ACSA EdCal logo.
Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
‘Schools are only as good as the people’
How Modesto City Schools is creating a culture of professional development
May 31, 2021
The board of Modesto City Schools hired Superintendent Sara Noguchi in 2018 with a specific purpose: creating change.
For Noguchi, change happens by investing in people. Three years later, the district is already seeing the benefits of building a culture of professional development for its teachers, administrators and staff. This investment has helped Modesto City Schools pivot to distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as chart a course for its future work.
“We recognize that by investing in our teachers and our staff, we can not only help and build and uplift them as individuals, but this will also enable Modesto City Schools in more efficiently meeting the needs of students,” Noguchi said.
Beginning year one, the community collectively established district goals and reorganized the district office to ensure that its primary function was to be a service provider for its 22 elementary schools, four junior high schools and seven comprehensive high schools.
Once the collective goals and the structure to support them were in place, Noguchi said it was essential to build the capacity of all the leaders within the district.
“This is the foundation for the ‘why’ we need to build our capacity,” she said. “We need to build our leadership capacity, not because they are deficient, but because we need to collectively achieve our district goals.”
One of the ways Noguchi has built leadership capacity is through ACSA. When she first came to Modesto City Schools, it was very insular — not a lot of networking with nearby districts. There were only 32 ACSA members.
MCS now pays for ACSA membership, provided administrators attend three events a year. (Modesto City Schools also offers a 0.5 percent salary incentive to employees who take six hours of professional learning from the district’s catalog.)
Modesto City Schools currently boasts 86 members in Region 7’s Stanislaus Charter, with an eye on adding even more next year.
“Connecting with leaders in other districts has allowed not only the sharing of ideas, successes and sorrows, but also a connection with others that are experiencing similar leadership challenges,” said Laurie Hulin, senior director of Educational Services. “Whether networking at a formal professional development event about how new learning will impact a site, or networking at an informal event about the impacts of COVID, ACSA provides a wide variety of opportunities for networking to support its members and creates space for members to support each other.”
While administrators have access to professional development outside the district, they also have plenty of opportunities from within. For example, there’s the Principal Pipeline, Modesto City Schools’ professional development program designed to build capacity at all levels, from teacher leaders to veteran principals.
Each of the pipeline modules is designed specifically to the needs of that group and their next steps, with a mapped sequence of professional development offerings that include book lists, trainings on specialized topics and coaching.
“The programs are designed to prepare our leaders for next steps so that we can ‘build our bench,’ so to speak, and have highly trained educators ready to fill positions as people retire or promote up,” said Heather Contreras, assistant superintendent of Educational Services.
ACSA provides MCS’s Leadership Coaching training to veteran principals who serve as coaches in the pipeline program. Contreras said the evocative coaching model ACSA teaches has developed trust between supervisors and administrators this year, and has contributed to a growth mindset in principals.
“The ability to recognize their current skill set within the California Professional Standards for Educational Leaders, set goals for next steps, and then achieve those goals has boosted their capacity because it has helped focus their efforts, and they see results in student achievement, even this year!” Contreras said.
Another of Noguchi’s efforts was to develop a new department — the Curriculum, Instruction and Professional Learning Department — to message the importance of continuous learning.
The department launched in the 2019-20 school year. The timing couldn’t have been better.
“If we didn’t have that department, I don’t know what we would have done in the pandemic,” Noguchi said.
In April 2020, the CI&PL team built online lesson plans, created how-to videos for online learning platforms and rolled out professional development to principals in two weeks’ time. Instructional coaches were also deployed to support teachers as they pivoted to distance learning.
“Like no other time, professional learning and a focus on growth is an ongoing necessity as we were all thrust into a learning environment not experienced before,” Hulin said.
This year, professional development has also included addressing social justice issues. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Noguchi convened an Equity and Racial Justice Task Force made up of outside stakeholders, teachers, administrators and students who identified the work the district must do for years to come, including changing hiring practices to evaluating grading policies. She also launched professional development targeted at disrupting racism at school sites at Modesto City Schools, which serves predominantly Latino students.
“Many leaders do not know how to address inequities at their school sites, or how to lead a difficult conversation around race and racial disparities,” Noguchi said. “All principals have engaged in a series of workshops to support them in developing strategies for having racially charged conversation, and how to look at their own practices through an equity lens.”
Noguchi also convened a student advisory group to get an honest picture of how to improve the experience for students.
“This wasn‘t leadership kids. We asked principals: We need your informal leaders ... We need kids that can talk about equity and what they’re really seeing and hearing in the halls,” she said.
Looking back, Noguchi said she is incredibly proud of how the district responded to the challenges of the last 15 months. Now, as districts see a one-time infusion of relief funds, she has her mind set on how to prioritize the funding. Once again, it’s the people.
“As a school district we’re only as good as the people,” Noguchi said. “In three years, I want to be able to look back in the rearview mirror and be proud of the work that we did with these millions of COVID dollars. … This is a once-in-a-career opportunity: How are we going to look back and say that was a gamechanger? ... We’re going to do a ton of stuff for kids and programs, but if we really invest in our teachers and our administrators and our parents and our staff, then we’re just going to be an incredibly strong organization.”
Modesto City Schools’ Professional Development Resources
MCS Site Administration Evaluation Handbook MCS Principal Supervisor Evaluation Handbook MCS Principal Pipeline Curriculum Map
Modesto City Schools Superintendent Sara Noguchi.
Contact Us

© 2020 Association of California School Administrators