Kotek names longtime Northwest educator, administrator to lead Department of Education

Gov. Tina Kotek named a veteran educator and administrator, Charlene Williams, to be the next Department of Education director.

Williams, who needs to be confirmed by the state Senate, would be the first Black woman to serve in that position. In a news release, Kotek called Williams an “exceptional leader” who is inclusive, transformative and the right person to close education gaps among the state’s more than 550,000 K-12 students.

“Dr. Williams is strategic, thoughtful, hard-working and exactly the leader our state education system needs at this moment,” Kotek said. 

Williams is a longtime Northwesterner who arrived in Oregon from North Carolina in 1999 to work at Portland Community College, where she was a math instructor, program coordinator and curriculum developer. From 2002 to 2009, she was director of education, then principal at Rosemary Anderson High School, an alternative school in Portland. Her 14 years in Portland Public Schools also included serving as principal of Roosevelt High School in North Portland and as senior director of school performance, a role that involved redesigning the teacher evaluation system in collaboration with the Portland Association of Teachers. 

For the past seven years, she’s been a public school administrator in Southwest Washington. She is currently deputy superintendent at Evergreen Public Schools, and from 2016 to 2022, served as an assistant superintendent in the Camas School District.

She said in the release she has dedicated her life to education. 

“I’ve seen firsthand how a positive student-teacher relationship can set a child on a successful path for the rest of their life,” Williams said. “First and foremost, my goal will be to support students in every corner of the state so that they have the same chance to succeed. I recognize the significance of my appointment to this role and the immense amount of work we have ahead of us. I’m looking forward to building partnerships with students, educators and families across Oregon that advance equity and student success.”

One main principle has guided her career, according to her LinkedIn page.

‘I am a wife, mother, teacher, leader, author and lifelong learner,” the page says. “My aim is to help educators eliminate opportunity and outcome disparities so each student is able to thrive.”

Her appointment comes on the heels of legislative approval of a record-breaking $10.2 billion for the fund that will cover most of the cost of K-12 schools over the next two years. Kotek said when she came into office that improving the state’s education system was one of her top a priorities, and during the legislative session she backed a $145 million literacy package, marking the biggest such investment in reading and writing since 2001. A Capital Chronicle investigation found that Oregon’s reading problem  – about two in five Oregon fourth graders and one in five eighth graders struggle to read and understand simple words, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the “nation’s report card” – stems from a lack of phonics use in all reading instruction, the use of unscientific methods taught at some teacher colleges and the lack of central control over curricula.

Local control is not something that Williams will be able to change in her oversight of the state’s 197 districts. She will oversee a budget of about $16 billion for 2023-2025 and about 620 staff members. At 52 years old, her annual salary would be $253,300 a year, the same as Colt Gill, the current education director, according to Marc Siegel, a department spokesman. 

Her nomination inspired enthusiasm among educators, advocates and administrators, including from Gill. 

“Dr. Williams is a collaborator, she believes every student matters, and that she is deeply committed to serving all of Oregon’s kids,” Gill said in the release. “She is the right leader for Oregon schools at this time.”

Shay James, superintendent of North Clackamas School District, echoed that sentiment. 

“Dr. Williams is someone I know I can call and count on when I have a problem,” James said. “Her brilliance lies in her work supporting educators’ professional development, bringing out the strengths in folks that ultimately moves our educational work forward. She understands the landscape of Oregon and will work to bring us together.” 

Jim Green, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, agreed.

“She understands the challenges, from social-emotional issues our students face to stabilizing the workforce to making the investments our students need and deserve,” he said in a statement to the Capital Chronicle.

President Reed Scott-Schwalbach of the Oregon Education Association, which has 41,000 members, congratulated Williams on her appointment, saying the group looks forward to working with her.

Williams holds a doctorate in education and education leadership from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, a master’s in education and mathematics from Wake Forest University in North Carolina and a bachelor’s of science from North Carolina State University.

Kotek chose Williams after a national search that involved interviews with student adviseors, educators, Oregon Department of Education leaders, tribal leaders and the governor’s executive team, she said in the release. Williams will take over the department as interim director on Monday, July 10. The Senate will consider her confirmation in September. 


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