Oregon’s state education director a quiet, collaborative force in the turbulence of pandemic

Colt Gill’s voice quivered when he talked of teachers and other school employees who died from Covid, or who lost family members. 

By: - January 3, 2022 6:00 am
Colt Gill, Education Department director

Colt Gill (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Colt Gill gets up at 2:30 every morning, thinking about his duty to the principals, teachers, students and school staff in Oregon’s 216 school districts and education service districts. 

The director of the state Education Department is in action, answering emails, conferring with his deputy director Carmen Urbina and responding to text messages from school superintendents, board leaders and government officials. 

If working from home in Eugene, he starts by 3:30 a.m. Otherwise, he’s at his Salem office by 6 a.m.

He only sleeps four and a half hours a night and, for many months of the pandemic, has worked weekends, too. 

Gill became interim director of the Education Department in 2017, at a time when Oregon’s test scores and graduation rates were flagging. Gov. Kate Brown gave him the job a year later, asking that he see the rates improve while supporting districts and developing and enforcing policies, academic standards and teacher standards. 

He’s been involved in difficult and often unpopular decisions that kept students at home for months, creating a burden for families, especially for low-income households. He’s also been the chief enforcer of mask and social distancing requirements. He’s fielded calls from angry school superintendents and answered pointed questions from other officials. Through it all, he’s listened and collaborated with districts, teachers associations, school boards, school administrators and government agencies.

In meetings, he speaks quietly, directly addressing each person and listening more than anything. At times his voice breaks, like at a Senate Education Committee meeting in November, when he appeared to hold back tears as he read a teacher’s testimony about how hard the school year had been. 

And when he’s confronted with anger, he stays calm. 

“What I try to do is listen to the voices that come with some heat, and understand it,” Gill said in an interview with the Capital Chronicle. “And for some of them, it’s easy for me to understand why they’re angry, and for others, I have a harder time understanding where that’s coming from, but I work to do it.” 

His focus on others and his ability to build consensus is why those who work with him say he’s been the best possible leader for the department during one of the most tumultuous periods of its history.

Yet, the pandemic has tested the 55-year old state education leader again and again. 

Besides the time demands of the job and the need to always be accessible, he’s had to assuage school board members who were threatened for enforcing Covid protocols and deal with superintendents fired by their boards for following Brown’s mandates. He’s seen schools lose employees to the virus and students struggling with the loss of family members.

Gill said his number one objective for the current school year has been to keep kids in school, where they benefit from being around their peers and teachers. If that means masks and vaccine mandates, so be it.

“We’ve just tried to work through the disagreements and agree on the big ideals of in-person instruction and keeping kids in school and safe,” Gill said. “Sometimes it’s not in the way that some folks want, but I do think that we’ve been successful, both as school districts in the state of Oregon, and frankly, as a state altogether. Many, many lives have been saved in Oregon in comparison to what’s happened in some states.”

He struggled in school

Gill grew up in Lane County and attended schools in Springfield, where he said he was not a great student. He struggled with reading and got help from the special education team at his elementary school. He was a photographer on the high school newspaper, he said, because he did not feel like a strong writer. 

“Because I was not a great student, I never thought about going into education,” he said. 

He took classes at Lane Community College after graduating from high school, and ended up at his old elementary school in a work experience program, seeing what it was like to teach.

“I got to be there for a student who was going through some tremendous challenges, and his family was as well, and I just got to be that grounded adult and be there for him,” Gill said. “I saw lots of need for a lot more of that.”

He decided to study education.

He graduated from the University of Oregon in 1988 with a degree in elementary education, the first in his family to graduate from college.

His first job was teaching fourth grade at an elementary school in the Creswell School District where he got computers in all the schools as the district’s technology director.

He taught computer classes at the middle and high schools, introduced email to students and staff and built websites.

“This was cutting edge back then,” said Krista Parent, then an assistant superintendent in the South Lane School District and now a director at the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators.  

She urged him to apply for a job as principal at an elementary school in Cottage Grove. 

She knew he was smart and had a knack for collaboration. She remembered he had a huge collection of Converse sneakers – many that students had bought for him and signed so he would remember them  – hair down to his shoulders and an ear piercing he got the day his son was born. 

Parent told him he might not land the job without cutting his hair. 

He attended the interview with a new cut.

Later, as superintendent, Parent hired Gill as her assistant superintendent. 

“He is one of the biggest kid advocates I’ve ever seen,” Parent said. “He got kids to do things – I mean, kids that hadn’t been successful in just about anything they’d ever done – to be really successful at school.”

