Fierce and Fearless
How Superintendent Christy Perry is Clearing the Path Forward
Walking the halls of Oregon’s Salem-Keizer Public Schools (SKPS), Superintendent Christy Perry is instantly recognizable in her signature, multicolored Converse shoes—emblazoned on the midsole with words like “female,” “fierce,” and “fearless.” As the head of a district spanning two cities and 65 different schools, Perry is a leader who is bold in her beliefs.
The 2021 Oregon Superintendent of the Year has always known she wanted to be an educator. But despite being a third-generation education advocate, her ascent to the superintendency wasn’t an easy one.
Perry has spent the last 19 years combating gender inequity in the superintendency, a position overwhelmingly dominated by men. While enduring the pressures of a system that hasn’t historically worked for women, Perry became a passionate educator and activist. Her goal has always been to create structures that serve everyone—no matter where they come from or dream of going.
Fearless in the Face of Hardship
Perry’s resilience, grit, and passion for education are traits that run in her family. When her grandmother, Mabel, suddenly lost her husband, she went to college in her 50s to take business classes and get her first job. “She worked until she was 80, getting a job at 70 as a park ranger,” Perry tells us. During Mabel’s job interview, they wanted her to prove that she could climb stairs. “So she ran up them,” Perry says. Her mother has a similar story. “After my dad passed away, Mom sold her house and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to work,” she adds. “This is a lady who had never lived away from the small coastal town of Reedsport, Oregon.”
Over the past century, education has been the thread weaving together the legacies left by the women in Perry’s family. Her grandmother was an advocate for full-day public kindergarten, and her mother served on the local school board for 12 years. But it was the woman Perry considers a mentor who ultimately convinced her to go into education. Marlene Tymchuk, a family friend and Oregon’s 1980 Teacher of the Year, was “small in stature and mighty in spirit,” Perry tells us. She fondly remembers helping Tymchuk in her classroom while she was still an elementary student herself.
Even though she hails from a family that has long championed education, Perry’s path to leadership wasn’t without obstacles. As a first-generation college graduate, she waited tables throughout high school to save up for college classes. After undergrad, she worked on her master’s degree while starting a family, later earning her administrator’s certification while actively teaching. Perry remembers her husband taking their son to the babysitter so she could focus on finishing her degrees.
On top of it all, Perry and her husband were managing his family’s restaurant, which they ran together for 19 years. So in addition to working as an educator, becoming a mother, and furthering her own education, Perry was still waiting tables. She and her husband didn’t pull a paycheck from the restaurant for eight years. Often, they relied on tips to purchase their own meals. “That’s how we survived,” Perry tells SchoolCEO.
Perry now recognizes that those experiences gave her an appreciation and respect for all types of careers, and a passion for establishing systems that make economic security attainable for everyone.
Ready for a Female Leader
Even after Perry worked her way to the superintendency, she still faced daily obstacles—but of a different sort. She remembers a particularly fraught bond campaign she led for Oregon’s Dallas School District, before her time at SKPS. “A group of older men were following me around to my public meetings to heckle me,” she tells us. “I called it the ‘missy factor.’ In that moment, I was just the little missy.”
Perry wanted to fight it, but she believed her job was to pass the school bond. “So I put a man beside me,” she says. “I let him be the lead in communication. I was the superintendent, but it didn’t matter because, with that audience, I was never going to be credible. And it was because of my gender.”
Every 10 years, the School Superintendents Association (AASA) examines the national state of the superintendency. In 2000, only 13% of superintendent positions were held by women. By 2010, the proportion of women in the superintendency had nearly doubled to 24%, suggesting that—for the first time in the history of public education—women were on track to be adequately represented within leadership roles. But in the decade since, the percentage of women in the superintendency has increased by only 3%.
In other words, the rate at which women are hired for superintendent positions has significantly slowed in recent years. As a result, men continue to occupy almost three-quarters of superintendencies, while simultaneously holding less than 25% of educator positions in our schools.
