North Clackamas School District Superintendent Matt Utterback on Thursday won the National Superintendent of the Year Award from the American Association of School Administrators.
As he took the podium at the National Conference on Education in New Orleans, he joked than he wanted to make sure they read the correct name, referring to the Best Picture gaffe at the Oscars the week before.
"I couldn't be more proud and humbled to receive this award," Utterback said, once he was assured that the award was genuine. "Every superintendent knows that these accolades are not the work of a single person, and I am blessed in North Clackamas to work with an incredibly talented group of administrators, teachers and classified staff."
Utterback in fact has had a long road to becoming the nation's top school administrator. In October, he was named the 2017 Oregon Superintendent of the Year by the Oregon Association of School Executives and the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators. In December, he was named one of four finalists from each of the 50 states' top superintendents, which included leaders from Florida, Alaska and North Carolina.
Utterback stood out due to his district's work improving education for all students, especially for marginalized groups. Between 2012 and 2016, NCSD's graduation rate jumped from 69 to 83 percent, with low-income and minority students making up much of the student body.
"It really wasn't until 2009 that I had the opportunity to go to a race-based equity training that I realized how important equity is to great public schools," he said. "What I learned is that my whiteness matters, and it taught me to look at my students differently and as individuals."
Utterback has worked as a teacher for about 20 years in the district, began as principal of Clackamas High School in 2008 and has graduated from the education program at Lewis & Clark College. He was named NCSD's interim superintendent in June 2012, and the North Clackamas School Board was faced with a decision to make equity the top priority of the sixth largest school district in Oregon if they chose Utterback as their permanent leader. NCSD's board chose Utterback's equity focus, foregoing the expense of a national search, and named him their permanent superintendent in December 2012.
"I am blessed to work with a tremendously supportive School Board, and they too deserve credit for the success we've experienced over the past five years," Utterback said.
Utterback oversaw the development of the district's Strategic Direction and Plan in 2013. A community engagement process resulted in three action plans to achieve goals in student achievement, equity and program quality.
NCSD serves more than 17,000 students on 32 school campuses, and its longtime reputation as an innovative leader in the state of Oregon comes in part from its Sabin-Schellenberg Career and Technical Education Center, a unique program in which all NCSD high schoolers learn various trades. The center receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside grants annually.
Utterback said that there has never been a more critical time for public education in the U.S., given that many people consider it to be under attack by the current presidential administration. Rather than seeing public education as a target, Utterback sees the current national political situation as evidence of a lack of understanding about the value of public schools in a democracy.
"We have our work cut out for us," Utterback said. "I look forward to working with my colleagues to share our stories, because I think that's how folks are going to understand the importance and the value of public education in our country. Our job as leaders, more so than maybe ever before, ... is to ensure that we are affirming the history and the culture and the experiences of our students, and building inclusive learning environments for each and every student in our public schools."
Utterback has a vision of high school graduation for every student, no matter the student's race, parents' income level or other factor that have traditionally been barriers to student success. He wrote about this vision in a recent op-ed that Pamplin Media Group requested that he write after becoming a finalist for the national award:
"Making this vision a reality for Oregon's students is becoming more difficult in our country and in our local communities where divisiveness has taken on a disturbing tone of hate and bigotry. Today, we are in a climate where the rules of civility and respect for different opinions have changed in dramatic ways. Some of our most vulnerable student groups lie in the crossroads.
The diversity of our students and families is part of the fabric that makes a strong community. They should not be afraid to be themselves in our schools. Educators have an obligation to each other, each student, and every family to ensure a sense of safety, respect, and love. Unlike tolerance, which would have us acknowledge our differences, love knows that each of us has worth and value. Love has us defend each other from hurt and harm.
When we commit to protecting each other, we must also commit to interrupting when we hear or see offensive words and acts. We must commit to creating schools that are protected from discrimination. We must commit to communicate, daily, to each student that we will protect, advocate for, and value them equally no matter their race, gender, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, language or ethnicity.
"Matt Utterback is one of the best educators that I have ever worked with. He is thoughtful, articulate, and very passionate about the students and families he works for," said Darin Drill, superintendent of Cascade School District in Oregon. "Matt finds ways to create new opportunities for every student to be successful and at the same time always keeps his eye on ensuring that North Clackamas School District continues to improve. He is above reproach and will always do his best work for the students he serves."
Utterback has been married to his wife, Nancy, an NCSD high school English teacher, for nearly 30 years. They have one daughter, Emma, who is a graduate of the school district.