Q&A: Incoming LBUSD Superintendent Jill Baker talks coronavirus, leadership styles

On April 9, the Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education unanimously selected Deputy Superintendent Jill Baker to replace outgoing Superintendent Chris Steinhauser when he retires at the end of the school year. She sat down with the Post for a Q&A shortly after the vote.

Q: You’ve been considered the frontrunner for the position. Did that mean you had a lower stress level awaiting news on who was hired?

A: I have not taken any part of this for granted. I think I’ve demonstrated more about myself throughout my career than I could in an interview, but I still had all the same nerves. I have not had a lot of sleep in the last couple weeks. I have had such high respect for our Board that set out to maintain a rigorous process even though they knew there was someone who’d be applying within the district. Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve felt the support.

Q: What do you see as the strengths of the district in this moment?

A: I think the value of teamwork and collaboration in our district is incredibly different than in most places. There are so many opportunities—by design—for our staff to work across departments and areas. This difficult time with COVID-19 has brought out the best in many ways and required different ways of thinking and problem solving that will be a part of our future work.

Q: What are the biggest challenges facing the district?

A: The biggest challenges we’ll have are some critical budget decisions and the issue of stability in a post-COVID environment, and thinking about how to bring school back. School is going to be different in a positive way, and part of our good work will be to re-imagine how classroom life is different. On a positive note I think we have a lot of lessons learned that will help us. I imagine that into the fall, once we get school re-opened, we will quickly think about a revision to our strategic plan, and spend the year studying data.

Q: You and current superintendent Chris Steinhauser have worked closely. What’s the biggest difference between your leadership styles?

A: We have very similar core values but very different leadership styles. My interaction with staff comes at people differently. I’m often described as that “listener/thinker” type who’s going to formulate on what I might say. I can be quick to act when necessary but I also lean towards a lot of collaboration and shared space for people to work issues out, the people who report to me. Chris has a huge command of what goes on in this district because of the length of his tenure and also because of his style. I’ll be hands on, but perhaps that will look a little different.

Q: Special education students in the district have unique challenges during this shutdown. What avenues is the district exploring to help them?

A: Fortunately we have a great relationship with our special education parents and our community special education advisory committee. We have great leadership that’s working right now on solutions to try and find common ground.

Q: How many of the LBUSD’s more than 70,000 students have been able to access coursework online now that campuses are closed?

A: We don’t have that data at this time but our IT department is working on this—how to extract that information.

(From LBUSD Public Information Officer Chris Eftychiou: We had more than 125,000 page views on the site within the first few days. We’ll have data soon on how many individual students have logged on).

Q: The district has made a habit of hiring superintendents from within its own ranks. Do you feel that’s a positive and if so, why?

A: One of the philosophies around our district is the development of people from within. It’s a “grow your own” pipeline. We think about our teachers, even our veteran teachers, growing their talent. We want to build people’s capacity. That’s an important thing for everyone, not just for someone who rises up the ranks to become a superintendent. That philosophy speaks to the investment that people feel in our district. If you live here, work here, raise a child here, there is a commitment to a “life investment” in Long Beach. That investment is part of our culture. It speaks to why we don’t have a churn of superintendents. It contributes greatly to our stability.

Q: What was your reaction to the news that you’d gotten the job?

A: I feel incredibly humbled by this opportunity and it was certainly good news in this time of real despair; it feels like a great moment. I also feel really proud to be the first woman to lead as superintendent. In particular, I think of all the little girls. About half of our students are girls, and to represent a female leader to them means a lot to me.

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