2017 Superintendent of the Year Embraces Equity, Public School Choice
Matthew Utterback took the leadership of the North Clackamas (Ore.) school district in the midst of a financial crisis: the state was in a deep recession and budget cuts had forced the school system to lay off about a quarter of its teaching staff. Utterback, who was principal of the district’s largest high school and had worked as a district administrator, had not planned to become a superintendent but was concerned the district needed stability.
Now in his 28th year in North Clackamas, Utterback has refocused the school district on equity through the lens of race. As the demographics of the school district have become more diverse, the staff has undergone training to help them better understand their students’ backgrounds and perspectives and the effect of race on teaching and learning. The North Clackamas district also has undergone a transformation in curriculum and instruction since the recession, with Utterback choosing to update the curriculum and restructure the teaching staff as funds became available.
For his success in leadership and innovation, Utterback recently was named the 2017 National Superintendent of the Year by AASA, the School Superintendents Association. He spoke with LFA about the 17,500-student school district, equity, public school choice programs, and his goals.
LFA: Congratulations on being named the 2017 National Superintendent of the Year! Could you please tell us a little bit about why you became a superintendent? What are some of your goals for the North Clackamas school district?
For background, when I became interim superintendent in 2012, Oregon was deep in recession, and in North Clackamas we had cut about 25 percent of the teaching staff in the two years prior. We still were making cuts when the superintendent left. I was principal of the district’s largest high school at the time, and four years before I had been the districts’ assistant superintendent in charge of secondary education programs. I felt a duty and responsibility to step up and step in to offer my help and support, because I didn’t think our district could successfully survive an interim superintendent for a year given where we were in the devastating journey we were going through.
I have a deep sense of loyalty and commitment to the school district, so I approached the school board and said, 'I’m willing to step in if you’re interested.' They agreed, and named me interim superintendent.
LFA: How have you restored the staff and the programs that were lost during that time?
To give you an idea of how bad it was, we cut 25 percent of our teaching staff, put in 14 furlough days, and there were no step increases. Now we have restored about 85 percent of the cuts to staff, and we’re still not all the way back.
One of the first things we did in my first year as superintendent was a strategic planning process. We adopted a plan in my second year. As dollars came back and the state education budget grew, we didn’t rebuild the district the way it was, we invested in new ways. We chose to rebuild the system to look differently, and now we’re a better school district and we serve our kids better.
For example, we built a Teaching and Learning Department, we restructured by hiring instructional equity coaches who have a deep commitment and passion for equity. And we purchased new science, language arts, and math curricula after I realized that those had not been renewed in over a decade.
LFA: As your enrollment of students of color and ESOL students has increased, you’ve taken several actions to promote equity in education. First, how do you define equity in your school district?
We would define equity as creating an inclusive learning environment for each student that honors and celebrates families’ history and culture and the experiences each of our students bring to our school and classroom every day. Equality is about treating students the same—for us, there is a very distinct difference.
Everything we do in our school district is through the lens of equity. For instance, do our teaching materials match the demographics of the student population? That’s one example.
LFA: You recently spoke about instituting staff training and discussions on race with a staff that is predominantly white. Given the sensitivities around race in this country, how did you approach this topic? Could you tell us what you learned, and any advice for other district or school leaders who are grappling with this issue?
We believe race is the most difficult equity issue facing our students. We have deliberately chosen to enter equity work through the lens of race. As a predominantly white staff, if we can become more skilled and adept at talking about race we will also be skilled at looking at other barriers in our school district related to poverty and special needs.
It started with our leadership, we required all administrators to go through a five-day, race-based equity training, where we had them explore their own racial identity as well as learn about the impact race has on students and student achievement in our school system. From that we moved to expecting every staff member to attend a two-day race-based training—a modified version—where we believe we will be better educators, bus drivers, instructional assistants when we are able to explore our own racial identity and its impact on our students.
We’ve created cadres with 75 to 90 teachers to study race and institutional boundaries in the classroom. Teachers dive deeply into instructional equity practice, and we tie into as much instructional development as we can. We also look at policy, resources, and the systems and support we provide students.