How could this be? Possibly because of the very prejudice that Perry describes as “the missy factor.” But despite her frustration at having to step aside in order to make her points heard, Perry’s strategic choices have enabled her to retain control in male-dominated spaces. “I felt great power in being smarter and not engaging in that negativity,” she says. “If you stay in a place of being frustrated, you give away your power. And, yes, sometimes you have to be angry. You have to speak with a passion that comes with some anger in it—but you have to save that for the right times and places.”
In 2021, Perry participated in a research study titled “Just Not Ready for a Female: An Examination of the Inequities in Oregon’s Superintendency.” In the study, female superintendents share the difficulties and disrespect they experience as women in school leadership. One research participant said that, after being turned down for an open superintendency, she was told the district was “just not ready for a female.” Others note microaggressions like “being assumed to be the secretary,” “being ignored in male-dominated meetings,” and being interrogated by school board members “about their ‘questionable choices’ to be both a superintendent and a mother.”
“It’s sad that in this world and in this moment, those situations are still a thing,” Perry says. With so many expectations put on mothers—both internal and external—the superintendency becomes less accessible to women with children. This is one of many examples of how education, like most fields, still holds women to a higher standard than it does their male counterparts. “The system just needs to be okay with mothers in leadership,” Perry tells us. “I mean, I need to go pick up my kids. I have to. I’m a whole person.”
So what can be done? One thing Perry believes will begin to shift the system is effective male allyship. According to Perry, a male ally is someone who listens to understand, who asks questions instead of immediately offering solutions. Perry also believes it’s necessary to take a deep look at hiring and compensation practices, and supply intentional mentorship and networking opportunities to the aspiring female leaders in your district. “Female leaders need to be connected with other female leaders,” she says. “The world I navigate is still a man’s world. Female leaders need to be recognized and cared for differently.”
Fiercely Committed to Equity
As someone who has experienced personal hardships and professional barriers firsthand, Perry does everything she can to use her position of power to level the playing field for those around her. Unfortunately, there’s no wrecking ball approach when it comes to dismantling oppressive structures. Prejudice and inequity are systems that break down slowly—one brick at a time. Luckily, Perry is exactly the kind of leader who’s willing to do that strategic, intentional work.
Leading and Listening
Leading with an equity lens is “the right work and the hardest work,” Perry tells us. “It’s the work that can create the most division—especially during this time—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing it. We’ve got to lean in differently and harder than we ever have before.” For Perry, that means making granular changes—like new policies and programs—as well as big-picture ones, like reconceptualizing how education is delivered.
Perry’s passion for leading SKPS with an equity focus began before she was even hired. During the public forum portion of her interview process, the president of the local NAACP branch asked hard, important questions: How are we going to build a culturally relevant curriculum? How are we going to find more teachers of color? It made Perry uncomfortable not to have the answers, but she didn’t pull back. Instead, she committed herself to finding them. “You’re not going to get it right the first time,” she says, “and that puts you at risk, but you have to stay in the game. You’re going to uncover something that you’ll wish you’d known sooner, but we just have to keep showing up with our whole hearts and with bravery and courage.”
Over Perry’s nearly nine years as superintendent, SKPS has formed a student equity committee, emphasized equitable hiring practices, and established intentional partnerships with culturally specific organizations throughout the community. SKPS has also adopted the district’s first-ever equity policy. This policy requires the board to apply an equity lens to every decision by engaging with questions like: How does this decision build capacity and power in underserved groups? What does the data tell us about the success of our subgroups due to this decision?
And Perry doesn’t shy away from holding her board accountable to this policy, either. In one school board meeting, she reminded them of their commitment to equity: “Tonight, the right thing is for me to use my position of power to do what’s right for all kids—our transgender students, our Black students, our queer students, our Latinx students, our Indigenous students, our students with disabilities, our Micronesian students, our immigrant students, and every other child who comes through our doors. If I can’t do this and speak truth to power, how can I expect it of everyone else in our organization?”
“That was incredibly supportive to some of our students who have been underserved and underrepresented for years,” says Assistant Superintendent Olga Cobb.
