Wickham is ACSA’s Exemplary Woman award winner
September 4, 2023
A selection committee has chosen Ceres USD Superintendent Denise Wickham as the recipient of ACSA’s 2023 Exemplary Woman in Education Award, which will be presented during the Women in School Leadership Forum, Sept. 20-22 in Newport Beach.
Wickham assumed the role of Ceres USD superintendent in 2021, right as students and staff were returning to the first full school year following the COVID-19 pandemic. Wickham successfully guided the district through this period by communicating clear expectations and developing trust with community members, who were oftentimes divided by pandemic-related issues.
As the daughter of an immigrant dairyman, Wickham understands first-hand how education changes lives. She approaches student success through a lens of innovation and equity, and has taken to heart the CUSD motto, “Committed to Excellence, Responsive to Every Student.” Recently, she coined the hashtag #TheCeresWay to signify a culture of excellence in which students learn to love learning.
She is passionate about advancing women and makes it a priority to develop and support female leaders — many of whom are now making a difference as top administrators in Ceres and other districts. Wickham advocates for professional development and networking opportunities that further women’s careers, and encourages women to embrace their own leadership styles. “You don’t have to lead like a man,” she emphasizes.
Wickham serves as an advisor and role model to female students through programs such as the district’s Youth Advisory Council and an ag mentorship that prepares students for careers in agriculture ­— a leading industry in the area, but one in which women are vastly underrepresented. She also is an active member of her local chapter of Soroptimist International, a global volunteer organization that improves the lives of women and girls.
“I believe Denise’s biggest gift is her ability to see something in a person that tells her they have potential, even if they haven’t yet realized that potential, and to nurture and develop the next generation of leaders,” said Deputy Superintendent Amy Peterman, in her nomination form.
We asked Wickham to share her thoughts on leadership with EdCal.
What strengths do you think women bring to their roles as leaders? Women bring unique perspectives as a result of their experiences in society, in the workforce, in school and within their family dynamics. I believe women are very supportive leaders as they are skilled communicators who naturally foster a sense of collaboration and inclusivity. Women’s roles as wives and mothers, and many times the coordinators of their family activities, contribute to the empathy and flexibility women bring to administration. Women are resilient and uniquely equipped to overcome challenges, whether those exist at work or at home. Their strength inspires those around them (men and women) to push forward no matter what obstacles they face.
You have said that you didn’t have role models who were professional women growing up. What challenge did that present for you and how did you overcome it? I grew up in a very traditional Portuguese family. My father was an immigrant from the Azores. My mother is a wonderful role model, however there weren’t any women in our family who had pursued higher education and joined the workforce. I had teachers in elementary school who inspired my curiosity about college, however, I never thought I could attend due to our financial position. In high school, I took classes that were destined to build my clerical skills (including three years of shorthand), but not to prepare me for meeting the requirements of a four-year university. It was during high school that my guidance counselor encouraged me to change course and set my sights on a higher education. My parents, while supportive, struggled to help me navigate the complexities of enrolling and succeeding in college. As a first-generation college student, I had to learn to navigate on my own without the support of family members — not because they didn’t want to help, but because no one had ever attended college and they just didn’t know how to help. I overcame these challenges because of my desire for something more. I was raised to have a strong work ethic, yet I saw my parents working hours on end, seven days a week and not being able to make ends meet. I wanted something different for myself and my future family. There were setbacks along the way and times when I had to change direction, but I wasn’t willing to give up on my dream of creating better circumstances for my life
“Sharing my story and struggles in school I hope inspires students to seek support from school staff to help them achieve their dreams.”
— Denise Wickham, Ed.D., Ceres USD Superintendent and ACSA’s 2023 Exemplary Woman in Education Award winner
Can you tell me more about your role in the Youth Advisory Council? Why do you enjoy mentoring young people in programs such as this? The YAC (Youth Advisory Council) was developed as a result of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond’s initiative to provide more opportunities for student voice. The YAC represents a cross-section of students from our high schools who come together to weigh in on policies that directly impact them, such as cell phone use, dress codes, consequences for tardies, discipline, attendance initiatives, etc.
Supporting these students in sharing their perspectives and understanding the process of school governance is extremely fulfilling. Sharing my story and struggles in school I hope inspires students to seek support from school staff to help them achieve their dreams. If I hadn’t had a teacher and a bus driver and a school counselor who challenged me to take risks and explore beyond what I thought was my destiny, I would not have been able to serve students for the past 34 years. Another mentoring opportunity that fills my bucket is the Soroptimist Girl of the Month program. In my role as a Ceres Soroptimist, I had the honor of launching this program to support young women at our high schools who may not receive many accolades or awards. The aim is to build their confidence and demonstrate that they can be celebrated for being who they are. They do not have to be a 4.0 student or a superstar athlete. Being a young woman who serves her community, respects others, and is kind and genuine deserves recognition.
What advice do you have for women who are just starting out in school leadership? I believe it’s important for women to know themselves and to know their strengths and weaknesses. While it’s essential to believe in yourself, it’s also important to recognize those areas that don’t interest you or you may not excel in, and develop a team whose strengths complement yours. Intentionally seek opposing views when making decisions to achieve better overall outcomes. Share successes with your team, as success leads to positive momentum and breeds pride and future successes. Build trusting relationships with both men and women and have a varied group of mentors. Seek mentors who will be honest with their feedback and exist in formal and informal networks. Joining ACSA, CALSA, AASA and other organizations that foster continuous learning and professional development will keep the passion for the work alive. I also feel it’s important to find a little quiet time in each day — time to reflect, plan, and be grateful. My ability to serve students for my entire career leaves me feeling ever so grateful for the people who have provided me opportunities in my life. I try to end each day remembering why we do the work we do, so that our students can also be given opportunities to thrive.
Ceres USD Superintendent Denise Wickham is the recipient of ACSA’s 2023 Exemplary Woman in Education Award.
© 2023 Association of California School Administrators