Fighting to Educate Every Child

Joe Morelock BA ’92 led the Newberg School District during a national controversy involving the school board’s ban on Pride and Black Lives Matter symbols in classrooms. Now he’s taking the reins at the Woodburn School District.

In late 2021, as fiery debates about race, gender, and sexuality exploded in school board meetings across the country, Joe Morelock BA ’92 found himself at the center of it all. At the time, he was the superintendent of the Newberg School District in the Willamette Valley, and the school board had just voted to ban educators from displaying LGBTQ+ Pride flags and Black Lives Matters symbols. The ban, Morelock argued, was unconstitutional.

Joe Morelock BA ’92

BA in Hispanic studies, Lewis & Clark | MA in education, Pacific University | EdD, Portland State University

Argentina, fall 1990

While navigating the Newberg School District’s political controversies this past spring, Morelock fielded calls from several national news outlets, including the Washington Post. At one point, his son handed him his phone to show Morelock he was featured in a top headline on Apple News.

Morelock’s philosophy of acceptance met opposition, and the resulting conflict generated an avalanche of local and national media attention. The board’s decision to ban these symbols wasn’t just a bad thing to do, he says, but it also created an unanticipated backlash. “Ironically, they ended up with more rainbow flags and BLM symbols than ever before.”

The school board’s next step? Fire Morelock without cause. “I was willing to stand up for what I believed in regardless of employment,” says Morelock, who led the school district for three years. “My role was to make sure we did the best we could for every kid, and that’s what guided my choices.”

Morelock wasted no time finding another job as superintendent. This fall, he took the helm at Woodburn School District, where 87 percent of students are Latino. This demographic was a huge draw for Morelock, who speaks Spanish and majored in Hispanic studies as an undergraduate at Lewis & Clark. Morelock also has a love for traveling in Latin America, sparked by his experience studying abroad in Argentina while at the college.

He says that speaking multiple languages has been a central part of his identity—something he hopes to emphasize at Woodburn. “We’re trying to help students understand the grand advantage of being bilingual and bicultural,” he says.

Morelock’s mission, as a public school educator, is to welcome and support every child that walks in the door, no matter what they look like and what they believe.

Morelock started his career as a Spanish teacher in the Canby School District, where he later served as a librarian and a technology director. After rising through the ranks there, he joined the Lake Oswego School District and became assistant superintendent. Within the school system, Morelock could see what wasn’t working, so he took whatever job he thought would make the biggest difference. “I wanted to change the world,” he says.

Eventually, that mentality led him to the superintendent role in Newberg. When he took the job initially as interim superintendent in 2018, the district was in big financial trouble. Morelock helped pull the district out of it, building up the budget and hiring back previously laid-off staff.

But regardless of where he is serving, his favorite part of the superintendent gig has always been being present in schools and classrooms. He makes a point of spending 90 minutes in each of the district’s schools each month. “There will always be another meeting,” he says. “I would much rather be in the school with our staff and our kids.”

Morelock’s mission, as a public school educator, is to welcome and support every child that walks in the door, no matter what they look like and what they believe. He says this is a philosophy he developed while studying at L&C, where he was exposed to students from all over the world and gained an understanding of social justice issues. He adds, “There was always something happening at L&C, broadening your world view.” After the challenges of the last year, Morelock feels “plain old lucky” to be leading the Woodburn School District.

“Kids should be able to ask their superintendent questions—they should have direct access to the person who’s in charge,” he says. “I think that connection builds a culture of trust. It builds a culture of care. It builds a culture of community.”

—by Hanna Merzbach BA ’20