At the time we started this there weren’t a lot of school districts in the country that had equity policies that said, ‘we will treat students based on needs.’ Our school board was supportive, they said to the staff, 'we have your back, we believe in this and want to support you in your work.’ Equity is at the core of our strategic plan.
LFA: North Clackamas has numerous programs and schools that offer students choices within the public education system. Can you tell us more about how your school district manages all these options? How does your district help parents and students understand their options?
My belief about education is that public school systems should provide public options and choice. The idea that a 2,500-student high school Is going to be the right fit for every student is naïve. As the former principal of that high school, I saw students struggle and realized some kids needed a smaller environment.
In North Clackamas, some of our core programs are:
- Magnet schools,
- District-sponsored charter schools,
- An elementary school with multiple intelligence teaching model,
- An art-focused high school,
- A K-12 online school,
- An early college program with a local community college, students can earn an associates degree upon graduation.
We also have a regional career and technical center that sits in the middle of our school district with 16 career-tech programs. All 16 of those programs are four-year programs that our students can start as freshmen, and as they progress, if they are still interested in their chosen field they can stay with program throughout high school. And the graduation rate for students who continue on to a second year class is over 90 percent. We see this as a vehicle to get students to pursue postsecondary education, all the programs are tied to community college. We see many students who are graduating with multiple college credits.
LFA: How have you built partnerships with parents and within the community, particularly the minority and non-English speaking communities, to support the school system?
We know that a successful school system has strong community partners and strong parent partnerships, so it’s really important that we purposefully build, initiate, and honor and grow those partnerships. We have a number of partnerships in our school district—for instance, all 16 of the career-technical programs have to have advisory committees with them. Health services, for one, has an advisory board that includes medical professionals within our community and they help steer and guide the profession.
We work with a number of social services, and we make sure we have district representatives in community service organizations.
We purposefully developed a couple of targeted groups, in the past couple years we worked to develop Hispanic parent and community support. We’ve had a really strong Hispanic/Latino parent community leadership group that has helped guide our outreach, this year they are probably one of the strongest voices in our state legislature advocating for education. Also, in the last three years we’ve created a parent leadership group where we do training and professional development. We also have strong PTAs that we want to support.
We reach out to a number of our community-based associations and figure out ways to get them involved in our organization. We know we need more after school, mental health, counseling, medical services in school—last year we calculated over $3 million in community-based services that were donated to our schools.
LFA: How can we better cultivate more superintendents and school leaders and help them prepare for the demands of the job?
I think what we try to do in our school district is provide opportunities for our staff to demonstrate leadership. We have many teachers who want to lead but they may not want to go into administration and that’s OK. So we look for opportunities for teachers to lead.
As somebody who ‘grew up’ through the system, we value people who understand our history and culture, who understand the community. It’s important those people are cultivated.
I give the opportunity for first- and second-year administrators to come together once a month for dinner at my home; the real purpose is to talk about their leadership development, what are they learning and what do they need to learn. This gives an opportunity for me and the assistant superintendent to hear where things are going well and where they need support. It helps move early administrators through early years, get support, and it helps keep them in North Clackamas. It’s been a powerful tool we’ve utilized.
As a school system, I want my staff to see that there are opportunities for them to grow into leadership roles, opportunities to stay in the school district, and have opportunities to lead. At times, we are also balancing that with hiring people outside the school district who can give us different perspectives and ideas.
LFA: You began your career in North Clackamas as a teacher. In your experience, how has the field changed?
I’m finishing my 28th year, and all of that has been in North Clackamas, which I realize is somewhat unique. I think the job has gotten much harder, with increased accountability, and that has increased the amount of work on administrators. I also believe that where we are as a country today has created challenges for leaders.
in our school district when we talk about affirming the identity of each student, that means treating each student differently and that’s a struggle for some people. Treating everyone the same has gotten the disproportionate results that we struggle to overcome. When you start leading for equity it is hard work and challenging work, but it’s necessary work that we are committed to, even though it is often not an easy path.
LFA: Thank you very much for spending time with us!
For more information about the programs and equity initiatives in the North Clackamas school district, listen to the archived podcast of an EdTalkRadio interview with Utterback and Brian Joffe, AASA's project director for children's programs.