eighth-grade class. We will have 320 kids next year and we aren’t even fully enrolled yet; we could have 400 to 500 kids there eventually. Sitting at that graduation, there was tremendous pride to see how full the church was. That gives me great joy.
Hoffarth: The simple job description for you has been that you’re in charge of coordinating and implementing a vision for growth. Bottom line: How do people look back at your time here and ways that happened?
Baxter: One of the ways we look at that is by having pockets of enrollment growth, really good numbers, and I feel good about it. But that vision of growth isn’t just an enrollment number. It’s also spiritual growth. Academic growth. Personal growth. Professional growth for educators.
There are a lot of ways to measure that are important. It’s not just a body in a seat. We want to see really good school growth and development that creates value, and then people want to be part of it and that’s how enrollment goes up.
Hoffarth: An interesting moment in your administration came when America magazine did the piece in 2017 entitled “How LA’s Catholic schools are growing when so many are closing.” That must have got people’s attention.
Baxter: The reaction was extremely positive. I did a post on Facebook where I wanted to make sure: This isn’t about me. I worry about that. All this. It’s a collaborative effort. I joke sometimes I may not do anything particularly well, but one thing I do is hire well and work with people pretty well. Bring in great people and great things happen.
Hoffarth: In the America piece you talked about how if a child in school perceives a threat, he or she can’t learn effectively. These are challenging times for child safety at school, compounded in some areas of Los Angeles. There are always immigration issues hanging over that affect a student’s life, too. Have these things been addressed?
Baxter: That goes back to a famous Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” theory. You have to have certain needs met before you reach actualization and learning. One of those is safety.
If you’re worried about “abuela” (“grandma”) getting deported, or about guns brought into school, that inhibits the process. We have done a lot with educating principals and overall security at schools. That’s what Catholic schools are known for — a safe, secure environment with a community more conducive to learning, and we’ve very proud of it.
Tom Hoffarth is an award-winning journalist based in Los Angeles.
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