An African American girl walked into then-Principal Matt Utterback’s office at Oregon’s Clackamas High School one morning and slapped three paperback books on his desk.
“Am I ever going to read a book in your school that isn’t written by a dead white guy?” she demanded. “In each of these books, my people are portrayed as the slave, the villain or the gangster. I’m none of those people.”
In one sense, it was a jarring moment, but in another, it was just what Utterback wanted to see.
Utterback, now superintendent of the 17,000-student North Clackamas School District just south of Portland, has been relentlessly focusing on issues of racial equity in his district for nearly a decade. A big part of that has been engaging in a frank dialogue among administrators, teachers and students, and encouraging them to pursue sometimes difficult conversations.
Utterback moved up to the superintendency of North Clackamas in 2012. On Thursday morning (March 2), he was named the 2017 National Superintendent of the Year after earlier accepting honors as Oregon’s Superintendent of the Year.
Passionate for a Cause
He is in some ways an unusual candidate for those honors. At 49, he does not have a doctorate and has worked in the same school district throughout his entire 28-year career. In his time there, he has helped the district emerge from the devastating recession, create a crucial strategic plan, narrow the academic achievement gap, increase graduation rates by nearly 20 percentage points, and, most recently, pass one of the biggest capital construction bonds in Oregon history.
Utterback’s equity push is perhaps his most distinctive achievement. He became passionate about the issue at a 2009 weeklong retreat. But it had been quietly gnawing at him since his childhood.
When he was 9, his parents adopted a 7-year-old boy from South Korea, who arrived in the predominately white town of Newport, on Oregon’s north-central coast, unable to speak a word of English. The boy struggled mightily to adjust to an entirely new social world, while his family and others did their best to help him fit in.
Utterback says he realizes now that expecting his new brother to smoothly assimilate into the dominant local culture, without fully recognizing the power of his Korean identity, was a mistake. And he is applying that lesson to the students in his school district. Treating all students the same regardless of their backgrounds, he says, is not the same as treating them with equity.
“We were taught to be colorblind,” he says. “We were taught to treat everyone the same. We now know what an incredible disservice that is to our students and the barriers that puts up with our students.”
After that 2009 retreat, Utterback, as high school principal, began convening monthly lunches with “affinity groups” of minority students and listening to their views and school experiences. Sometimes, he says, “their stories are hard to hear.”
As superintendent, he requires the weeklong educational equity retreat for all his administrators, while a two-day version is provided to all teachers and classified staff. It’s an unusual mandate in a district that is 70 percent white.
In addition to the retreats, every year 70 to 90 teachers take part in “equity cadres” and meet throughout the school year to discuss microaggressions, implicit bias, low expectations and other issues that affect students of color. Then they take actions in their classrooms to address them.
“I think that’s leadership,” he says. “I think it’s the ability to look at situations from multiple perspectives. … We’re constantly on a journey to learn and to grow, and that’s exciting work.”
Overcoming the Tumult
Utterback came to leadership early. He was elected class president as a high school sophomore and again as a senior. When he was a senior at Western Oregon University, he was elected president of the Student Senate.
In his second year of teaching at a North Clackamas middle school, his assistant principal told him he had the makings of a school leader. He pursued a master’s degree and an initial administrator’s certificate and was named a middle school assistant principal at age 27.
“I think I was the youngest person on the staff,” he laughs.
He moved up the administrative ranks, becoming director of secondary programs at 37 and assistant superintendent for education three years later. Then, in 2008, the principal’s job at Clackamas High School opened up, and he couldn’t resist pursing what had been a longtime dream.
He took over just as the national economy was tanking — and taking a devastating toll on the school district. Oregon has no sales tax, and its corporate tax rates are among the lowest in the nation, so schools are highly dependent on personal income taxes. When the economy dips, school budgets plummet. In North Clackamas, some 250 teachers were let go over three years. Those who were left endured between six and 14 furlough days in each of the years between 2009 and 2013.
At the high school, average class sizes, already large, grew into the high 30s. Still, Utterback oversaw 12 to 14 percent gains in reading, math, science and writing at the high school and a doubling of AP and college-credit course enrollment. He credits those gains, in part, to his continuing educational equity campaign.
In 2012, the school board eschewed a superintendent search and named Utterback the interim and then permanent superintendent. The district was still mired in recession and still cutting.
Utterback recognized that the district, always high performing, was losing some of its luster. He began a strategic planning process, holding more than 100 meetings throughout the community and hammering out a plan including six “key performance indicators” that he says provided the district with an unwavering focus on improving student achievement.
“It really serves as a filter for your decision-making,” he says. “I think sometimes in education we try to do too many things in a shotgun approach, and you may never hit the target.”
David Hagstrom, one of Utterback’s graduate professors at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, visited the school district and was deeply impressed with the plan.
“I’ve been an educator for more than 50 years,” says the now-retired professor. “I’ve never seen a more thorough, well-researched plan.”
Utterback’s next engagement was to rekindle the support of the community, which had slid to about 60 percent approval during the difficult recession years. “We needed to change the narrative of our community,” he says.
Beginning in 2014, he and other district officials visited every school PTO and community organization that would have them over an 18-month period. After another 100 or so meetings, the district resurveyed the community and found that perceptions had improved by some 20 percentage points.
Recapturing His Community
The next step was to persuade that same community that despite the still challenging school funding situation, the district was in need of a massive physical overhaul. After another exhaustive round of community meetings, residents went to the polls on Nov. 8, 2016, and passed a $433 million capital construction bond with 63 percent of the vote.
Robin Troche, president of the North Clackamas Education Association, says that although Utterback was present at every one of those meetings, he often was not the lead speaker.
“He’s a fairly unassuming person,” she says. “He’s definitely the person who has done all the homework rather than the one turning on the charisma and making a big sales pitch.”
But, she adds, “If it’s going to be a hard meeting, if it’s going to be the kind of meeting where there’s going to be slings and arrows, he’s going to be at the front of the room.”
Troche says Utterback’s long and deep involvement with the district and with the community – his wife is a teacher there and their daughter graduated last year – has created a wide acceptance and trust of his leadership.
She was struck with the placement of Utterback’s office when the district moved its headquarters to a different building last year. As you walk into the building, she says, if you look above the reception desk and keep panning up, you’ll see the superintendent’s glass-lined office.
“The superintendent’s office is the most visible,” she says. “It’s sort of emblematic of the transparency with which he tries to approach things.”
She adds, “This is a person who sees the work he does as being both a direct responsibility and a direct link between himself and his community.”
(By Paul Riede, education freelance writer, Syracuse, N.Y.)