Chiloquin’s Rita Hepper Named Oregon Elementary School Principal of the Year 2024

Chiloquin’s Rita Hepper named 2024 Oregon Elementary School Principal of the Year

Rita Hepper, principal of Chiloquin Elementary School, has been named 2024 Oregon Elementary School Principal of the Year by the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators. She was chosen for the award by her colleagues from more than 1,200 elementary schools across the state.

Klamath County School District Superintendent Glen Szymoniak announced the award today (April 17) during an all-school assembly, surprising Hepper, her staff, and her students. Craig Hawkins, executive director of COSA, KCSD administrators Dr. Doris Ellison and Jeff Bullock, and school board member John Rademacher were in attendance. All three of Hepper’s children – sixth-grader Dylan, seventh-grader Allie, and eighth-grader Adam – also attended the assembly.

Pictured with Chiloquin Elementary Principal Rita Hepper, center, are from left: COSA Executive Director Craig Hawkins, KCSD Elementary Curriculum Director Dr. Doris Ellison, Chiloquin Elementary Vice Principal Janelle Emard and KCSD Superintendent Glen Szymoniak.

“What stood out about Rita was her deep connection to the community here, her deep investment, partnership, and collaboration with the Tribes and the work she did during the Two Four Two Fire to take care of families in Chiloquin,” Hawkins said. “Also, academic achievement here has made real progress under her leadership. All of those things go into the mix, but I think her story just really touched hearts.

Hepper grew up in Chiloquin, graduating in 2003 from Chiloquin Jr/Sr High School. She earned a degree in education from Western Oregon University and then returned to work as a high school math teacher, an instructional coach and interventionist. Seven years ago, she took the reins as principal of Chiloquin Elementary School, creating an environment where families feel safe and student achievement scores are steadily increasing.

“I feel really humbled,” she said. “There are a lot of people who do hard things, so I don’t feel like I do more than my peers. But I’m excited. I’m hopeful that this will get our community more recognition. There are so many positive things that come out of this community.”

She is a leader who leads with passion and by example, said Ellison, KCSD’s director of elementary curriculum. Ellison nominated Hepper for the statewide award.

“Ms. Hepper grew up in Chiloquin, and her passion for the community is personal,” Ellison said. “She wants it to thrive so she gives 110% of herself.”

Hepper’s investment in her school and community is ongoing. Some highlights:

  • When the Two Four Two Fire swept through the community in September 2020, Hepper activated an emergency response plan, cancelling school, and utilizing staff to locate all students and find out what they needed. She turned the school into a supply and distribution location and community members were able to get food, water, pet supplies, clothes, and other needed items. She also coordinated with the local food bank to ensure community members did not go hungry.
  • Hepper was the first KCSD principal to implement a new strategy utilizing small group instruction and project-based learning art classes to improve student learning. Literacy scores increased at each grade level and students with disabilities were able to remain in their classrooms due to individualized and small group instruction methods.
  • Hepper must constantly recruit new teachers and provides a “boot camp” training before school starts as well as ongoing instructional coaching during the school year. Overall, under Hepper’s leadership, reading proficiency scores increased by 15 percentage points from fall to winter and math proficiency increased by 11 percentage points.
  • Since many of her students are Native American, Hepper collaborates with The Klamath Tribes to ensure cultural learning opportunities are available both in and out the classroom.

“Oregon will not find another elementary principal like her, who faces the same challenges and who will continue to show up every day, in every way,” Ellison said. “She is a humble, kind, exceptional, and dedicated educator.”

Hepper will receive her award in front of fellow administrators at the COSA annual conference in June. In July, she will be honored at the national conference in Nashville, Tenn.

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