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Maria López-Cisneros, left, has a passion for nurturing first-generation college students at the continuation and independent studies schools she leads.
Cisneros ensures all students can reach their academic potential
July 24, 2023
ACSA Administrators of the Year graphic.
Name: Maria López-Cisneros Award: Continuation/Educational Options Administrator of the Year Title: Principal, Valley Oak High School and Napa Valley Independent Studies, Napa Valley USD ACSA highlights: Member since 2000; ANCSA Charter President (2008-2012); Region 4 Vice President (2013-2014); Region 4 Alt Ed Options Representative (2006-2008).
Maria López-Cisneros is guided by a belief that all students can learn when given the right opportunities. A former English learner herself, Cisneros understands the challenges facing students at the two alternative education sites she leads. She balances that compassion with rigor by pushing students to their highest academic potential.
Her growth mindset and openness to new ideas, while being discerning about quality, has resulted in many positive developments at Valley Oak High School, including WASC accreditation.
When the district was integrating Math 1 with Robotics, Cisneros jumped at the chance to give Valley Oak students this opportunity. Students passed Math 1 at a higher rate and even competed in an annual robotics competition, leading many students to call it their first positive experience with secondary mathematics. Her passion for nurturing first-generation college students is evident in a summer College Readiness Academy for incoming 9th graders that helps them create a 10-year academic and career plan.
The payoff for all the love and care Cisneros and her staff pour into students is the annual graduation ceremonies, where students who never thought they would earn a high school diploma do just that.
“When Maria became principal of Valley Oak, she successfully changed the culture of the school from one where children were sent because they weren’t successful in a comprehensive high school to a school where students wanted to attend because they would be respected, cared about and nurtured,” said Napa County Superintendent of Schools Barbara Nemko. “Valley Oak blossomed under Maria’s leadership.”
What’s your favorite book or quote on leadership? “All Means All” is a statement that I often heard from Elena Toscano, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction (retired) at the start of my administrative journey.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given? The best advice I have ever received is to stay steady and focused on the goals. Getting overwhelmed can cloud what you truly want to accomplish.
What’s your best strategy for work-life balance? Work-life balance has always been a bit of a challenge for me. What I have come to realize these last few years is that I have to be healthy — both mentally and physically — to be able to carry out my daily responsibilities, so I have scheduled myself an hour on a daily basis to exercise. I also started dedicating time on the weekends to be out in nature hiking or just enjoying the beauty that surrounds me.
What are some life hacks that you would recommend for a new administrator? I know it’s cliché, but truly don’t sweat the small stuff. As a new administrator, spend time understanding the school culture that you have inherited and work with staff to build your common vision as you move forward with what you want to accomplish. As much as possible, always have your team with you. It’s like what we ask teachers: Are the students with you? As administrators, we need to ask: Is your staff with you?
What would people be surprised to learn about you? I think that people would be surprised to find out how incredibly shy I actually am. It has taken years and practice to put myself out there and just go.
What made you want to become a school administrator? What made me become a school administrator was the opportunity to have a voice at the decision-making table. I wanted to be able to have some impact on how and when decisions are made that benefit all students.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve overcome to get where you are? The biggest challenge that I’ve had to overcome is to say “no” when it comes to participating in great causes that help build up the community. I’ve gotten better over the last few years. I am a bit more selective on the boards or committees I serve on. My goal is to serve on boards/committees that directly impact my work, students and families.
What is your proudest accomplishment? Personally, I am most proud of being the first in my family to get a college education. In Mexico, my family were farmers and when we moved to the U.S.A., we were migrant workers. I am one of 10 siblings, and we understood our parents’ reasons for moving to the United States. That reason was to get educated, work hard for what you want, live a humble life and, when possible, help others. Now as an educator, I have the privilege of supporting future leaders that were once at-promise youth to meet their full potential by providing a safe, welcoming and engaging environment in which they can thrive. Seeing their smiles at graduation, awards assemblies and in the classroom as they discover their learning potential gives me hope for the future. The work is never done, but I know that when students feel welcomed, heard and valued, they realize that their possibilities are endless.
How has ACSA supported you in your career/current position? I have been involved with ACSA since I became an administrator. In my early years as the principal at Valley Oak, I was the Alternative Options Region 4 state representative, and that was the best professional development I could have received. I learned about working in alternative schools from the best in the state. The incredible guidance and support I have received from ACSA and the Region 4 leadership over the years has been invaluable to me. Even when I was not as involved, I often got emails from various ACSA members just checking in.
How are you prioritizing mental health for yourself, your staff and/or your students? Prioritizing mental health has truly been one of the most critical pieces of our work. As mentioned earlier, personally, I have dedicated and scheduled time for my personal exercise. For students, as a site we focus on providing wellness fairs, workshops and this year, NVUSD incorporated Ecosystems of Cariño, a system that reminded us the importance of being present for each other and especially our students.
2023 Continuation/Educational Options Administrator of the Year Maria López-Cisneros.
2023 Continuation/Educational Options Administrator of the Year Maria López-Cisneros.