And Perry’s not stopping there. She also helped her board establish what she calls Community Learning Sessions; then, she encouraged her board members to help lead them. The idea behind Community Learning Sessions is twofold: to position the board as lead learners and to establish strong partnerships with diverse organizations beyond the walls of SKPS.
The first Community Learning Session launched in October of 2021. SKPS connected with a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, who shared about her tribe and the nine other federally recognized Indigenous tribes in Oregon. “It was about learning,” Perry says, “and then the panel took questions from the audience. About 45 people listened in—it was awesome.”
For Perry, this kind of listening and learning is absolutely essential to equity work. And both are necessary skills for leaders who want to make real change. “I have the ability to listen until my ears bleed,” she says. “And, in my mind, I’m always thinking: Where can I improve our system?”
Perry believes that supporting equitable education for all students at SKPS also means offering diverse learning opportunities. “Equity calls on each of us to be allies and advocates, and to take action,” she says, “including how we conceptualize and deliver education.”
It’s well known that “traditional” pathways to four-year universities are not always best for every student. In response to this, Perry knew the district needed to invest in career and technical education. So along with Mountain West Investment Corporation—a local business that values philanthropy—Perry developed an innovative public-private partnership that led to the establishment of a Career and Technical Education Center (CTEC).
According to the SKPS website, “the vision for CTEC is to prepare high school students for high-skill, high-wage and high-demand careers.” CTEC students do more than just spend an hour in shop class. They’re completely immersed onsite in state-of-the-art facilities for two and a half days a week. Students can even take their English and math classes at CTEC. “We’re all here to advance ourselves,” one North Salem High School senior says of the program.
Building on this momentum, the district also passed the third-largest school bond in the state’s history. This investment expanded career and technical education opportunities in all six of the district’s comprehensive high schools and alternative schools—all while complementing CTEC’s existing programs.
And these changes are proving their worth. Now, “the graduation rate for career tech concentrators is over 93%,” Perry tells us. “Our reimagined career tech is one of the reasons we’ve increased graduation rates each year and have closed achievement gaps for many of our marginalized student groups.”
Looking to the Future
A while back, Perry was in a board meeting that started to get chaotic. “I was struggling to get through it,” she says, remembering how difficult it was to keep her emotions in check. She thought about leaving right then and there—but then she remembered the female student member on their school board. “And I thought: Oh, I can’t let her down,” Perry tells us. “I need to model for young girls what this looks like.”
So Perry waited for her turn to speak at the end of the meeting. “I just want to say to any young women who are out there: It’s okay to feel emotions,” she said. “And it’s okay to feel bad in the moment. But we can also be really strong.”
Perry has brought so much passion to the superintendency because she believes in everything she’s worked for. Having navigated a number of oppressive structures herself, she spent her career clearing the path forward for those following her. “In the end, that’s why representation matters,” she tells us. “I’m a strong female because I had that modeled for me growing up.” From establishing equitable practices in her own district to fighting for change on a larger scale, Perry has done her part to ensure the lineage of strength that supported her will continue beyond her tenure.
Recently, Perry announced that she will retire from SKPS at the end of the 2022-23 school year, and she can do so knowing she’s paved the way for future leaders. “I’ve always believed that the leaders I hire should be able to advance beyond the positions they are hired to do,” she says. “I trust our leaders and know the district has strong people who will help our entire community navigate this transition.”
During Perry’s very first call with SchoolCEO, she made sure we knew not to call her “Dr. Perry” because she doesn’t have a doctorate, and she didn’t want us to be separated by a title. That same honesty and personable humility threaded its way through every conversation thereafter.
In her retirement announcement to the Salem-Keizer community, Perry wrote: “Planning to leave hurts my heart, but it also makes my heart happy for what is next for SKPS and for my family. I think being a bit brokenhearted is healthy and means a person loves what they do even if it’s the right time to do something else.” Then, she signed off simply: “With appreciation, Christy.”
Christy Perry is proof that a superintendent can be both tough and soft, serious and kind, steadfast and personable. During her time at SKPS, she has poured herself into creating equitable systems and supporting the growth of those around her. “She’ll be able to move on knowing that she left that as her legacy,” says one SKPS staff member. “We are better because she was here.”
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