When Samantha Steele began her career in education in the 1980s, her graduation book was made of paper. When she talked about retrieving something from her desktop, she was referring to the literal top of her literal desk.
A lot has changed in schools since Steele envisioned an English class at Eagle Point High School in 1989 and now walking the home stretch of her senior year as Superintendent of Central Point. Steele will retire at the end of the school year and will complete a 32-year career that includes teaching, assistant principal, eight years as Central Point Education Director, and an additional eight years as superintendent.
Steele assumed leadership of the district on July 1, 2013 and will hand over the baton to Central Point Elementary School Principal Walt Davenport on July 1 of that year. Steele recently spoke about her three-decade career, what’s changed in education, what she’s up to next, and her advice to Davenport. Your answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
MT: Why now?
Steele: My mother died a year and a half ago. She was 75 years old, incredibly healthy and active. Really, we talked a lot about it when I retired while traveling and that didn’t happen. She died, I think very young, at the age of 75. That combined with the fact that my son and his wife live in New York and have a business there. They want to have children, but they don’t have a family there, so they’re scared. I think mom’s death really got me thinking about the mortality for what a short time we have. The other thing is, I never wanted to be one of those who just called. I wanted to leave the position while I still had a lot of energy for what it turns out to be difficult to know when to leave.
MT: What are some of the key ways that education has changed during your career?
Steele: The impact of technology was critical. And I think the second biggest change in education that will actually lead to positive change has been COVID. Public education is changing very, very slowly, and there are a lot of things about education that I think are way behind where they should have been. This has forced a shift, especially in secondary education, which I believe will offer students a much more personalized education and will give students some flexibility. And what I really see as the future will be some kind of blended learning model. For the last few years it has been said, “Do you have kids doing school online or kids doing brick and mortar?” I think the future is not a choice between these. I think there is something online, some brick and mortar. And I don’t even mean taking a class online, one at school. Individual classes can contain online components and stationary components.
MT: What do you see as some of the biggest challenges in education going forward?
Steele: The correct answer is always resources, but I honestly don’t think that’s true now. In Oregon, just prior to COVID, the Student Investment Account (one of three accounts that benefited from the Student Success Act of $ 2 billion per biennium last summer) and the postponement of funding for districts across the state were positive, that is I don’t think funding is a challenge. However, I think it will be a challenge for the districts to provide an education that parents choose. For decades it has been said: “Which neighborhood do you live in, that is the school you go to, that you take or that you leave.” Our schools need to be much more customer-centric and personal. Because while we’ve learned a lot since COVID, parents have also learned that we’re not the only show in town. I think this type of competition will make us better and ultimately we will provide better education for children.
MT: What accomplishments are you most proud of?
Steele: When I think about my career, I think that what I will remember most is the incredible people I have worked with. The District 6 staff were risk takers, passionate and dedicated, and willing to try things. An incredible group to work with. When I think about what we’ve accomplished, the two things that emerged only recently are the capital improvement bond (the $ 82 million bond that was passed in 2019). We are no different from many others (school districts) in that the majority of voters do not have children in schools. The opportunity to stand this bond has been tremendous and will make a huge difference in terms of the facilities we offer. We may see a day when we look at school schedules that could include summer, and that can’t be done without HVAC. I also think the shift to what we call authentic learning (is important) and you see that in the makerspaces that all of our schools have. Each of our schools has a garden or a greenhouse. Crater Works MakerSpace is something I am proud of. And this shift towards authentic learning has really relied on community partnerships. Rogue Valley Farm to school, certainly the town of Central Point, the YMCA, La Clinica. These are the partnerships that have served our children amazingly, so I am very grateful to be working with these organizations.
MT: You replied to an email last night at 8 p.m. and said that some days you wake up at 3 a.m. to jump into the day. How much do you think your daily routine will change when you retire?
Steele: It’s been so many years since I even had a day when I wasn’t over my head with anything work-related. And even if I didn’t have an email or a phone call on those days, there is always something. One of the most important things in my life is to plug in my headlights every night to recharge because I run before sunrise in the morning. And I really like the idea of running without headlights. And my thing is boiling. I like to cook so I’m sure I’ll be in the kitchen. I will probably drop off baked goods for my friends here at the county office when I retire.
MT: Do you have any hobbies or interests that you would like to explore in retirement?
Steele: In general, I want to run, bike and paddle and of course cook. But traveling would also be huge. My sister just bought a property in Panama so I’m super excited. Of course, Panama will be my next trip.
MT: How much did you meet with Walt Davenport about the transition and what advice did you give him?
Steele: We 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’ll do things his way. It’s going to be different from the way I deal with 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, like understanding a budget on this scale. That being said, it’s really about developing the culture and direction that he wants to go. And I think one of the benefits of hiring from within is that the board is happy with where the district is going. You weren’t looking for big changes. And I think Walt will take everything to another level. He has tremendous energy, he has elementary experience, he has high school experience, and I really see him come in and support our schools and really meet the needs of children and families in ways that have not happened in the past. They will use what we have learned from COVID.
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or [email protected]
Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneCentral Point Superintendent Samantha Steele will meet with staff in her Central Point office via Zoom on Wednesday.