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David Reese, a 'break up fights, fly in from the ceiling' principal, is set to retire

David Reese on the BHS football field

David Reese is retiring after 35 years in education, including 20 years at storied Bakersfield High School. On his retirement bucket list was renovating the campus football stadium (pictured). (Photo courtesy The Bakersfield Californian)

Alumni Engagement Specialist

David Reese was not always a Driller.

As a standout student-athlete at Foothill High School in the 1970s, he hated Bakersfield High School. He hated that it seemed to be good at everything.

Then he became its assistant principal, and a few years later its principal, and the motto proved true.

“’Once a Driller, Always a Driller’ sounds trite, but it’s true,” Reese said.

And so it is as BHS’ principal for 20 years that Reese will best be remembered as he retires after 35 years in education. He will be remembered for artfully navigating through increasing pressures on schools and teachers, for giving educators the freedom to innovate, for lifting up struggling students, and for being inordinately engaged with his campus, said BHS civics teacher Jeremy Adams.

“Mr. Reese is not a ‘stay-in-the office’ kind of principal,” Adams said. “Mr. Reese is an ‘I’m going to be in the school play, I’m going to be in the rallies, I’m going to break up fights, I’m going to fly in from the ceiling during the Earl Warren Cup, I’m going to respond to an email at 9 p.m. if a teacher has an issue’ principal.”

Collage of David Reese photos

This surprise addition to this year’s BHS yearbook chronicles Reese’s unusually long tenure as the school’s principal.

Reese, who earned two degrees and two credentials from CSUB and was inducted into the Alumni Hall of Fame in 2017, is retiring so he can enjoy the next phase of his life while in good health.

The 61-year-old has knee replacement surgery and a list of “honey dos” to tackle, eight grandchildren around the country to visit and a deal to fulfill with the Kern High School District to recruit teachers. Kern County, like the rest of California, has a terrible teacher shortage.

Reese has a knack for hiring great teachers, and the team he built at Bakersfield High School will be one of his greatest legacies, said Stan Greene, KHSD director of school support services and a longtime friend and colleague of Reese’s.

Reese has hired at least 95 percent of the campus’ current teachers, something that’s unusual for a school, and it has resulted in a “premier” staff that touches every student there, he said.

“He’s been able to hire energetic, innovative, compassionate teachers that excel on many levels, from AP down through college prep down through general level, special ed,” Greene said. “He has been able to hire people that everybody would really want their kid to go to school (with).”


Reese and his family moved to Bakersfield from Kansas when he was a boy. At Foothill he was an A-, B+ student with an odd mix of talent, being first chair in the honors orchestra playing French horn and an All-Area basketball player playing center and forward.

1975-76 Foothill High basketball team


Reese, #33 and third from the left in the back row, was on the 1975-76 Valley Champion Foothill Trojans basketball team that finished the season with an unrivaled 16-0 record. The team went on to win the state championship game against No. 1 ranked Cupertino and its star player, Kurt Rambis, the future Los Angeles Laker. Reese faced off against Rambis twice during college, too.

At 6-foot-5 Reese wasn’t quite Division I height. Humboldt State recruited him to play basketball and he did so for four years, though didn’t graduate. He got married, had a baby and returned to Bakersfield to work for his dad.

Reese had a deep love of history and in 1984 graduated from CSUB with a history degree and teaching credential. He returned to his alma mater, Foothill, to teach social studies and coach basketball.

“I think it goes back to my mom just preaching how important education was,” Reese said of his career choices. “I felt I could make a difference, influence kids. And it came pretty naturally.”

Teaching high school is all about building relationships with kids, Reese said, and it’s not something you can fake. He can tell within 15 minutes whether someone has the talent. He felt confident from day one that he had it.

“’I have very few rules except you listen while I’m talking, and I’ll listen while you’re talking,’” Reese would tell his students at the outset. “We had this mutual respect and that’s basically it.”

He incorporated relationship-building into teaching social studies, too. One of his favorite lessons was asking his 16-year-old students to explore what was going on in the world socially, in movies and in music and to compare it to what was going on when their parents and grandparents were that age.

Reese would have the students interview their parents and grandparents about those eras, giving everybody a perspective of how history changes over time.

“I got a lot of positive comments about that because 16-year-olds don’t like talking to their parents and the parents can’t understand their 16-year-olds,” Reese said with a smile. “And so I did that for 10 years of teaching.”

A counselor at Foothill encouraged Reese to share what he was doing in the classroom with more people by going into administration. Having also accomplished what he wanted to in coaching – he was the first to win a valley championship as both a coach and player – he became an assistant dean and acting dean at Foothill and then assistant principal at BHS.

Along the way he worked with a lot of kids who had discipline issues, something he approached much like a coach.

“If a team’s not functioning right, you have to kind of pin down exactly where the problem is,” he explained. “You can’t just yell at the kids … there’s something fundamentally incorrect and so you have to correct it.”

Ninety-nine percent of the time, Reese tells parents all the time, kids are going to be just fine.

