Pioneer Principal nurtures collaboration, risk-taking, and sustainability
Photo: Pioneer Elementary Principal, Kelli Bainbridge (right), with Assistant Principal, Kirsten Bloomfield (left)
PARKER- As Kelli Bainbridge walks through the hallways and classrooms of Pioneer Elementary School she is greeted by a lot of bright smiles and tons of hugs by students.
Now in her fourth year as Principal of the Parker-based school, this outpouring of gratitude by students is indicative of the culture she has nurtured—a safe, welcoming space in which kids feel engaged, are encouraged to take risks and ask questions, and also reminded regularly to be thoughtful of the people and environment around them.
Bainbridge has worked to make sure every student and every teacher in the school feels supported and engaged.
One way Bainbridge has done this is by encouraging collaboration and personalization, through a new classroom model. At Pioneer Elementary, the partition is removed between two classrooms, and in its place are mini lab tables. The adjoining classes may be the same grade level or different grade levels, and some students may move back and forth in between teachers depending on the level and type of content that is right for them. More advanced students can engage in learning that challenges them where they are at, and students who need more help with a lesson can receive more individualized attention, as well.
Bainbridge also emphasizes how important it is to her to make sure she is supporting the passion of her teachers.
“One thing I really like to do is find out where the passions of my people are and then just help them do what they want to do,” Bainbridge said. “Once I figure this out I then figure out ways to pull that into a school setting.”
Q&A with Kelli Bainbridge
What do you enjoy most about your job?
The hugs. Number one, it’s about the kids. I would not do this job if there was not children in this building everyday. The kids are amazing, I love being with them. Going into the classroom and talking with them, they’re just brilliant.
Number two is the teachers. They’re my kids, as they say. I’m an educator and I don’t have students anymore, but I do because my students are all my teachers. I love the relationships I have with them, pushing their thinking, helping them learn new things, and helping them be successful.
Who inspires you?
I’m very inspired by my mom. My mom’s an educator, she was a classroom teacher, she was a principal, she worked at Pepperdine University. She’s been a big inspiration to me over the years.
What was your first job?
I was a summer camp counselor.
If you had the opportunity to pursue another career, what would you choose?
Something in theatre, but I’m not really a front-of-house kind of person so it would probably be a costumer, or set designer, something along those lines.
What’s an interest or hobby you have that not a lot of people might know about you?
I ride motorcycles. I have a BMW motorcycle—a BMW 1200 to be exact! My husband and I ride around Colorado on the weekends but whenever we have a big break we’ll take our motorcycles and ride around a different area. We’ve been to the Ozarks, we took them down to Texas one time and rode for a week in the hill country, we’ve done California several times driving up and down the coast.
What’s your favorite item on the school lunch menu?
First of all—mac ‘n cheese—come on. You can’t go wrong with mac ‘n cheese. Also, they make this bread covered with pesto sauce and cheese, they don’t make it very often, but it’s really good! The kids don’t get it and I’m like ‘you should try this!’
Do you have any pets?
I have a cat. She’s really old, like 15 years old. Her name is Blender.
What was your first car?
A VW Rabbit. White. It was the best car ever.
What advice would you give a college graduate who is entering the field of teaching?
My brother got his teaching credentials. We had a lot of discussions about doing what’s right for kids. Having a classroom that was really open and welcoming for kids so even if they are struggling they have a safe place to learn. Really listen to the kids and make sure you create an environment where they feel safe to take risks, ask questions, and to learn, because if you haven’t created that space for kids then they’re never going to learn.
Just outside the school is a community garden, which the students help care for. This was built as part of the school’s new emphasis on sustainability. Pioneer teacher Kimberly Simpson approached Bainbridge three years ago with the idea and passion to grow a sustainability program for Pioneer.
Bainbridge was able to work out a schedule where Simpson had some additional time, so she could really explore the idea of sustainability and generate a curriculum. The sustainability program has now become one of the school’s signature programs.
“Two years ago we started an emphasis on energy and recycling, the pieces that all schools get into. We’ve been building on our efforts every year. In the second year we put in the garden. Last year we got the Green Flag from Eco-Schools USA.”
Next to the garden is a new chicken coop. Eggs from the chickens are sold to families. The breeds of chickens were specially chosen to be child-friendly so that they can be used as a learning tool, as well as a tool for the school’s population of students with emotional disabilities.
“For a lot of our kids with emotional regulation issues, animals can really help de-escalate them pretty quickly and can be really highly motivating.”
Once again, the inspiration for the chickens came from one teacher’s interest and passion. This is Colleen Kruzel, whom Bainbridge calls her “Chicken Czar.”
“She contacted the health department, she contacted the district, and she created notebooks. We also have Chicken Tenders-- students who tend to the chickens-- so she has this whole cadre of kids who applied to be a Chicken Tender. They show up early every day, they clean out the chicken coop, they feed the chickens, and make sure they have water.”
Bainbridge is a fifth generation educator. She studied Sports Medicine at Pepperdine University, but decided after graduation that’s she’d rather go into teaching like the four generations had before her.
“In my office is the school bell that my Great-Great Grandfather used at a prairie school in Kansas,” Bainbridge proudly said.
Upon getting her teaching credential, Bainbridge began teaching kindergarten and first grade in California, before moving to Colorado and teaching for Aurora Public Schools. She then took time off from teaching to be home with her family and to care for her daughter, Jenna, who had experienced a spinal cord injury as the result of a fall that left her paralyzed.
“I really needed to be there to get her to physical therapy and all of that kind of stuff.”
Thanks to physical therapy, Jenna--a Castle View graduate-- is able to walk. She’s also now an accomplished actress and singer.
Once Jenna was in school, Bainbridge started teaching again, moving to Douglas County at Acres Green Elementary, where she taught kindergarten, second grade, and third grade.
She then moved to Rock Ridge Elementary School in Castle Rock, where she worked for eight years as the Building Resource Teacher, then Assistant Principal, and also brought in and coordinated the school’s IB program, before moving over to Pioneer four years ago.
Looking forward, Bainbridge hopes to take the risk-taking behavior that she’s tried to instill in her teachers and bring that into the entire school.
“I’d like to be able to allow every teacher with a passion to bring that passion back to the staff and help teach others and move us forward. I also want to increase that risk-taking behavior in our kids,” Bainbridge said. “Our kids can be afraid of failure. They don’t always know what they’re capable of. A lot of times they hold back because they’re scared to do things. So I’d like to take what we’re doing with teachers and bring it in with our kids, so they’re out there doing amazing things that I know they’re capable of.”
She also sees an opportunity to expand Pioneer’s sustainability program to influence the community.
“We want to look at sustainability of the habitats in our environment. We’ve talked theoretically about bringing an emphasis on a bee-friendly neighborhood, so studying bees and what are the forces behind the decline in the number of bees, and then also working with the community to decrease the number of pesticides that we’re using. That’s one possible pathway,” Bainbridge said. “Another pathway is building a butterfly garden here because we are located on the migration path for Monarchs, and a lot of the milkweed that they need to continue on their journey is not here anymore.”
“My ultimate goal is that I have kids who are working collaboratively to solve real world problems, so presenting those opportunities to give kids those hands-on experiences with solving real-world problems. That’s the challenge for an elementary school, is figuring out how you bring the real world into the school."