ACSA at 50: Smith reflects on his time at ACSA
November 1, 2021
ACSA got its first executive director when Bill Cunningham left his post as superintendent of Newport-Mesa USD to lead the newly created association in 1971. Fifty years later, ACSA is returning the favor.
ACSA Executive Director Wes Smith left the association last month to become superintendent of Newport-Mesa USD. Smith was a teacher, principal and superintendent of two districts before joining ACSA in 2013. He ushered in a number of changes during his tenure, including making equity a central focus of everything ACSA does and creating the ACSA Senior Director of Equity & Inclusion position. Smith served as co-chair of the SPI’s Accountability & Continuous Improvement Task Force that led the creation of the California Schools Dashboard. He also shared with administrators about the need for life/work balance following heart attacks in 2016.

Here’s what Smith had to say about his chapter in ACSA’s history.
What led to you wanting to lead ACSA in 2013? The ACSA position was a unique opportunity to really try to impact the lives of 6.2 million students in California by supporting and serving the educators that were supporting the students. So that was a draw for me — a chance to really help statewide to prioritize their rights and needs, and lift up their voices, because it seemed to me that most of the conversations going on in the state where about the interest of adults. And so, I was, you know, interested in changing that conversation.
What have been some of your best days at ACSA and what have been some of the toughest?
You know the best days have been seeing our members benefiting students. That’s always my favorite part. You know, seeing them have these amazing successes. And during the pandemic, seeing our leaders step up and deliver meals and hand out Chromebooks and packets and, you know, answer the call. When the state didn’t have the courage to do it themselves, our local leaders did. And that was inspiring to see them do that. I would say that the most difficult times have also been watching our members struggle during the pandemic. The death threats ... It’s just hard to see your friends, people that you admire and look up to, struggling like that.
What do you think about when you think about ACSA’s five decades of educational leadership? I think it speaks to the vision of the people that brought this together initially, right? Leadership is a lonely job, and so these folks said, we need to provide support, networks, even advocacy for our folks in the field. And so what a vision — because you look at how this has worked for 50 years and they were right on.
I was able to benefit from their vision and all their work, and the executive directors that came before me all did great work at ACSA, so you know you have this amazing foundation to continue building on, and that’s why it’s been so successful. And I don’t mean to take anything away from our staff, but this works because our members, 18,000 of them, volunteer every day to make ACSA better.
What do you think ACSA will be working on in the next 50 years? I would certainly hope that ACSA is one of the key reasons why the system ultimately meets its potential of providing equitable opportunities for students. That it is more inclusive and that it really honors the diversity within the system. We talk about public education surviving all of these challenges. It will survive because of our members and their courage and leadership, and so that’s going to be exciting to watch.
From left, Edgar Zazueta, Parvin Ahmadi and Wes Smith advocate for student funding in 2019.
Wesley Smith, outgoing ACSA Executive Director, posed with the 2021-22 ACSA Board of Directors during the in-person Leadership Assembly meeting Oct. 15 in Costa Mesa. Smith, who was recently named superintendent of Newport-Mesa Unified School District, has served as ACSA’s executive director since 2013. The board presented Smith with a plaque and signed book and the ACSA staff presented Smith with a good luck video during the two-day event.
ACSA at 50
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