North Clackamas Superintendent Matt Utterback has accomplished amazing things in tough times. When he first took over the job in 2012, the district struggled with budgets cuts and middling student outcomes. But Utterback was undaunted. He worked to reinvigorate the district by taking stock, setting priorities and encouraging new ways of doing things, which sometimes meant making difficult choices. Under his innovative leadership, the 17,000-student district has become one of Oregon’s success stories, exemplified by a high school graduation rate that jumped from 66% to an all-time high 83%.
Utterback was recently recognized for those efforts by being named National Superintendent of the Year. AASA, The School Superintendents Association, cited his “visionary leadership’ for embracing a focus on educational excellence and equity and improving outcomes for students, especially those impacted by “opportunity gaps”— students of color, economically disadvantaged students and disabled students.
Born and raised in Oregon, Utterback has spent his entire career working in the district, starting as a teacher and rising up the ranks to principal before being named superintendent in 2012. Those deep ties to the community, he says, have been the foundation for the successes the district has enjoyed.
He recently took time to talk to Chalkboard about effective leadership and his district’s success story—
You’ve spoken out about “leading with urgency.” What does that idea mean to you?
It means having a sense of urgency when it comes to the student experience and student outcomes.
A student only goes once through, say, 2nd grade. So we have to ask, “What is that experience going to be like for that student?” And if there is anything getting in the way of his or her education, we need to act with urgency because that student doesn’t get to do 2nd grade again and we’ve missed an opportunity.
A lot of time in organizations, we are good at acknowledging the problems and barriers that exist, but we have to be able to make that next step—taking urgent action to remove those problems and barriers.
You’ve made substantial progress in student outcomes, despite tight budgets that have forced you to make tough decisions, like closing schools and increasing class sizes. How did you deal with those challenges?
My first year as superintendent we undertook a comprehensive look at our district and created a strategic plan that provided our district a clearly and simply articulated vision. And that plan hasn’t been put on a shelf and forgotten. We’ve stayed true to our strategic plan and use it as a filter to guide everything we do.
Not only does that plan guide the initiatives we want to implement, it also allows us to say no. Every year many initiatives and requests come through that, on their own, are worthy. But we can’t do it all. We have to be able to say no to things that might derail or water down our efforts. We have to be strategic and consistent about the things we as a community have said are going to be most important.
What have been the keys to improving student outcomes, especially for those who need to catch up?
The key driver to our success really has been our equity work.
Oregon’s demographics have changed so much in the past 25 years. When I started out as a teacher here in 1989, the district was almost completely white, and now it’s about one-third students of color. Also back in those days, teachers were trained to be color-blind, to treat all students the same.
But that was actually doing a disservice to students, because they’re not all the same. I see our work in equity as respecting those differences, and what’s more, bringing those differences to life in school.
We ask every one of our employees to look at students as individuals, to honor their history and their cultures, and the experiences they bring to school every day. When students feel affirmed, when they’re feeling that they’re being heard and represented in the work they are doing in the classroom, they are engaged and want to be in school. That’s a big part why we have the highest attendance rate of the 15 largest districts in the state, and of course when students are in school they perform better academically.
You have been a strong advocate of career/technical education, an area that has often been given shortchanged. How has career/technical education contributed to the district’s success?
That’s been another key to improving our graduation rate— you can’t underestimate the impact of CTE.
We have the state’s largest professional/technical center with 16 programs, from fire science to law enforcement to manufacturing/engineering to health sciences.
We are always looking for ways to expand those programs, which are also articulated with community colleges so students can earn credit. When students can experience a relevant curriculum that is rigorous, that is based on relationships, they are much more likely to stay engaged and in school. The students in these programs are getting exposure to the business world while developing their own career pathways.
How has the district benefited from its longtime partnership with Chalkboard Project? As a member of Chalkboard’s Advisory Council, what do you see as its role?
Chalkboard has been an amazing strategic partner to collaborate with, and in some cases, push us and challenge us, to examine what were doing and whether there are different ways of doing that.
Chalkboard engages school districts in new research and new ways of doing things like professional development and employee evaluations. Sometimes districts can get stuck in the mode of doing things a certain way. Chalkboard has connections to the bigger world out there that we can learn from so much.
- School Leadership
- Student Success
- Equity and Diversity