DANA MERRYDAY/CHRONICLE PHOTO

Dr. Yvonne Curtis, South Lane School District superintendent. The board behind her reveals only a small part of the planning work on improving student success in SLSD.

Superintendent Dr. Yvonne Curtis has had a baptism by fire. She was offered her permanent position by the South Lane School Board on March 16, 2020. That night, portentous events were swirling in the world of public education. Curtis knew that in all probability Gov. Brown was planning on closing schools soon, and the following Monday Brown did order schools closed until at least March 31. Things only became more uncertain from there.

Being thrust into tough jobs is part of Dr. Curtis’ track record; in fact, you could say she has made a career of taking positions where the community was experiencing trauma, and thriving. “I have had a blessed and amazing career in challenging situations. I view them not as problems but opportunities.”

After deciding on becoming a teacher Curtis enrolled in the teaching credentialing program at San Diego State University. To gain practical experience she worked as an instructional assistant at an elementary school while going to school full-time. “One of the three jobs I had to pay for school,” she said. Upon graduating she took a year-round teaching position in San Diego. “I moved around a lot in the district. I went from a working-class suburban neighborhood school to an affluent school where I taught a class of Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) students, integrated with African-American students who were performing below grade level and were bussed in as an effort at desegregation that was a bit of a disaster. After getting married, I moved to Santee School District, a more rural area. I loved working with these rural students in lower socioeconomic families. They had more needs but were very open to help and they were very gracious.”

A vacation trip to Crater Lake in 1989 with her husband brought Curtis to Oregon and it was love at first sight. She and her husband knew right away that it was here that they wanted to live and could imagine building a log cabin and settling in. They scouted around the nearest “big” city and ended up buying a piece of land near Bend. Oregon had just started offering public Kindergarten that year so jobs were easy to come by and the Curtis’ made the move. What followed was an eight-year run at Bear Creek Elementary in Bend.  

“I am always looking for the next goal and started looking for a master’s program in education.”

 There were none in Central Oregon so after many inquiries she found that professors from Lewis & Clark College would come to her if she could round up a cohort of at least 12 students. “What followed was an incredible growth period as we formed our own professional learning community. David Hagstrom, one of our professors, urged us to all pursue administrators licenses as well and we said ‘We don’t want to be principals, just better teachers. There are no principals that we look up to.’ We nearly all ended up becoming administrators and advocating change from our training in servant leadership,” Curtis said.

Curtis was recruited from a 5th-grade assignment straight into an administrative role as assistant principal at Jefferson Middle School in Madras, her first position outside the elementary realm. “It was a very unique school, about 1,000 students, 40% from the Warm Springs Reservation, 20% migrant workers, and 40% landowner kids. There were tremendous problems, such as the principal had a heart attack shortly before school opened and the other assistant principal didn’t have the necessary authorization, so it was me to start things off. There was a solid staff but the model was a pushout culture rather than a community. So I introduced the Tribes Training to build a democratic classroom and school culture,” Curtis reminisced.

While the kids really made progress there, Curtis found that she was not allowed to do the work she felt needed to be done for the betterment of students so she went to Redmond’s Terrebonne School, a K-8. It was her first principalship. “We went from being one of the lowest to the highest performing school. I took advantage of every opportunity I could find. We did a core adoption and lots of experimentation. One of my teachers said we should put wings on the school and call ourselves the Pilot School since we participated in so many pilot educational programs, but I wanted things to be data-driven,” Curtis remembered.

Curtis was recruited to Eugene 4J as Director of Student Achievement. Here she encountered schools that had self-segregated through school choice. More affluent families had voted with their feet getting their students into high-achieving schools while those with less resources were left to neighborhood schools that were not necessarily serving their students best. While Curtis grappled with helping form academy schools, led an adoption of a district-wide core reading program and other innovations to better serve 4J students, she also made some life-changing decisions roughly at the same time. She enrolled into the doctoral program at the University of Oregon, which meant full-time classes, a graduate teaching fellowship – and she and her husband had adopted two boys from a Ukrainian orphanage, becoming first-time parents in their 40s.

Somehow, Curtis survived this grueling regime and completed her dissertation, “Socially Mediated vs. Contextually Driven Strategies: Which are more effective?” in 2008. The newly minted Doctor of Education became Oregon’s first Latina Superintendent when she accepted that position in the Forest Grove School District. Changing demographics led to a predominant portion of the population being of Latino extraction. Curtis implemented the Gomez and Gomez Dual Language Program which led to a number of students earning college credits in Spanish, some enough to earn a minor in that language before graduating high school.

After eight years of leading Forest Grove, Curtis was recruited to Portland Public Schools, as the deputy superintendent of Instruction and School Communities. 

Throughout her career, Curtis served in addition to her school duties on a number of commissions, boards, and professional associations. Former Gov. Kitzhaber appointed her to the Oregon Quality Education Commission and to the Oregon Education Investment Board.

At the 30-year mark of service to public education in Oregon, Dr. Curtis’ husband developed health issues and she retired to be able to serve as his caregiver. “Fortunately he recovered far faster than we had expected. My old friend Dr. Larry Sullivan, who was serving as the interim superintendent in SLSD invited me down to tour this district hinting he thought I would be a good fit for the permanent position. When he suddenly became ill, he asked me to fill in for him. After I had served for a bit the Board asked me to consider applying for the permanent position. So that was it for my retirement,” Curtis recalled.

“The Thursday night before I was hired (and the eve of the impending shutdown) I contacted all of my leadership and asked them to assemble in the boardroom the next day with their laptops. I wasn’t even sure if they all had laptops. Due to a sub shortage there was no way we could open school, knowing the Governor would close schools, I made the call and we began making plans to provide what we could for our students. I told them that change would be very much in play in whatever we would be trying to do, so be ready to be very creative and flexible,” Curtis said.

“While we had some technology, most of the laptops were in carts and there wasn’t enough for every kid. First, we wanted to make sure kids got food and started to communicate decisions of how we could provide food to lower their anxiety. Normally we have them for the best 6 hours of the day and if you can provide stimulating project-based learning we can really get them excited about learning. I looked at the unprecedented shutdown as an opportunity to really shift the system around what kids can learn and do. We have developed a SOLO teaching program which really works well for some kids, who may continue it as we get back to in-person school for families who choose that. Our teachers are amazing and many would sit on the steps and assess student progress through the screen door,” observed Dr. Curtis.

“This past summer with the social unrest there was a need to address the issues as it affected our school community. As someone new just arriving here, and as a woman of color I knew I didn’t know enough to be able to make a statement that reflected Cottage Grove. Fortunately there was a group of students at CG High School who had already been working on the issues of social justice and equity through the Youth Advisory Council. They drafted a stance and we met with some teachers, parents, and administrators and made only a few minor edits. Our stance really came from our school community and I am very proud of those students. (It is posted on the SLSD website). Equity is something we are just beginning to work on here.”

“I love my work. One of my dreams is to work with community partners in building opportunities so that families have what they need. I hope we can work together so that healthcare and early education pathways can be expanded. We were able to add staff at Peggy’s Primary Care and hope to build relationships with partners like Family Relief Nursery. Our schools can be like the rock on which it is all built, then we can really focus on the educational needs of our students.”

“I envision a real seamless birth to career pathway with students graduating earning a Career Technical Education (CTE) certificate, ready to be able to make the next step. We don’t want students to experience just old-style vocational training, but an industry standard skill set ready to take the next step to careers or college.”

Welcome, Dr. Curtis and may all of your dreams for our students come true!

Email: [email protected]