Reese worked as director of instruction for the high school district from 1996 to 1999 and then became principal at Bakersfield High. He earned his master’s degree in educational administration from CSUB in 2011.


Reese speaking at college signing day event.

Reese recently spoke at a four-year college signing event that celebrates students embarking on higher education.

Reese took a look at BHS’ Advanced Placement honors program and saw mostly white, upper-socioeconomic kids in it. He knew there was AP potential in other kinds of kids, too, but was not interested in lowering any bars to get them in.

So instead he started the Advanced Via Individual Determination program at BHS and made Adams (another CSUB Alumni Hall of Fame inductee) its first teacher. AVID taught freshmen skills they’d need to qualify for AP classes their junior and senior years and eventually go on to college.

Adams called it Reese’s single greatest contribution to Bakersfield.

“He made it so that our higher classes and our best activities are not the domain of the elite, they belong to everybody no matter where you come from, no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done before you got to high school,” Adams said. “Your history is not your destiny at BHS. BHS can be a new opportunity for you . You can rewrite your own playbook here.”

Reese also is proud of preserving BHS’ wide range of electives. Every year he tells freshmen to find something to get 100 percent involved with, with 100 percent commitment, because research shows they’ll more likely want to come to school.

“Every kid needs to find their niche, just like I was an athlete who also played French horn,” Reese said. “Yes, academics are important. But so is woodshop, so is ceramics, so is photo, so are all those other electives.”

David Reese gives Merle Haggard an honorary high school diploma.

Ninety-nine percent of kids who get into trouble will ultimately be just fine, Reese has long told parents. Here’s one – Merle Haggard – to whom Reese gave an honorary high school diploma in 2015. (Photo courtesy The Bakersfield Californian)

Other schools have sacrificed electives in favor of classes more likely to boost state test scores. Reese has never strived to have the highest state test scores in KHSD, saying they aren’t what will get kids into college.

“I’ve never let state and national testing mandates drive my vision,” Reese said.

Also part of his vision has been Project Lead The Way, a hands-on STEM program offered to elementary, middle and high school students. For BHS senior Carson Parks, his years of learning such things as building robots, designing prototypes and learning how airplanes fly told him what he wants to do in life.

The Associated Student Body president will major in mechanical engineering at Cal State Long Beach next fall and possibly enter college as a sophomore because of all the AP tests he’s also been passing.

“All of these classes he tries to bring in are for the students, because he understands students need to have an edge after high school,” Parks said of Reese. “Because if a child goes through school just taking math, science and English, he’s not going to have a competitive edge against other high school students.”

For Senior Class President Tate Turner, Project Lead the Way and another, national-title winning program Reese championed, Virtual Enterprise, have pointed him in the direction of a career in local government. He’ll be studying political science at UC Davis and is grateful to have already picked his major.

“I found a career I want to do early so when I go to college, I’m not going to be changing my major all the time,” Turner said.

There are so many other smaller but important ways Reese has enriched campus life, Turner said. They include championing an archiving program, the production of inspiring “Driller Way” videos, and an on-campus shop where kids can rent formal wear for prom for just $5.

“He’s always changing with the times and making sure that each student has what they need,” he said.

Reese Cup

Reese flew in from the ceiling to open BHS' Earl Warren Cup competition in 2011. The Cup tests students' knowledge of U.S. civics but is also known for its theatrics. (Photo courtesy The Bakersfield Californian)


Reese has been checking items off a retirement bucket list. At the top was renovating Griffith Field, followed by hosting a major track meet there, having a successful last accreditation and creating a BHS Alumni Association.

A few things didn’t quite get done but are close at hand: fencing off the entire campus, modernizing Warren Hall and transitioning the Driller Football Hall of Fame into an all-school Hall of Fame.

“We’ve always had a strong football tradition but I’ve always, in the back of my mind, wanted to recognize, much like Cal State does, the all walks of life who have graduated from here.”

Reese is with Gifford’s son Cody

BHS paid tribute to one of its most famous alumni, NFL Hall of Famer Frank Gifford, in 2015. Here Reese is with Gifford’s son Cody.

The way Reese announced his retirement was pure him, Adams and Greene said. He announced it in an email just before Christmas break; Adams didn’t even notice it at first because he thought it was Reese’s typical end-of-term email.

“He could have done it the Monday of finals week so for five days people could parade into his office,” Greene said. “He didn’t want that. That would have taken away from school.”

Reese has always been an educator, and so the obvious last thing to ask him is for advice for new teachers. He offered up one of his favorite sayings, “slow and steady,” referencing the fact it took him eight years to graduate from college given the break between Humboldt and CSUB to start a family.

Reese and his wife, Kelly, an English teacher at Independence High who is still a couple years away from retirement, have two daughters and two sons.

“Take it slow and steady, and you will find your path,” Reese said he'd tell teachers. “The proudest thing I’ve done here is hand out 13,000 diplomas to kids, because I know they’re out there finding their path.”

Open Quote
He made it so that our higher classes and our best activities are not the domain of the elite, they belong to everybody no matter where you come from, no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done before you got to high school. Close Quote
Jeremy Adams
BHS civics teacher