New Peninsula School District chief focused on students’ reentry, healing
Krestin Bahr, Peninsula School District’s new superintendent, takes the helm at a pivotal — and uncertain — time for K-12 schools around the state and across the nation.
After two school years’ worth of seismic disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic, Peninsula, like other districts in Washington state, is planning a return this fall to full-time, in-person learning for all students who want it.
“It will be unlike last year,” Bahr, former superintendent for Eatonville School District, said an interview earlier this summer. “I think last year we were not prepared for the magnitude of changes. This year, we know we can do this. We know we can meet the needs of students and we have the obligation to re-engage all of our communities, open our schools both literally and figuratively.”
But with classes set to start on Sept. 7, a persistent surge in COVID-19 cases has led to a renewed state requirement for masks in schools as well as mandatory staff vaccines. Signs are, the battle to reopen schools and keep them open will drag on.
Public schools across America also have been grappling with a mandate to dig deeper on promoting equity since the nation’s reckoning on race was sparked by George Floyd’s death in 2020. Bahr has pledged her support for addressing inequity in schools and has said it is one of her priorities.
“As an educator, my life’s work has been about advancing diversity, equity and inclusion for all students,” Bahr said. “I value this work and look forward to learning where the areas of growth are for these concepts in the district.”
But in Peninsula School District, like elsewhere, there’s been blowback from some conservative activists who say students will be “indoctrinated” and shamed by curricula and class discussions on Black history. And on the flip side, there are community members who say the district isn’t doing enough to support complete and accurate teaching about the realities of racism.
Asked how she’ll help the district respond in the face of this divide, Bahr said, “Successfully navigating tensions on divisive issues about education in our community will require that I do the work set out in my 100-day plan: to listen, learn and partner with staff, students, families and community members. Building trust and strengthening engagement is a top priority as I begin my superintendency.”
Bahr’s first official day on the job was July 1. She is “so excited” for the new school year and the renewed opportunities it brings for students and families.
“I pinch myself really every day that I get to come to work and work with really amazing staff. So friendly, so focused on children,” she said. “This year will be very, very interesting.”
Students are her “North Star”
Bahr was one of 29 applicants and among five semifinalists for the superintendent’s position. The two finalists were Bahr and Tim Winter, a former Peninsula High School principal and the current superintendent of South Kitsap School District.
The school board in March named Bahr as its choice to replace Art Jarvis, who had served as interim superintendent since 2018. Her annual salary is $260,000 plus benefits, a significant increase over her most recent contract with Eatonville for $186,736 plus benefits.
“We ultimately chose the candidate with a proven track record of transformative and inspiring leadership, leading to greater outcomes for students and growth opportunities for staff – and (sic) take the district to the next level,” said school board President David Olson, in an announcement when she was hired.
Bahr began her career in education in 1986 as a middle school biology teacher with the Tacoma School District. She held various leadership positions in that district, including director of secondary education for the middle schools, before becoming superintendent of Eatonville School district in 2013.
Bahr’s husband Byron Bahr is superintendent of Rainier School District. They have three grown children and four grandchildren. Bahr lives in Eatonville, but is planning to move within Peninsula School District boundaries per her contract, as soon as she secures a place to live, according to district spokeswoman Aimee Gordon.
In a taped interview with the school board in March, Bahr said doing what’s best for kids is her “North Star.” Her decisions will be driven by that mantra, she said. “If it doesn’t impact students, we have to ask ourselves some really hard questions.”
Bahr said her lengthy experience in a large urban school district (Tacoma, with nearly 30,000 students in the most recent count) plus leading a small rural district (Eatonville, with nearly 2,000) has prepared her well to serve as superintendent of Peninsula School District, with a projected enrollment of around 9,000 students and a general fund budget this year of $149 million.
Describing her leadership style, Bahr said, “I’m not a person that comes and tips everything upside down, does a lot of change and leaves, right? I’m not a disrupter. I’m an innovator and a builder … with a knack for how we can create new and excellent and better opportunities for children.”
Following her 100-day plan of outreach to stakeholders, Bahr will develop recommendations to the board for updates to the district’s strategic plan. She’ll present her findings, observations and next steps in the winter of 2022.
Re-engaging students, families
With the coronavirus far from extinguished amid the delta variant’s rampage, COVID-19 precautions (including masks for all and staff vaccines) will remain in place in Peninsula School District. So, the pursuit of normalcy remains fraught.
Bahr has said her focus will be on students’ well-being as they return to classrooms and on helping them heal from the pandemic’s toll. She notes the impact of COVID-19 on young people’s mental health, the stress of isolation, the lost time they won’t get back. For example, she said, this year’s high school freshmen haven’t had full-time, in-class instruction since they were in seventh grade.
“Many of the students I’ve spoken with, had an opportunity to speak with — not just here but across the nation — have this sense of grief, right?” she said. “Those are things that we have to address and re-engage children. We’re going to have five days a week, we’re going to have students in classes. We’re going to be doing all of those things. They might look a little different, but we’re going to have assemblies, we’re going to have sports, clubs, activities and get back to as normal as we can.”
Families and community members, too, are hungry for renewed connections to schools that weren’t previously possible during the pandemic, Bahr said. “I think there’s a real eagerness for reengagement, a sense of belonging and coming together as a community at a time that is really unprecedented in our lives.”
