Steel-High’s chief administrator Audrey Utley brings vast experience with ‘troubled’ schools to the role of superintendent.
By Debra Schell
Press And Journal Staff
Like many school districts, Steelton-Highspire is facing a tough budget year.
But SHSD may have a secret formula that will get them through and see light at the end of the tunnel – Superintendent Audrey Utley.
Utley’s calm nature and vast experience may be just what the district needs to see its way through this hard time. The district recently announced it was eliminating busing for some students and furloughing staff, all in an effort to close a $2.3 million budget deficit.
“I have come from districts that face the same issues,” she said.
Utley briefly served as superintendent at Harrisburg School District, and sits on the Board of Control for the Duquesne School District, a troubled district in Pittsburgh.
Utley also served as superintendent of the Middletown Area School District and worked as an assistant superintendent, administrator, principal, and teacher.
“We will get through it,” she said.
“One of the things about this town is that teachers are here because they want to be here and are concerned about the students,” Utley said.
But what brought Utley back to Steelton again?
The answer may lie in her past.
Utley grew up in Steelton and attended a segregated school in the early 1950s known as Hygienic, located at the top of Adams Street.
Utley was reminded of the school after speaking with Samuel C. Thompson, legal scholar and author, who addressed students at his alma mater, Steelton-Highspire Jr.-Sr. High School in January.
“He was talking about our history, and we discovered that we both went to the school,” Utley said.
“It was in 1956, and during the time of Brown vs. The Board of Education,” said Utley. “The [landmark U.S. Supreme Court] ruling forced school districts to integrate.”
Steelton didn’t integrate until 1958, she said.
“We talked about the little segregated elementary school we both went to 50 years ago and it was interesting,” Utley said. “Obviously from that experience to where he [Thompson] has gone – around the world, representing the United States, and other countries – … it’s just amazing.”
That Utley attended the same school she now leads is amazing as well, she said. “It’s just a little twist in the black history story of this country and this town.”
Utley’s father worked in a steel mill and was the only one of his co-workers who had a high school diploma, she said.
“Many co-workers came to my father and I helped my father fill out income tax forms for his friends,” Utley said.
“I was taught that if there were needs in your community, it was your responsibility to help,” Utley said.
Utley’s father was also an assistant pastor at Monumental AME Church in Steelton.
Utley was 21 when her father died, he was 58.
After graduating from Steel-High, Utley attended Penn State University where she obtained a Bachelor of Science and Elementary Education degree in 1972.
She received a Master’s of Education and Administration in 1986 from Shippensburg University, received elementary principal certification in 1987, and received superintendent letter of eligibility in 1993.
Utley was hired as an elementary teacher at her alma mater in 1972. She was hired by a teacher who had Utley as a student.
Utley lived in Harrisburg at the time, and paid tuition for her daughter to attend Steel-High schools.
She taught grades four, five and six, before taking a job as elementary curriculum coordinator in 1983 and assistant principal in 1987.
The right move
Utley moved to Middletown Area School District, taking a principal position at Fink Elementary School.
“At that time I was new, chances of me going to be a principal were slim,” she said. “In the mid-’80s, as an African-American female … my options were limited.”
She became the first African American principal hired in Middletown.
“I was surprised that I was hired in Middletown,” she said. “It was the best decision I have ever made.”
Leaving the “cocoon” of Steelton opened opportunities, changed her view of the “educational landscape,” and opened her eyes to new ways to solve problems, Utley said.
Her relationship with Middletown lasted 20 years. She worked as a principal for the elementary schools, and served as administrative assistant to the superintendent from 1993 until 2002.
Middletown was different from Steelton, she said.
“There are multiple schools with different populations, and different issues,” she said.
At one point, Utley was the principal for Fink and Mansberger elementary schools.
Moving on up
Utley was named superintendent at Middletown in 2002 after fellow colleagues encouraged her to take the next step into administration, she said.
“I can’t tell you that the position of superintendent was something that I always wanted to do,” said Utley. “It’s just that I have been at the right place at the right time.”
Utley’s love for the classroom and teaching are some of the things she misses the most.
“You build a relationship with the students directly,” Utley said. “Even today, I will run into some of my ex-students.”
She misses being a building principal as well.
“The further you move up, the more removed you are from that family atmosphere,” Utley said.
Current MASD Superintendent Richard Weinstein said Utley was his supervisor for 14 years.
“We had a great working relationship. She is a good leader and I always appreciated her willingness to let me be independent and manage programs,” said Weinstein.
He described Utley as “bright, hardworking, dedicated and connected.”
“She understands who to call with issues or concerns with the state Department of Education,” he said.
Taking a break
After spending 35 years in education, Utley decided to retire in 2007.
“I decided that I wanted to enjoy the time off,” she said.
Retirement lasted a year. During that time, she painted her house room by room by herself. Once it was finished, she grew restless.
“Once my house was done it was like, OK, now what am I going to do?” she said.
Utley became a Distinguished Educator for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, a role that allowed her to work with school districts throughout the state on a variety of programs on a part-time basis.
The job brought her back to Steel-High.
One day Utley got a telephone call from a friend – Gerald Zahorchak, former secretary of the state Department of Education.
Zahorchak wanted Utley to join the board of control for the Duquesne School District.
She became chairman of that board, a position she holds today.
The state controls the board, and Utley makes the drive to Pittsburgh once a month.
“The Duquesne School District is not only educationally distressed, but also financially distressed,” she said.
When asked how she keeps in touch with the school district, she said technology has helped her.
“I have a Duquesne phone and a Steel-High phone,” she said.
“My daughter helps me set up Skype,” she said.
Utley said she was asked to stay on the board until a new administration comes in to replace her, which she expects will be soon.
To the city
As a Distinguished Educator for the state, Utley was assigned to the Harrisburg School district to help with the transition of the school board and superintendent.
Utley eventually was appointed superintendent of the district in May of 2010. But she resigned two months later to take the superintendent’s job at Steel-High.
The decision rankled some Harrisburg board members, who questioned the motivation behind Utley’s decisions as superintendent.
“The elected board believed my recommendations to address the financial and educational issue of the district were politically, rather than educationally motivated,” Utley said. “Although I assured the board prior to my selection that I was an educator and not a politician, a few still questioned my motivations.”
“I realized that in order for the district to move forward … they had to be able to trust the advice of their superintendent,” Utley said.
She returned to Steel-High in 2010 and was happy to be back.
She missed the students’ Christmas decorations in the hallways of the school and the holiday musical performances.
“I always said that when I was retired, it never felt like Christmas to me,” Utley said.
This year it did, she said.
“When you are away from that, after being around it for 35 years, it really feels like something is missing when it’s not around,” Utley said.
Now, she tried to stay connected. She does walk through halls of the buildings and attends programs and performances.
Her husband told her that she needs to find a happy medium.
“I am hoping to find that happy balance here, at Steel-High,” she said.
Steel-High School Board President Sam Petrovich said Utley has been outstanding as the district’s superintendent.
“We couldn’t have asked for anything better,” he said. “She has proven us right, and she understands how to deal with people, working in the district.” Her experience as a teacher, administrator, and superintendent earned her the respect of board members, and people from the Department of Education, Petrovich said.
Even members of the office staff tell Petrovich they enjoy working with Utley.“When you hear from the staff that they look forward to coming to work to work with her, that makes our job as school board members even easier,” Petrovich said.
Debra Schell: 717-944-4628, or firstname.lastname@example.org