New Oregon education leader aims to support students, hold schools accountable

By Natalie Pate (OPB) and Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
Aug. 1, 2023 11:35 p.m.

Less than a month into the role, Charlene Williams is preparing to travel the state to hear from students and staff

When Charlene Williams was principal of Roosevelt High School in North Portland, she wanted to know all the urban legends, misunderstandings and stereotypes people had about the school. She wanted to hear what was working — and what wasn’t.

To accomplish that, she provided data for the community to view. She welcomed public opinion. She quelled rumors about increased violence by physically opening the school’s doors once a week so anyone could come and observe for themselves.


“We did the best we could to be just transparent about the things that were going on,” she said in an interview Monday with OPB. “And we did a lot of training of staff and a lot of support to make sure that things were going well.”

Williams helped secure a $7.7 million federal grant in 2010 to transform the school. According to the state, she also boasted higher graduation rates and significantly improved academic performance, particularly for students from low-income households and students of color.

Now, Williams said she will lead all 197 public school districts across the state as the new director of the Oregon Department of Education with the same approach — transparency, care and collaboration.

Charlene Williams is the new director of the Oregon Department of Education. She started the job in July. In her first year, she plans to visit schools across the state.

Charlene Williams is the new director of the Oregon Department of Education. She started the job in July. In her first year, she plans to visit schools across the state.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

Williams started in July as interim director and still needs to be confirmed by the Oregon Senate. The decisions she makes in her tenure will impact about 550,000 students from districts as large as Portland Public Schools, with more than 49,000 students, and as small as Joseph School District, with fewer than 280.

She’s taking the job during an especially challenging time.

Oregon’s student academic progress has struggled to return to pre-COVID levels — matching nationwide trends — and school attendance continues to lag. State education officials have faced criticism for changing graduation requirements, all while new laws and statewide initiatives are being added to educators’ plates.

“We just came out of a pandemic and our students need all the support we can give them. We also just came out of the session that has multiple layers of legislation,” Williams said. “And so I think, as a state agency, we do need to lean more towards accountability and support to ensure that we deliver on the promise of a high-quality education for our students.”

Williams is the first new Department of Education director in five years, following the retirement of Colt Gill in June. Unlike her predecessors, Williams has never worked as the head superintendent of a school district.

She said she’s been “superintendent adjacent” for years, most recently as deputy superintendent at Evergreen Public Schools in Southwest Washington. Before that, she was the assistant superintendent in the Camas School District. She also worked in Portland Public Schools for seven years.


While she might not have held a superintendent title, Williams said she stood in for superintendents, worked closely with school boards, handled multimillion-dollar budget issues and more.

“I’m able to find ways that my experience connects to, I believe, a lot of what many educators have experienced in Oregon,” she said.

The year ahead

Williams plans to prioritize early learning and literacy work in collaboration with Gov. Tina Kotek’s office. She remains focused on closing achievement gaps, ensuring schools are inclusive and addressing social-emotional needs following COVID, all while maintaining “high expectations” for students.

“Education is complex,” Williams said. “It’s not just about reading and writing and arithmetic. It’s really about the whole child, the social-emotional needs that our students need to have addressed, as well as how do we help them academically and use the best research-based practices in doing so.”

Next week, Williams heads to Eastern Oregon to meet with superintendents and teachers in Malheur County.

It’s one of many visits Williams has planned for her first year on the job, “to both learn from and alongside our leaders and [to understand] what it is they need from us as an agency to serve them better.”

Starting with one of the state’s most rural counties was intentional.

“It’s easy to stay on the I-5 corridor and look at some of the larger systems, but Oregon is primarily smaller districts,” Williams said. “What do educators and students need in some of these smaller areas?”

Williams plans to visit schools in every corner of the state as the new year begins and create a student advisory group to better understand what children and teens want from their education. She said she’s always listening to families and educators as well.

Williams sees the role of the state education department as one that supports schools and holds Oregon’s education system accountable. She compared the task to conducting an orchestra, with her standing at the helm.

“You have these various musicians in this field, and you have a conductor up there trying to bring this beautiful sound together,” she said. “And the only way that it’s going to work is if they’re all in the same cadence and keep in time.”

For Williams, that means monitoring and ensuring everyone is meeting the state’s objectives.

“We’re trying to produce this beautiful sound,” she said, “this beautiful sound of students who thrive academically, who feel validated in their identity and what they bring, celebrated for the assets that they bring to our classrooms.”