2023 Superintendents of the Year
The American Association of School Administrators (AASA) National Superintendent of the Year Program pays tribute to the talent and vision of the men and women who lead our nation’s public schools. To be eligible for the National Superintendent of the Year® Award, candidates must first be named by their state association as the State Superintendent of the Year. This recognition is designed to recognize the outstanding leadership of active, front-line superintendents who plan to continue in the profession. This year, we are proud to share that three superintendents from our partner organizations have been named Superintendent of the Year in Arizona, Kentucky and Minnesota. Join us in congratulating these outstanding education leaders for the contributions they make every day advocating for public education, our students and their futures.
2023 State Superintendent of the Year Award Recipients
The Superintendent of the Year Awards are presented annually through a competitive application process based on a superintendent’s talent and vision in the areas of leadership for learning, communication, professionalism, and community involvement.
- Rob Clayton | Warren County Public Schools, Kentucky
- Dr. Lupita Hightower | Tolleson Elementary School District, Arizona
- Dr. Matt Hillmann | Northfield Public Schools, Minnesota
Meet the Superintendents
The Kentucky Association of School Administrators named Rob Clayton the 2023 Kentucky Superintendent of the Year after previously being selected as the 2022 Superintendent of the Year by The National Association of School Superintendents.
“Anytime you’re recognized by your peers within your own profession, it’s truly a humbling honor, especially when it’s national,” said Clayton.
Although Clayton was honored by the recognition, he was adamant in mentioning that there was no way he could’ve done it all without his amazing team, teachers, and students.
“I feel very honored to work alongside individuals that are committed to ensuring our three priorities of safety achievement and opportunity, but then always keeping our students at the forefront of our decisions,” said Clayton.
Tim Wyrosdick, Studer Education Leader Coach, says that Rob is passionate about leader development and has built accountability in his district that drives excellence in student performance. “Rob Clayton represents integrity, character, and concern for the students of Warren County. His commitment to excellence drives him to be accountable to the students, employees and community of Warren County. His selection as Superintendent of the Year is a statement that great leaders are making a difference in education,” says Tim.
Rob Clayton has been superintendent of Warren County Public Schools (WCPS), the fourth-largest public school district in Kentucky, since 2013. Mr. Clayton came to Warren County Public Schools after serving as a teacher, assistant principal and middle school principal for several years in the vicinity of Louisville, Kentucky. In 10 years as superintendent of WCPS, he has supervised a 25% growth of WCPS students to almost 18,000 students (pre-K through grade 12) representing 103 different languages spoken and 89 nationalities. As a growth district, more than $200 million of capital improvements have been made under Mr. Clayton’s leadership, including three new elementary schools and major athletic renovations at all four high schools. Competitive compensation has been a priority for Mr. Clayton with staff increases ranging from 10.5% to as much as 40% for some staff members. Despite these significant investments, WCPS financial situation remains strong.
Under Mr. Clayton’s leadership, WCPS has routinely performed in the top 10% on most academic metrics despite being arguably the most diverse school district in the Commonwealth. Approximately 25% of WCPS students are English Learners or have received EL services prior to exiting the program as the district educates the state of Kentucky’s largest migration population. In addition, under his tenure, the district has grown its workforce to almost 3,000 employees as they serve the district’s 15 elementary schools, four middle, four high schools and five alternative schools. WCPS is the third largest employer in Bowling Green and Warren County. Mr. Clayton was also an integral leader as WCPS began the journey of implementing Franklin Covey’s Leader in Me program, recording the state of Kentucky’s first Lighthouse Certification school in 2014 (the highest attainable standard). Currently, the district has ten schools that have received this highly regarded certification. In 2016, Mr. Clayton also oversaw the establishment of the state of Kentucky’s first international high school, Geo International High School, which has since graduated over 250 students. In addition, under his leadership, WCPS opened the first Computer Science Immersion Elementary School in Kentucky, established the Beacon Virtual Academy and Jackson Academy Alternative Elementary schools, and has established the state of Kentucky’s most energy-efficient school district since 2021 through the Guaranteed Energy Savings Program.
Mr. Clayton is a proven leader in the Bowling Green/Warren County community and across the state and nation as he holds many professional memberships and leadership roles such as: Kentucky Association of School Superintendents (KASS) Executive Board President, American Association of School Administrators Governing Board, Vice-President of the Council for Better Education, Past Chair of Green River Regional Educational Cooperative Board of Directors, Former Executive Vice-President of Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Leadership Institute for School Principals Advisory Board, Bowling Green/Warren County Chamber of Commerce Strategic Planning Committee, Kentucky Association of School Superintendents New Superintendent Faculty Member, South Central Kentucky United Way Board of Directors and Allocations Committee, Kentucky School Board Association and Kentucky Association of School Administrator member.
The Arizona Association of School Administrators named Dr. Lupita Hightower the 2023 Arizona Superintendent of the Year. In conjunction with the Arizona School Board Association, in the recognition video for Dr. Hightower, they said that Dr. Hightower is tireless in her advocacy for each and every student and for public education.
“When she presents on a panel or solo regarding Tolleson Elementary School District public education or relevant topics, those present are lifted as she authentically shares her love and passion for her work, students, families and staff. Dr. Hightower is perhaps one of the biggest and best champions in Arizona for public education. She does not allow the challenges and divisions to get in the way of finding the resources and leading her entire education community forward. She can work with any business, political, or community leader to get the job done. As a sought-after speaker and leader, she builds bridges, trust, and relationships that benefit public education and all the students, teachers and staff members in Arizona. She’s an icon in the public education world where her smile, passion, authenticity and advocacy make the state a better place for all children.”
“There is a beautiful aura glowing around Lupita when one is in her presence,” says Leader Coach Dr. Gayle Juneau-Butler. “It is a combination of literal brain brilliance, authentic and palpable care for students, her community, and colleagues at the balcony level, and inspiration for everything she touches in education. I am deeply honored to work with Superintendent Hightower and I feel privileged to know her.”
Dr. Hightower has worked in education for over 25 years in various roles such as teacher, mentor/coach assistant principal, principal, district-level director, assistant superintendent, and as superintendent for the last 11 years. Lupita received a bachelor’s degree with a Bilingual Endorsement from the University of Arizona (U of A), a master’s degree in Educational Administration and Supervision and a Doctorate in Leadership and Innovation with an emphasis in Policy and Administration from Arizona State University (ASU). As an immigrant starting school in the U.S. in the 7th grade, she credits her success to the many believers including family and educators.
Her greatest accomplishment is bringing more learning opportunities to students, especially in cases where they would otherwise not have them. She is a treasure hunter who searches for the talents, skills and intelligence that exist in all children and youth without exception.
Dr. Hightower is proud to serve on the Board of Trustees for Grand Canyon University and served as past President of the Arizona Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (AzALAS) and past executive committee member for AASA. She is also the President of Arizona School Administrators.
In 2019, Dr. Hightower received the National Latinx Superintendent of the Year among other humbling recognitions including Arizona School Administrators Superintendent Award for Mid-Size Districts. Dr. Hightower is especially proud of her two daughters and the support of her husband.
Dr. Matt Hillmann was named 2023 Minnesota Superintendent of the Year by The Minnesota Association of School Administrators (MASA). As the Minnesota honoree, Dr. Hillmann is a candidate among other state recipients for National Superintendent of the Year, to be announced during the AASA National Conference on Education on February 16-18, 2023, in San Antonio, TX. Dr. Hillmann was selected for this honor by a panel of representatives from a variety of Minnesota education organizations. Nominees are evaluated on how each candidate demonstrates leadership for learning, communication skills, professionalism, and community involvement.
“It is such a privilege to do this work in this special place,” said Dr. Hillmann. “We have an all-star staff, the school board is top shelf, the community values education and the students are engaged. It is a pleasure to get to work here.”
“Dr. Hillmann has quickly emerged as a fierce leader and advocate for equity and student achievement not only within his district but also across the entire state,” said MASA Executive Director Dr. Deb Henton. “If you ever have the opportunity to work with Dr. Hillmann you will quickly learn that his top priority is the well-being and success of all students and families. We are proud to have Dr. Hillmann represent our administrators as Minnesota’s 2023 Superintendent of the Year.”