Taking on district’s hot topics
After 35 years in public education, Bahr is no stranger to controversy over school policies.
The requirement for masks is a hot topic in Peninsula School District, as in districts across the nation.
At the Aug. 26 school board meeting, parent Kyle Drevniak spoke against requiring masks for children, especially outside. (The district won’t require masks at recess.)
“In my opinion, they shouldn’t be wearing masks at all,” Drevniak said. “It’s harder to breathe, to wear glasses and to make friends. These kids have been through enough.”
Bahr early in her tenure anticipated tension over masks. She recommended to the school board that they bring in an attorney to address the issue and answer questions.
Charles Leitch, a member of the Washington Council of School Attorneys who specializes in advising districts on risk management, on July 22 fielded more than an hour’s worth of questions from the board and the public.
Bottom line, Leitch said, the district would be exposing itself to litigation were a student or staff member to become seriously ill or die of COVID-19 in absence of a mask mandate by PSD. The concept of “local control” over COVID-prevention precautions in reality has no teeth, Leitch said.
Bahr said bringing in the attorney was her way of allowing for open discourse.
“That’s a style, I believe, that I bring forward. I am always the person that is going to try to listen and understand all sides. And at the end of the day, as a superintendent, I need to make decisions that prioritize safety, health and what’s best for children.”
The mask issue became a moot point, at least from the district’s perspective, on July 28, when Gov. Jay Inslee said students and staff would be required to mask up regardless of vaccination status because of an increase in cases and the threat of the delta variant.
Debate over CRT has gotten legs
Peninsula, like districts across the nation, has gotten mired in the Critical Race Theory debate, another thorny topic that has come up at recent board meetings.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a graduate-level academic framework for analyzing how lingering effects of discriminatory laws and public policies perpetuate racial inequity.
The term “CRT” has become a lightning rod for criticism, mainly among conservatives, that K-12 schools districts are teaching Black history in a way that is divisive, and that breeds shame and blame. It’s become, incorrectly most educators say, a catch phrase for all teaching about diversity, equity and inclusion.
Peninsula’s school board on July 22 passed a resolution stating that recent legislation wouldn’t result in the addition of CRT to the curriculum. The resolution references Senate Bill 5044, which calls for updating how school staff receive training about diversity, equity and inclusion. The new law does not mention or require additional instruction for students, the resolution states, and, “The District will continue to teach a complete and accurate history that is inclusive and without bias.”
The resolution appeared an attempt by the board to nip controversy in the bud, but it’s pretty much piled fuel on the debate. In public comments at meetings since the resolution passed, the board has taken heat for moving toward what some called censorship, given the potential chilling effect of saying CRT is not taught in Peninsula schools.
Joy Stanford, parent of a PSD graduate, on Aug. 26 read from a letter to the board signed by more than 600 community members. The letter condemns, “a vague resolution that can be used to challenge any culturally responsive teaching that some deem dangerous.”
A member of the district’s Equity Diversity and Inclusion Committee, Stanford blasted the board for neglecting to consult with the committee before passing the resolution. Reading from the letter, she continued, “We ask you to keep the educational needs of all students foremost and not cave to the political pressures being stoked by a right-wing propaganda machine.”
Parent Neil Floyd defended the resolution, saying, “I don’t understand what the big problem is because I heard the resolution when you read it and it seems to indicate everyone is free to keep teaching what they’ve been teaching up to now.”
Floyd said he supports teaching about the history of racism. “Where I draw the line though is that DEI and Critical Race Theory seeks to take that into the now and say, because of all of this, we suffer from systemic racism. … “We may have racist problems, but we are not a racist nation.
“If white people are privileged, then what you just told the person of color sitting right next to them is that they’re inferior,” Floyd said. “How does that not turn us against each other? How does it not make us less cohesive as a nation? It seems to me it’s doing the exact opposite of what they want to do.”
Thelma Brown, a retired principal of a high school who is Black, said the perception that white people are being shamed in the teaching of Black history is inaccurate.
“There is no one here tonight that is held responsible for the inappropriate behavior of their ancestors years ago, let alone 400 years ago,” Brown said. “What we are held accountable for are the things we are doing now to make things better for everyone.”
Gig Harbor is divided politically and racially, Brown said. “I say it, and I have experienced it. We must bridge these divides. We must move forward together. We must listen to the hard realities together. We must listen to the difficult truths together.”
Bahr’s plan to advance diversity, equity
Bahr said she’d address the divide over CRT by reaching out to constituents on all sides of the debate. And she discussed specific steps she’d take to promote equity within the district.
“I will use my 100-day entry plan to seek out, meet with and listen to underrepresented people in the Gig Harbor and Key Peninsula communities,” Bahr said. “I want to hear about their personal experiences in our schools — what has been good and what could be better.”
She said what she learns will inform her recommendations for staff development about issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. She also discussed recruiting a more diverse staff in the district where nearly 90% (89.8%) of teachers are white, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“In my past, I have been successful at recruiting and retaining diverse staff in teaching and other positions,” Bahr said. “I will look at our hiring practices to ensure we are hiring the best applicants for work in our district and also the best underrepresented applicants. We know our staff are seen as role models for our students, so it’s critical that our staff reflect the diversity of our community.”
She’ll also key in on “the student voice” and plans a student advisory group “to listen to students at all levels and demographics about what it’s like to be a student in the Peninsula School District.”