SOUTH SALT LAKE — Martin Bates, superintendent of Granite School District, has spent much of his education career working to bring equity to the school system, whether it was creating programs for non-English speaking kids or fostering an atmosphere of inclusiveness. His work is especially relevant in a district that has a large population of refugees and minorities.
“The whole equity thing is close to my heart,” he says.
It should be.
Bates is the son of a refugee and a first-generation American himself. His mother immigrated to the U.S. after fleeing Germany twice, one step ahead of the Nazis and, later, one step ahead of the Berlin Wall.
“I don’t want anyone to come to school or to work and feel like a second-class citizen,” Bates like to tell administrators and teachers. “I don’t want them to worry about discrimination or pressure or something like that on the basis of some status they have. Give everyone their best shot at an education.”
Bates, who was selected from among 41 state superintendents as the 2016-17 Utah Superintendent of the Year, is one of the few in K-12 public education to own a law degree, which has made him a valuable resource. Long before he became superintendent six years ago, he was sought out by education officials from around the state to deal with high-profile issues — the gay club controversy, guns in the school, gender equity, harassment, and equity for non-English-speaking kids….
“His willingness to fight for things, to make things good for kids, is awesome,” says McKell Withers, who recently stepped down as superintendent of the Salt Lake City School District. “… People turn to him for expertise in that (legal) arena. With that background, he’s been a little braver than some others that might be reluctant to take something on.”
Bates has a personal stake in ensuring equity and education because he benefitted from both. His mother, Eva, fled the invading Russian army during World War II when she was a little girl. Eva and her mother crossed Poland pushing a stroller filled with their belongings. They settled in East Germany then later fled to West Germany just three weeks before the Berlin Wall was constructed. They filled a picnic basket full of photographs and documents so it would look like they were going on a picnic, climbed on a train to Berlin and disembarked at an American-controlled stop, where they asked for asylum. They were airlifted to West Germany.
“Twice my mother and grandmother walked away from everything,” says Bates.
In West Germany, Eva met an LDS Church missionary, who arranged her emigration to the U.S. in 1962. Eva settled in Salt Lake City and married the missionary, Doug Bates. Martin was born a couple of years later. The family spoke German at home, and Martin learned English from his peers. “We didn’t have a TV, but I always knew when a war movie had been on,” says Bates. “The kids played war games at recess and I was the German.”
His parents were both educated and involved in his schooling, which he considers essential to his formative years.
“We’ve got a lot of refugees in our community,” says Martin, a 49-year-old father of eight children. “I’m in the same position that many of the students are — their parents fled to this country and had children here. Those kids are first-generation Americans like I was. With an education, every door is open. You can do and be anything. It’s what drives me. There’s a tender spot for refugees and for all children, whether they have the means or were born to a family with few means, or if they don’t speak English. That’s what the community and neighborhoods are about, to ensure children have a future and make the future they want.”
Bates aspired to be a teacher after graduating from Highland High School, but he put his education on hold while he served God and country. He spent two years on an LDS Church mission in his ancestral home of Germany. After his return in 1988, he signed up for BYU and the National Guard. Deployed overseas for six months with his Guard unit, he finished his degree via correspondence, leaving his wife, Donna, to take the graduation walk for both of them in the spring of 1991.
He began his career as a math teacher at Independence High, but his goal was to move into administration because, as he says, “I thought it was an opportunity to make a difference.” His father, a lawyer for the State Board of Education, urged him to consider law school, noting that administrators spend much of their time dealing with legal issues. Bates enrolled in a combined five-year program at BYU — a Ph.D. in educational leadership and a law degree with an emphasis in educational law. Meanwhile, he taught math for two years and then became a junior high school assistant principal.
After completing both his Guard duty and his Ph.D./J.D. degree in 1996, he was hired by the Granite district to create policy and organize programs that would address equity in the schools, especially as they relate to non-English speaking students.
“At the time the district was struggling,” he says. “The demographics began changing in the mid-’90s. All over the country there was a lot of concern about how to serve non-English speakers.”
During the next few years, the district continued to pile on additional job titles for Bates — writing policy, HR, internal investigations, supervising various departments. He was finally named assistant superintendent, charged with doing pretty much all of the above. Because of Bates’ legal background, he wound up as the point man on several high-visibility issues.
When East High tried to stop a gay club, Bates was called in to referee the matter. He created a policy, which became the framework for the state law, stating that if a school allowed non-curriculum clubs, then it was required to allow students to form whatever club they wanted, as long as they are civil and law-abiding. This included gay clubs.
Then there was the controversy over teachers bringing guns to the school. Bates realized that teachers with concealed-weapon permits could not be denied the right to bring a gun to the school, nor could they be ordered to keep that gun on their person at all times. He came up with a clever solution to prevent guns from lying about on school grounds.
“We can’t regulate guns, but we can regulate property,” says Bates. “So we said if you choose to bring a gun, that’s your choice, but you may not use our property to secure it, whether it’s a desk or a closet. The only place they could keep it was on their person; we just couldn’t say it.”
In the early ’90s, the nation began to see a rise in sexual harassment cases. Bates helped Granite become one of the first school districts in the state to create sexual harassment policies, which included training and rigorous investigational tools. “We worked hard to get that out of the workplace and out of the school experience,” he says.
Bates also has led efforts to address issues that affect minorities and refugees in school, including the challenges of non-English speaking students and providing additional support.
“Some of the parents are so busy just trying to put food on the table that they are not involved in their children’s education,” says Bates. “We want our teachers and counselors to reach out to them and help them receive that kind of attention. For those of us who were born here, we know how the system works, but for those who are new to the country, they need help navigating the system and seeing how the system works.”
Bates pauses a moment before concluding: “I had not planned this career. I never sat down and thought this is what I will do. But I feel very blessed to be in this position and have the opportunity to shape, influence and help kids, No. 1, and teachers, No. 2.”