Petra Baker, Educating Medically Fragile Students

The 10th of 13 children, Petra Baker fell into the role of teacher when she was a young girl giving lessons to her siblings and other local children on her front porch in St. Louis. The tallest of the bunch, she became known as “the big little sister.” In their home, the heart of the community, her mother Barbara L. Hinson always had food on the table for her own family and kids from the neighborhood.

“My mother left a legacy of love, family, faith and education,” Petra says, and her mother lived to see most of her children and grandchildren receive college degrees. “She is still my angel from heaven.”

She earned a B.S. in elementary education from Alcorn State University, a historically Black college and university (HBCU) in Lorman, Missouri, and an M.S. in educational administration and an education specialist degree in administration from the University of Missouri–St. Louis. She is currently enrolled in a doctoral program that addresses the needs of students with multiple disabilities, after which she will be prepared to teach others how to teach.

“This is just one idea in back of my mind,” she says. “There is a huge need to train new people in the field.”

“I didn’t intend to be a special education teacher,” Petra recalls. She entered Alcorn State with the idea of concentrating on early childhood education, but when that program was phased out, she took some courses in special education. While student teaching, she looked in on some of the special education classrooms, and remembers, “I saw children pretty much left on their own, with teachers eating lunch at their desks. It was so disrespectful. I could see how much the children craved attention.”

The negativity that surrounded the children challenged her. She says, “I kept hearing they couldn’t do this and they couldn’t do that, and I thought, ‘Why not?’ There was an immediate connection between me and the kids.”

She launched her career at The New Horizons Center, with students from birth to age 7. Her initiation came, Petra recalls, when “an adorable 5-year-old girl bit me so hard I needed stitches. I loved that little girl.” Petra was supposed to stay for eight months, but she stayed for six years.

She has now spent more than 26 years at Gateway Michael Elementary School for medically fragile students with multiple disabilities, first as a teacher, then as assistant principal and finally as principal. Dealing with the children’s physical fragility, and sometimes with death, has never gotten easier for her. “We recently lost a little girl very suddenly,” she says, “I needed the crisis team as much as anybody else. We principals pretend to be superwomen and we’re not.”

“I never wanted to be a principal,” says Petra, a member of the Administrators Association of the St. Louis Public Schools, AFSA Local 44. “I was my teacher’s union representative and I’d meet with my two principals at least twice a month, always trying to avoid conflict. I’d say, ‘It’s a misunderstanding,’ I was just a natural mediator. I know how to agree to disagree.”

Observing that quality in Petra, one of her principals encouraged her to apply for a leadership position. She heartily resisted, putting herself “in the hands of God.”

After all these years, she says, “This was my God-given purpose. I did it because I got so much joy out of my students, my parents and my community. I see people who make much more money, but they do it without joy.”

As a principal, she has been recognized by the Leadership Academy in Character Education (LACE), Phi Delta Kappa, St. Louis American Salute to Excellence, UMSL Outstanding Alumni, Missouri Foundation for Health's Healthy Schools Healthy Communities  and many more. Gateway Michael Elementary School has been widely recognized and received various national awards, including Do The Right Thing, Hearts for Hunger and America’s Healthiest Schools.

As an outstanding volunteer, Petra Baker has served on numerous boards, the most notable for her being the University of Missouri–St. Louis African American Alumni Association, which helps her to address the dire need to retain and recruit educators, particularly those of color.

“As a school leader, I see how much COVID has aggravated the whole recruitment and retention situation. It was bad before, but now it is radically decreasing, partly because of negative hearsay, partly lack of supervisor, parent and community support. I just have to keep reaching out to the community to address this problem. It’s not my problem; it’s everyone’s problem."

As for educators of color, she says, “I’ve always felt that children of color need to see teachers who look like them and know their experiences. Our experiences are so different.” 

Through her years at Gateway Michael, she has encouraged her own paraprofessionals to go to college and become certified. This, too, has been harder to accomplish since COVID.

"Now, I have to be more creative in my approach. My mother always used to say, ‘You could make a rock talk.’ I have to reel people back into the profession.”

Today, Petra Baker and one of her sisters live together to look after a disabled sister. Petra stays in as close touch as possible with her son Brandon Baker, a police officer in St. Louis, her daughter Charael Baker, an insurance professional in Orlando, Florida, her godson Dajon Beasley, whom she helped raise, and her grandchildren Braylen and Brionne. Since the lockdown in March 2020, she has held large family dinners where, now, everyone is comfortable enough to sit down together. Petra tries, but there is no way she can get through a whole meal without an interruption. “All my parents and staff have my phone number,” she laughs, “so there’s really no such thing as time off.”