CP superintendent talks retirement, future
When Samantha Steele began her career in education in the 1980s, her grade book was made out of something called paper, and if she talked about retrieving something from her desktop, she meant the literal top of her literal desk.
A lot has changed in schools between the time Steele introduced herself to an English class at Eagle Point High School in 1989 and now as she heads down the home stretch of her final school year as Central Point’s superintendent. Steele will retire at the end of the school year, wrapping up a 32-year career that included stints as a teacher, an assistant principal, eight years as Central Point’s education director and another eight as superintendent.
Steele took over as district superintendent July 1, 2013, and on July 1 of this year she’ll pass the baton to Central Point Elementary Principal Walt Davenport. Steele recently talked about her three-decade career, what’s changed in education, what she plans to do next and her advice to Davenport. Her answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
MT: Why now?
Steele: My mom died a year-and-a-half ago. She was 75 years old, incredibly healthy and active. Really, we talked a lot about when I retired, traveling, and that didn’t happen. She died, I think very young, at 75. That, combined with the fact that my son and his wife live in New York and have a business there. They want to start having kids but they have no family there, so they’re terrified. I think mom’s death really caused me to think about mortality, what a short time we have. The other thing is, I never wanted to be one of those people that was just phoning it in. I wanted to leave the position while I still had a lot of energy for it, which it turns out makes it tough to know then when to leave.
MT: What are some of the major ways education has changed during your career?
Steele: The impact of technology has been key. And I think the second-biggest change in education that will actually result in positive changes has been COVID. Public education changes very, very slowly, and there are a lot of things about education that I think were way behind where they should have been. This has forced a shift, particularly at secondary, that I think is going to provide students with a much more personalized education and is going to provide students with some flexibility. And what I really see as the future is going to be kind of that blended learning model. The last few years it’s, “Do you have kids doing online school or kids doing brick and mortar?” I think the future isn’t a choice between that. I think it’s some online, some brick and mortar. And I don’t even mean take one class online, take one at school. Individual classes may have online components and brick-and-mortar components.
MT: What do you see as some of the major challenges in education going forward?
Steele: The correct answer is always resources, but I honestly don’t think that is true now. In Oregon just prior to COVID the Student Investment Account (one of three accounts that started benefitting from the $2 billion-per-biennium Student Success Act last summer) and the shift in funding has been a positive for districts across the state, so I don’t think funding is a challenge. But what I do think is going to be a challenge for districts is being able to provide an education that parents choose. For decades, it’s been, “What neighborhood do you live in, that’s the school you go to, take it or leave it.” Our schools need to be much more customer service-oriented and much more personalized. Because while we’ve learned a lot since COVID, parents have also learned that we’re not the only show in town. I think that kind of competition will make us better and ultimately we’ll provide a better education for kids.
MT: What are some accomplishments that you’re most proud of?
Steele: When I think about my career, I think what I’ll remember most are the incredible people I’ve worked with. The staff at District 6 has been risk-takers, they’re passionate and committed, willing to try things. An incredible group to work with. When I think about what we’ve accomplished, the two things that emerged just very recently would be the capital improvements bond (the $82 million bond passed in 2019). We’re not different from many other (school districts) in that the majority of voters don’t have children in schools. Being able to pass that bond has been huge and will make a big difference in terms of the facilities we can provide. We may see a day when we’re looking at school schedules that could include summers, and that is not possible without HVAC. I also think that the shift to what we call authentic learning (is important), and you see that in the makerspaces that all of our schools have. Every one of our schools have a garden or greenhouse. Crater Works MakerSpace is something I’m proud of. And that shift to authentic learning has really relied on community partnerships. Rogue Valley Farm to School, certainly the city of Central Point, the YMCA, La Clinica. Those are the partnerships that have provided incredible services for our kids, so I’m very grateful working with those organizations.
MT: You responded to an email last night at 8 p.m., and you’ve said that you wake up as early as 3 a.m. some days to get a jump on the day. How much do you think your daily routine will change in retirement?
Steele: It’s been so many years since I’ve even had a day when I didn’t have something work-related hanging over my head. And even if on those days if I didn’t have an email or a phone call, there’s always something. One of the most important things in my life is plugging in my headlamp every night to recharge because I run in the mornings before sunrise. And the idea of running without a headlamp is very appealing to me. And my thing is cooking. I like to cook, so I’m sure I’ll be in the kitchen. I’ll probably be dropping off baked goods for my friends here at the district office when I retire.
MT: Do you have any hobbies or interests you’re looking forward to exploring in retirement?
Steele: Generally what I want to do is run, bike and paddle board, and cook obviously. But traveling would also be huge. My sister just bought property in Panama, so I’m super excited. Obviously, Panama will be my next trip.
MT: How much have you met with Walt Davenport about the transition, and what advice have you shared with him?
Steele: We do meet and, gosh, I guess I give him advice on a regular basis and I try to tell him, hey, take it or leave it. He’s going to do things his way. It’ll be different from the way I approach things and that’s a good thing — I did things differently than my predecessor (Randy Gravon). I think there are the technical aspects of the job, such as understanding a budget at this scale. Other than that, it’s really about developing the culture and direction that he wants to go. And I think one of the advantages of hiring from within is the board is pleased with where the district’s going, they weren’t looking for big change. And I think Walt is going to take it all to another level. He has tremendous energy, he has elementary experience, he has high school experience, and I really see him coming in and assisting our schools and really meeting kids’ and family needs in a way that hasn’t happened in the past. They will leverage what we’ve learned from COVID.
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org.