2016 Oregon Superintendent of the Year

Heidi Sipe Ed.S. ’11

Heidi Sipe Ed.S. ’11

Photo by Julianne Parker, Blue Chalk Media Photo by Julianne Parker, Blue Chalk Media

Last spring, 11-year-old Alfonso Bernal testified about school funding before the Oregon Legislature’s Joint Ways and Means Committee.

Sporting a turquoise dress shirt, dark tie, and buzzed haircut, the fifth grader read from his notes, frequently looking up through rimless glasses.

Heidi Sipe, his superintendent in Eastern Oregon’s Umatilla School District, had invited Bernal to address the legislature. Proud of his composure, she listened as he contrasted his education with that of his sisters—earlier graduates not affected by the state’s drastic budget cuts.

“I want to be an engineer,” he said. “I know other people helped you become who you are today. Can you please help me become who I want to be tomorrow?”

Sipe, who was named Oregon’s 2016 Superintendent of the Year, sees Bernal as one of her district’s many success stories. Though Umatilla is plagued by poverty, she says students and their families embrace education.

“Alfonso has the potential to be a great leader,” she says. “My job is to provide him with opportunities.”

A practical idealist, Sipe has introduced programs she hopes will encourage students to “dream new dreams.” They include a STEM Academy, an after-school program promoting science, technology, engineering, and math; a FIRST Robotics Competition, an international high-school robotics tournament that champions leadership, teamwork, and innovation; and educational partnerships that help high school students take transferable college courses.

“Our students need to interact with professionals and be introduced to career choices they never imagined,” she says.

Growing up, Sipe always thought she’d be a lawyer or politician. That changed one winter during high school when she volunteered as a Special Olympics ski instructor.

Heidi Sipe Heidi Sipe“I fell in love with teaching kids,” says Sipe.

After college, she and her husband, Kyle, attended a job fair in Spokane, Washington, hoping to find teaching positions in the same school. An informal stop at the Umatilla booth eventually led to job offers at the middle school.

“When we pulled into town in 2000, we prejudged its desert location and lack of economic opportunities,” she says. “But the people quickly made up for what the town lacked in aesthetics. We never left.”

Mentored and professionally prodded by her superiors, Sipe quickly moved up through the ranks. She was named federal programs director in 2002, later became the assistant superintendent, and was selected as district superintendent in 2007. She went on to earn an Initial Administrator license from Lewis & Clark as well as a Continuing Administrator license and an Ed.S. degree. In 2012, she joined the Oregon Department of Education for a brief stint as assistant superintendent for the Office of Educational Improvement and Innovation while on a leave of absence from her district.

Sipe usually teaches one course per semester at Lewis & Clark’s graduate school. She emphasizes real-world problem solving and network building. “Currently, we’re using the expertise in the room to design solutions unique to small rural areas.”

In Umatilla, Sipe says education has become a family affair. Her husband, a former football and basketball coach, teaches science and math. Her daughter is a high school junior. Her son, who participated in a pathway-to-college program, transitioned from high school to Washington State University as a third-year engineering student. As a family, they all promote and participate in the robotics program.

“I’m so proud of our robotics team,” she says. “They’re competing against large schools with tons of resources and professional engineers as mentors. Our team has only four local coaches, including my husband and me. Yet they’ve made it to the world championships —twice. They clearly have the talent to succeed.”

—by Pattie Pace