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North Clackamas superintendent’s quest for equity and excellence

  North Clackamas School District Superintendent Matt Utterback was named 2017 National Superintendent of the Year by AASA, the School Superintendents Association. (Photo by Brian McGrew, North Clackamas SD)

Good things are going on at North Clackamas School District, and the nation is taking note.

Since Matt Utterback took over as superintendent in 2012, North Clackamas has dramatically increased its graduation rate from 72 percent to 83 percent last year. It has also narrowed the achievement gap, with historically underperforming groups nearing and even exceeding the state graduation rate.

Utterback, 49, was named March 2 as the 2017 National Superintendent of the Year by AASA, the School Superintendents Association. The award is given for leadership in promoting student learning. The AASA particularly focused on Utterback’s commitment to equity in education, an ethos that infuses everything he does. 

The North Clackamas School Board had already begun its superintendent evaluation, and Utterback received commendations for meeting board goals and implementing the district strategic plan.

“The results during his tenure have been reflected in considerable gains in student achievement scores as well as astonishing increases in graduation rates,” said Rein Vega, North Clackamas School Board chair, by email. “National superintendent of the year is, in my view, not surprising for such an inexhaustible, dedicated individual.”

North Clackamas has 17,000 students on 32 campuses. One way it reaches many of those students is through career and technical education.

North Clackamas boasts 16 four-year career and technical programs. Programs range from coding and manufacturing to law enforcement and culinary arts. All programs are aligned with a community college so that students can start earning college credits and experience, and all programs are required to support career pathways for a family wage job. The programs support both students who plan to get four-year degrees and those who will go on to some sort of other training or apprenticeship.

“I am not a believer that all students need a four-year degree,” Utterback said. “But I do believe every single one of our graduates needs some post-secondary education if they are going to earn a family-wage job down the road.”

Utterback spoke with OSBA more about the values that guide his district and the areas he sees where districts can get real results. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q. The award comes with an opportunity to speak at a variety of state and national events. What message would you most like to share with other school districts?

A. My message will definitely be a message of equity. We can no longer be school systems that have graduation rates that are pre-determined by students’ race, their gender, their skin color, their parents’ home language. The way we are going to eliminate that predictability is by looking at our students as individuals, looking at their history and their culture and their heritage and the experiences that they bring to our classrooms each day. Incorporating that into our teaching and our curriculum is how we are going to improve our school system.

Q. How has North Clackamas raised the graduation rate of underperforming groups by as much as 50 percent?

A. I truly believe it is our focus on equity. By asking our teachers to focus on each of their students, it causes you to look at your classroom differently. I don’t want our teachers looking at their classrooms as a group of 30 students. I want them looking at their classrooms as 30 individuals. That is asking a lot of our teachers when high school and middle school teachers have 150 to 190 students. But when you hear our students’ stories, if you have any empathy, any moral drive, it will compel you to act.

Q. How does North Clackamas address equity in education so that underperforming groups receive the support they need without sacrificing the educational outcomes of majority groups?

A. I believe our equity work has benefited each of our students in our school system. When you start looking at what you are teaching and how you are teaching it and are you teaching though a lens of social justice, through a lens of cultural competency, that benefits all students. When you are looking at diversifying curriculum, that benefits all students. Our data show that. Our data show our white students are also graduating at a high rate, attending schools at a higher rate, achieving at a higher rate. When pushback comes that says, “Why are you doing this? It is only benefiting a certain group of students,” I can say, “No, look at our data more closely. All students are growing and benefit from this work.”

Q. Much of Oregon’s education discussion is focused on high school outcomes. What should we be talking about in elementary and middle school?

A. We should be having a conversation about preschool for all students. The research is overwhelmingly positive about the benefits of preschool education. For us, there is a K-3 focus on literacy and social-emotional learning. Teaching students those social-emotional skills is going to benefit them through the rest of their school years. We have also set a target for middle schools that all our eighth-graders will be algebra ready. For many high school students, math is one of the barriers to graduating so we need to ensure our focus in our district is really looking at math, and having that eighth-grade algebra-ready target is really important.

Q. For most schools, math achievement scores are lower than language arts scores, and North Clackamas has not made as much progress in math as it has reading and writing. Why is it harder to raise math scores?"

A. Elementary programs concentrate more on literacy. We know that if students can leave third grade reading at grade level, they are going to graduate from our school system. Students who leave third grade not reading at grade level are significantly at risk of not graduating. That is data that holds true at every school district across the country. A second factor at play with math: Because Oregon has lived through an economic yo-yo without funding, we went years without having curriculum that aligned with the new Common Core State Standards. Teachers were attempting to teach to the new standards literally on their own. Teachers were going to teaching websites and trying to find materials. The third factor is that when Common Core came in there was a much more significant elevation in the rigor and standards in mathematics than there was in English. It takes time to close those gaps, and we will.

Q. What’s next?

A. Equity will continue to be a focus of our work. We still haven’t closed those gaps for all student groups, and we need to do that. We still have some predictability about who graduates and who doesn’t graduate and that is absolutely wrong.

- Jake Arnold, OSBA