St. Louis American: Tell us about your current position in education, its responsibilities and challenges and how you are able to make a difference.
Petra Baker: As the administrator at Gateway Michael School, I speak with every student by name daily. My students feel safe, confident and embrace their differences. I give hugs, feed students, change diapers, and do whatever else needs to be done. All of my parents have my cell phone number in case the bus is late. I make myself available if they have questions or they need resources, etc. Attendance is negatively impacted because many students are medically fragile and are often hospitalized. Over the years we have suffered the loss of many children who have died from illness.
St. Louis American: Although educators often work alone, education is a team sport. Tell us about your current team, how you fit into it, and who helps to support your work.
Petra Baker: Teachers, paraprofessionals, therapists, nurses, and families are both magnificent and supportive. We are a family. Community partners are vital in our effort to promote outreach.
St. Louis American: Tell us about any previous positions you have held, in education or any other field, that contributed to your development as an educator and helped prepare you for your current role.
Petra Baker: Growing up, I was always the babysitter in my family and at church. I cannot remember a time when I was not in the presence of children.
In high school, I volunteered at the Visitation Child Development center Monday through Friday for two years, and they eventually paid me $15 a week. This experience allowed me to enjoy and appreciate every aspect of my service. I was treated like an employee by the children, parents, and staff. This fueled my passion to become a teacher.
Upon graduation from college, my career as an early childhood special education teacher began. My purpose in life evolved. When the opportunity to become a principal presented itself, the Lord provided all educational expenses.
St. Louis American: Tell us about any mentors crucial to your development as an educator.
Petra Baker: I met my first mentors at a center for developmentally delayed children from birth to age seven. Virginia DiPlacido was a Special Education coordinator who was soft-spoken, yet she was a powerhouse in her knowledge of special education policies. Bobetta Beasley was the cook. She helped me to understand my gift. I have always been able to communicate with children regardless if a word was not spoken.
Between these two ladies, I learned the power of advocacy and how to meet the needs of a child before you teach them. Not everybody in education shares my passion, and connections are not always made in class but sometimes when addressing a child’s most intimate needs.
At UMSL Lynn Beckwith and John Ingram instilled in me the importance of "inspecting what you expect" and including all stakeholders when making decisions about school and/or policies.
St. Louis American: Tell us about your own educational journey as a student.
Petra Baker: I attended Saint Louis Public Schools from Kindergarten through 8th grade. At an early age, I knew I would be a teacher. I taught my sisters, nieces, nephews, and children in my community on the steps of my front porch. My third-grade teacher, Helen Lilly at Cote Brilliant Elementary School, provided the material for Baker Elementary School. My love for reading compelled me to read my older brothers’ and sisters’ books.
I graduated from Cardinal Ritter College Prep High School. I hold the following degrees: a Bachelor of Science Degree in Elementary Education from Alcorn State University in Lorman, Mississippi; and a Masters in Educational Administration and an Education Specialist Degree in Administration from the University of Missouri – St. Louis.
Early in my career as a student teacher in Mississippi, I experienced a classroom of students with multiple disabilities. They arrived earlier and left later than other students. Everyone knew my strong love for children and my determination to find out where these students came from. As a result of my inquisitiveness, I was only told what they could not do, while the insensitive teachers sat at their desks eating in front of them. I would purposely stop by the classroom whenever I had a break. I memorized all of their names and interacted with them individually.
One child in particular could not control his drooling. I teased him saying he would not get a girlfriend if he did not wipe his face. Using hand over hand, we made a game of wiping his face, while the staff laughed, saying I was wasting my time. By the time the child completed student teaching, he could wipe his face on his own. His success surprised the staff and his parents. His perseverance inspired me to make a difference and instilled in me that all progress should be celebrated.
St. Louis American: Tell us about your future goals in education.
Petra Baker: My future goals in education are to continue to be a lifelong learner, never lose my passion for people, always see the good in everyone, and continue to be a pillar in education.
St. Louis American: Tell us about any relevant personal information you would like to share with the community – your family, friends, home church, passions.
Petra Baker: I am one of 13 children. My mother, Barbara L. Hinson, instilled a legacy of faith, family, and the pursuit of education. My mother made many sacrifices to provide us with experiences that exposed us to educational opportunities, different cultures and social events. Before her death in 1993, she lived to see most of her children and many grandchildren receive college degrees.
I have a son, Brandon Baker, whom I am very proud of and who works with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. I also have a daughter, Charael Baker, who lives in Florida. I have two grandchildren, Braylen and Brionne. I am a member of City Hope Bible Church.
St. Louis American: Feel free to add anything else you would like to share with the community about education or yourself.
Petra Baker: I am honored and grateful for this award that has been bestowed upon me.