Colt Gill, Oregon education director
Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Education Department, discusses his tenure in an interview at his office on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

‘You really have to commit’

At the time, test scores and high school graduation rates were lagging among students at Cottage Grove’s high school. Some seniors played football at school in the fall, then dropped out to work in the timber industry, Parent said.

Parent and Gill helped persuade voters to pass a school bond for a new high school with a technical education building, an engineering program and a “Teacher Cadet Program” to encourage kids to pursue careers in education. Test scores and graduation rates began to rise.

“I think that the success of Cottage Grove High School over that period of time is what Colt and I would probably say we were most proud of,” Parent said.

The two began their days at 4 a.m., exercising in an athletic facility at the new high school, and starting work by 6 a.m.

“That was kind of our two hours, hour-and-a-half, of just concentrated time to talk about the vision of the district and where we were at,” Parent said.

Gill left Cottage Grove and the South Lane School District after eight years to become superintendent in the Bethel School District west of Eugene, where he served for a decade.

In 2016, Brown called, asking him to serve as education innovation officer at the Education Department. 

She wanted him to boost graduation rates statewide and focus on improving outcomes for low-income students and students of color. 

He’d worked on several state committees with former heads of the Education Department, and he’d been president of the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators.

“I didn’t recognize that I was being seen as that kind of a leader, that could step into that kind of role,” Gill said. “I took a big pause because I feel like there’s a lot of privilege wrapped up in even being asked, and so I feel like when you have this short-term opportunity that not very many people ever get, you have to really commit.”

His son had just gone to college to study education, so Gill felt he’d be less needed around the house. Several months into his new job, however, he and his wife, a principal in the Albany School District, took in a 9-year-old foster child for several months, an act that supporters say shows his selflessness.

In his new role, Gill oversaw an expansion of career-oriented technical courses in many districts, and from 2016 to 2020, Oregon’s graduation rate increased by 8%, according to the Education Department. 

In 2017, Brown asked Gill to become interim director of the Education Department. He was replacing Salam Noor, who Brown asked to step down after 2.5 years on the job due to her dissatisfaction with “his ability to execute her vision for Oregon’s education system,” according to her press team at the time. 

In 2018, Brown made Gill’s assignment permanent, a job that pays about $227,000 according to the Education Department.

Navigating the pandemic

The difficult decisions Gill’s been involved in, like moving classes online after the 2020 spring break and continuing online learning the following school year, were made in collaboration with unions, district leadership, district and administrative associations, the governor’s office and the Oregon Health Authority. 

Colleagues say Gill’s ability to get them to agree on big decisions is what’s made his leadership exceptional.

The director of the Oregon School Boards Association, Jim Green, said Gill was always reachable, exchanging texts at 4 a.m. and attending any meeting he was invited to, fielding and answering difficult questions with a calm that disarmed people.

Reed Scott-Schwalbach, president of the Oregon Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said many members found they were getting clearer information about Covid protocols from him at meetings than from their own district leaders because he explained them better. 

The superintendent of the state’s second largest district, Christy Perry of Salem-Keizer, said he operates with “thoughtfulness and consideration for what schools should be, and how we should all show up for kids,” she said.

“I can’t imagine a pandemic without Colt Gill,” Perry said.

Gill hears from educators every day about the difficulties navigating mandates, student testing and tracking and quarantines. School leaders have his cell phone number, and they text throughout the day. A couple weeks ago, a superintendent in a small east Oregon town texted him about the difficulty forcing people to wear masks during basketball games. Gill talked him through how to navigate the situation.

“I think that for the vast majority of superintendents, even the ones that we’ve been in disagreement, I think that they would say that they can still feel free to call me,” he said. 

He’s had dark days. 

The worst was closing schools last year. Remembering it nearly brought him to tears.

“There was the initial, you know, kind of short-term closure prior to spring break of 2020, and then coming back and saying we’re closed even longer. Those are all challenging, challenging days,” Gill said. 

His voice quivered when he talked of teachers and other school employees who died from Covid, or who lost family members. 

Those who work closely with him worry about him. 

“He’s asked to carry a lot, and it’s a credit to the work he’s done to hold our state together,” Scott-Schwalbach said.

Parent, director at the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators, said she checks in on him occasionally, encouraging him in texts to “keep him going.”

In the little free time he has, Gill tends to bee hives, brews beer and takes occasional trips to the coast. He and his wife go for the weekend while continuing to work, putting in 12 hours over two days.

The change of scenery helps.

“We’re looking at the ocean,” he said, “and taking walks and it’s a different pace than when you’re at home and everything else is going on around you.”

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.