Twice divorced and without children, Phillips grew up poor, according to her accounts. She was raised without indoor plumbing in a rural community in Kentucky, where no one expected her to go on to college, she says.
That's a story Phillips, 49, has shared numerous times with audiences in Portland.
"Two grade schools fed into the high school-one rich, one poor," she writes in When You Were 15, an anthology of short biographies written by adults in the Portland area. "When teachers found out I went to McQuady, they knew I came from poverty. In my entire high school career, not one adult talked to me about going to college-no teacher, no counselor, not the principal. I had straight A's, and I graduated in the top 10 percent of my class, but they thought that because I was from Falls of Rough, I would never go to college. My friend Cindi thought otherwise."
That's also a story Phillips shared in her first speech as the education director for the Gates Foundation, at their annual convention in Seattle in July.
Phillips, of course, went on to get not only a bachelor's degree, from Western Kentucky University, but a Ph.D. in educational leadership and management as well, from England's University of Lincoln in 2002. In addition to serving as Portland's schools superintendent, she led the Lancaster School District in Pennsylvania from 1998 to 2003 and was briefly the Pennsylvania secretary of education under Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, before moving to Portland in 2004.