“Matt leads with a fearlessness and a level of openness to input and feedback that is rarely seen and that is a key to his leadership,” says Studer Education Leader Coach Dr. KK Owen. “At the end of each leadership session he leads, he asks for feedback from his leaders and they freely share it. It’s not just reflections of their work, but he asks for feedback on his leadership, how he led the session, and what he could work on to improve. This is very rare. Additionally, he has complete transparency with his leaders regarding budget and staffing issues and as a team, they make tough decisions about these topics. Once they complete the decision-making process, they have a frank talk about how they will all support these decisions they have just made together.”
Dr. Hillmann has been the Superintendent of Northfield Public Schools since 2016. Before the superintendency, he served as the Director of Administrative Services and Director of Human Resources and Technology. Under Dr. Hillmann’s leadership, Northfield Public Schools has worked to close achievement gaps, specifically between students of color, white students, and students of different socioeconomic levels. A priority is to eliminate these gaps before students enter the K-12 system. Northfield Public Schools has addressed these gaps in three areas: strengthening and expanding district childcare and preschool programs, intentional collaboration with community preschools and childcare programs, and supporting parents seeking services for their preschool-age children.
From 2018 through 2020, all students, students qualifying for free/reduced-price lunches, and Hispanic students in the district experienced an increase in the percentage deemed “ready for Kindergarten” based on the STAR reading and initial MAP assessments. In 2021, 100% of incoming Kindergarten students who attended the district’s Early Ventures licensed childcare center, and 95% of Hand in Hand Preschool children were “ready for Kindergarten,” as identified by the Minnesota Department of Education’s approved assessment. Additionally, five years ago, Dr. Hillmann began the “Happy Birth Day” program, where he sends a handwritten card to every infant born within the district. This card begins the relationship with the district and families and invites them to attend a free Early Childhood Family Education class.
With a focus on reading, the district’s Grade 3 students have been continuously improving proficiency in reading on the MCA-III during 2017-2019 from 56.9% to 68.3%. Despite a regression during the pandemic, Northfield Public Schools was identified by the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading as a 2021 Bright Spot Community for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Only 54 communities were recognized across the United States and Northfield was the only one in Minnesota to be identified.
During his tenure, Dr. Hillmann has developed a “cascading communication” strategy to promote aligning the district’s vision and operations across the community. This cascading communication involves regularly distributing key messages across multiple modalities. The positive impacts of this communication strategy are illustrated in a recent district survey where 88% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “The superintendent uses a variety of methods to promote effective communication throughout the district” and 84% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “I have a clear understanding of the mission and goals of my school district.”
Dr. Hillmann and his leadership team work to amplify the voices of traditionally marginalized segments of their community through representation from diverse communities on advisory committees such as the American Indian Parent Advisory Committee and the Hispanic Parent Advisory Committee. Dr. Hillmann’s commitment to marginalized segments of his community is evidenced by his selection as the City of Northfield’s 2022 Human Rights Award recipient. Members of the district’s Hispanic Parent Advisory Committee nominated Dr. Hillmann for the award.
Dr. Hillmann is an active member of MASA and AASA. He has served on the MASA Board of Directors, Excellence and Equity in Education Steering Committee, and currently is the MASA President. Dr. Hillmann is also a member of Schools for Equity in Education. Dr. Hillmann has participated in AASA’s Aspiring Superintendent’s Academy and the National Superintendent Certification Program. He is a graduate of the 2016-17 MASA Great Start Cohort for New Administrators.
Dr. Hillmann is active within his community. His involvement includes the Northfield Rotary Club, the Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Directors, the Northfield Growing Local Leaders Program, and the Northfield Racial and Ethnic Equity Collaborative.
Dr. Hillmann has received a number of awards throughout his career including MASA’s 2022 Region 1 Administrator of Excellence Award, City of Northfield’s 2022 Human Rights Award, 2020 Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce “Chamber Champion” Award, 2015 MASA Outstanding Central Office Leader of the Year Award, the 2006 Minnesota State University, Mankato Outstanding Young Alumni Award, and the 2001 TIES Outstanding Technology Leader Award.
Dr. Hillmann earned a doctorate in Educational Leadership, a master’s degree in Education Technology, and a specialist degree in Education Administration from Minnesota State University, Mankato. He received a bachelor’s degree in History from St. John’s University (NY).