‘Big dreams’ in a little town finds the humanity
The Umatilla High School’s 2016 robotics season featured in a new documentary was a bit of a family affair. Umatilla School District Superintendent Heidi Sipe; Kyle, her husband and the high school robotics coach; and Cameron, their daughter and a team leader, cheer during a competition. (Photo courtesy of Blue Chalk Media)
In the new film “Big Dreams in Umatilla,” high school senior Megan Lorence tears up when told to coach the robotics team during a 2016 world championships match. It’s a nearly crushing responsibility for a young woman who described herself as shy and timid.
Lorence, now 22, credits her robotics team experience and the support of Umatilla School District Superintendent Heidi Sipe and robotics coach Kyle Sipe with giving her the confidence to forge on.
“They entrusted me with a lot more than they should have entrusted a teenager with,” she says now.
Lorence is one of hundreds whose lives have been changed by Umatilla’s robotics program. An hourlong documentary from Blue Chalk Media follows the 2016 season. An inspiring story of passion, dedication and student achievement, with a lot of love on the side, the program shows a small eastern Oregon school overcoming poverty and a lack of opportunity.
The show premieres at 9 p.m. on Jan. 11 on OPB and repeats at 8 p.m. on Jan. 13 on OPB+.
Lorence is now a fifth grade teacher with the Umatilla district. She was able to finish college in three years because she had college credits from a program pushed by Superintendent Sipe. Robotics helped put her on the path to teaching through an after-school program that hired robotics students to tutor younger students, another Sipe initiative.
“They helped me become who I am today,” Lorence said. “A college education is not always accessible, especially in a community like ours.”
The uncommissioned documentary was a passion project for Greg Moyer, Blue Chalk’s founder and chief executive officer. Finishing production on Blue Chalk’s earliest stab at a long-form film often took a back seat to paying jobs.
Moyer attended the 2015 OSBA Annual Convention because of Blue Chalk’s burgeoning partnership with OSBA to create The Promise of Oregon campaign, and he saw Heidi Sipe speak.
“I thought this person is a human dynamo,” Moyer said. “I was caught by her passion and enthusiasm and commitment of working with the kids.”
Moyer asked Sipe if his crew could come to Umatilla.
“I was deeply moved by your comments about the sacrifices parents in a rural and relatively poor town make to benefit their children’s education,” he wrote to Sipe. “I believe that a story about delivering a quality education in unexpected places tied to coverage of the 2016 robotics competition undertaken by the STEM club would make a superb documentary film.”
The documentary is about the robotics team, but robotics is inextricably tied to Sipe, the visionary who saw an academic and social opportunity for her students. The robotics team, despite having little funding or local engineers to call on, has been remarkably successful. The team has won 13 Chairman’s Awards, five of them at the Pacific Northwest championships. The competition’s most prestigious award recognizes teams that best represent a model for other teams to follow.
The documentary includes a nail-chewing competitive run, some unexpected drama and moments when the cameras were clearly forgotten.
In one of the director’s favorite scenes, he catches the superintendent mopping the floor after a meeting. Rob Finch said Sipe just rolled her eyes and wondered why anyone would care.
For Sipe, it was a job that needed doing and she didn’t see the point in keeping a custodian for a long day for something she could do herself.
Finch said Sipe helped him keep a focus on the students.
“Her advocacy for her students was palpable and contagious,” he said. “She weaves a picture. She believes every one of those kids is special.”
Finch said he tried to capture Sipe’s humanity, relatability, humility and relentlessness as an advocate.
“Heidi has this incredible natural ability with children, and it infects the people around her,” he said. “Everybody in her universe believes more in kids because of who she is.”
Sipe started at the district in 2000 and became superintendent in 2007. She was named the 2016 Oregon Superintendent of the Year. She is the Oregon School Activities Association executive board president, a member of Gov. Kate Brown’s Healthy Schools Reopening Council, the State Board of Education superintendent adviser, one of two Oregon representatives on the American Association of School Administrators governance board, FIRST robotics executive advisory board co-chair, and a FIRST Oregon executive board member.
Sipe is active in the community, earning local awards and honors and serving on boards. The couple’s investment in community change is palpable: The Sipes bought a large strip club near the high school and are turning it into locally run businesses.
The community has changed significantly since the documentary was shot. All four strip clubs are gone. The town is adding tech jobs and housing opportunities, but it remains a high-poverty school district with more than half its students having English as a second language. Latino students made up 72% of the district last school year
The documentary touches on Sipe’s own struggles growing up, as well as her high school pregnancy. Sipe is open that she faced adverse childhood experiences, although she doesn’t often share the details.
“I believe a lot of our students face various challenges that I can relate to,” she said.
Some of the documentary’s best scenes are the tender and fun moments between Heidi and Kyle. Heidi said the fact they work so closely together makes it easier to give up weekends for a school commitment.
The Sipes’ son, Caden, and daughter, Cameron, have been part of the robotics endeavor. Caden, 24, is now a teacher at the Umatilla middle school and helps coach the robotics team. He had graduated when the filming started, but he has an uncredited cameo.
Cameron, now 21 and a school behavior specialist, features prominently in the film. When Cameron joined the team, she knew she wasn’t going to be a scientist or engineer. She said she picked up a long list of skills, though, from leadership to how to run a productive meeting.
Cameron has always known her mom to be a “pretty spectacular person” but having a documentary filmed kind of confirmed that.
“She gets to do a lot of cool things, not only because of her great leadership, but because of her kindness,” she said. “The way she cares for people leads to a lot of fun things.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA