Down The Hall

Bridge Builder

Superintendent Heidi Sipe is committed to building the bridges students need to follow their dreams.

Heidi Sipe watches a student go down the slide
Photography by Melissa McFadden

Heidi Sipe is the superintendent of Umatilla School District in Oregon, a rural school district serving largely low-income students. Sipe was named the 2016 Oregon Superintendent of the Year, an honor that recognizes her leadership and commitment to helping all young people construct bridges to success.


Congratulations on your award! What do you hope others can learn from hearing about your work?

I think one of the things that’s most important to me is just to remember what a gift it is to be educators and to get to work with the future. And, there’s not a day that I don’t appreciate the opportunity. … The honor took me by surprise, in large part because I don’t view this as my job, I view it as my passion and I just feel so fortunate to be able to do this work.

[I]t’s been exciting to help people rethink their view of poverty and to rethink their view of students in rural areas. I think it’s easy to make assumptions based off of what we don’t know about one another. I hope that this provides all of our students the chance to be heard and really gives my students more support for what I see in them. 


Your district’s motto is “Building Bridges to Successful Futures.” How does that motto inform your work?

We actually have four basic tenets to that motto. The first is providing quality educational opportunities that recognize individual needs of students. The second is exposing students to career options and pathways. The third, helping students develop a sense of self and community, and the last is embracing the power of parent and community partnerships.

There’s a variety of opportunities that will arise, whether a different grant or a different program, and it’s helpful to be able to come back to that and say, “Is this an opportunity that will expand options for our students?” If yes, then let’s consider this and pursue it. If no, then it’s probably something we should pass on because we need to really stay focused on our core mission. 


You started the STEM Academy of Umatilla. What motivated you to launch this K-12 afterschool program and what effects has it had?

The STEM Academy came about because we noticed that if we were going to change the cycle of poverty, we had to be sure our students had job-ready skills. And, STEM fields are huge growth areas in our economy right now, and also—ironically—the very same skills that students in rural poverty are least likely to have access to.

It’s been hugely positive. … One of the biggest changes that we’ve seen is the kids are dreaming new dreams and that’s really what we wanted them to do. It’s hard to dream of being a software engineer if you’ve never met one and you don’t even realize that’s a job. For many of our kids, they simply don’t see jobs like that. If we want to empower them to choose their own futures, the way to do that is to show them a variety of futures, and the STEM Academy gives us an opportunity to do so.


Is there a particularly memorable experience of yours as superintendent that you’d like to share with Teaching Tolerance readers?

I think sometimes, as administrators, we become so focused on what’s next and where are we going next that we forget to just invest in where we are. I’ve been really fortunate to get to invest here and to appreciate the opportunity to stay long enough to see those multiple generations of kids come through and to change.

I just now, today, got to meet with one of our former students who’s going to med school and she’s a mom of two little ones. She was one of our teen moms when she was a kid, and she’s going to be working on our bond campaign coming up in November. To see her and know her as this young child, and then see her as a parent and see her really working so hard to get through school and do right by her children, and then also see her willing to come back and invest in our community by helping with this bond is, to me, one of those best days that just comes full circle.

Heidi Sipe, superintendent of Umatilla School District in Oregon, is an award-winning district leader.

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