During her six years as principal, Sophia Mendoza was always asked to put out fires. When Lankershim Elementary was in its fourth year as a Program Improvement school, Mendoza, who has been an educator for 22 years, stepped in to improve outcomes for a student subgroup that was repeatedly falling behind the learning benchmark. When she became principal at Haddon Avenue Elementary, it was to ease escalating tension and increase communication between teachers, parents and the community.
So when one of the country’s most ambitious classroom technology rollouts culminated in an FBI investigation that branded Los Angeles Unified School District home of a major “IT scandal” in 2013, it was only natural for Mendoza to enter the scene as the district’s new director of instructional technology two years later.
But revamping the district’s image and its classroom technology initiatives had to be approached with a certain level of tact.
Not only was Mendoza tasked with facilitating collaboration across the nation’s second-largest public school district, but she also had to rewrite a long-standing narrative of technology changes being a handful of poorly managed top-down projects and implement district-wide changes in a coherent way.
Over the course of our conversation, Mendoza shared with Education Dive how she approached each challenge to successfully turn what was labeled by some a “colossal disaster” into a leading tech initiative.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
EDUCATION DIVE: LAUSD is California's largest school district and the nation's second-largest public school district after New York City. How did you ensure collaboration across such a big system?
SOPHIA MENDOZA: We had to manage both collaboration within the central office and, in addition to that, collaboration between our district and with our smaller local districts. We tackled collaboration within our central office by ensuring that the office of the IT initiative resided as an office within the division of instruction.
At the time, and currently, we see the work of IT as living in the information technology world. But it was critical to have it live under the division of instruction. If we were going to ensure that we were going to change our narrative and be an instructional "initiative," we had to lead with that and no longer be just a "project."
It was critical to be at the table when the English language arts, mathematics, science and curriculum content developers were developing their (professional development), as well as our multilingual and multicultural departments when they are developing content for PD of teachers for second language learners. We had to ensure we were maximizing the standards to cut across all content areas. That was the first part of collaboration just within our own divisions.
The second component was cross-division collaboration, or collaborating with other divisions within our district that touch instructional efforts. The biggest partnership we had to strengthen was the relationship between the chief academic officer and our chief information officer.
Having these two chiefs in tandem and working arm in arm was key to our success because, on the instructional end, our CAO is charged with instructional improvements and increasing graduation rates. At the same time, our CIO is charged with our literal infrastructure for the technological component.
One chief had a vision that they wanted to implement, and we needed to ensure that our chief information officer was informed and ready to be supportive of those efforts on the back end. This created a very strong partnership where our chief information officer really set the tone for his team to ensure that anything they were working on was to support instructional efforts.
It really made a difference knowing that we had a CIO ready to support the efforts of the CAO to ultimately support our students at the school site. And vice versa, in the event that our CIO needed to make upgrades, that would be communicated to our CAO. We had to consider the implications for both.
How were you able to get all the actors to really communicate?
MENDOZA: The way I was able to do that was to ensure that we started out with weekly meetings with the two chiefs where we brought up important topics affecting both our instruction and technology teams. That way, the right hand knew what the left hand was doing and vice versa.
Then, we started to recognize that there were other offices in our district that needed to be at the table. We were in a season of adopting digital content with our textbooks, so we wanted to make sure that when our procurement team was negotiating that they understood the needs from the instructional team. Once we had our procurement leadership at the table, we also recognized that we had to have our office of general counsel at the table.
We were entering a new arena where we wanted to ensure data privacy was at the highest, and we had our legal counsel represented and providing guidance as we made some of the decisions we were making around instruction and technology.
It started out as a meeting of four individuals in 2015. Most recently, we have a group of about 15 key players, and from those 15 key players, we now also have subcommittees. Before we were on different floors, now we come together in common spaces and common areas.
You also mentioned collaboration between the central office and local districts. How did you manage that?
MENDOZA: Because we are a unified system with a decentralized approach, we had to ensure that our CAO and CIO were meeting on a biweekly basis with local district superintendents to find out how the supports we were offering were aligning with their efforts. Our central office team would work with their district counterparts to share what we were working on and how to collaborate in our efforts.
As a result, our local districts were able to increase the number of educators who became digital citizenship certified, as well as increasing the number of schools that became digital citizenship certified schools.
You came into your current position when the district was recovering from a failed iPad rollout. How did you manage to change the narrative from "leading with technology" to "leading with instruction"?
MENDOZA: That this work lived in the division of instruction rather than being a "technology project" was to be threaded throughout all instructional efforts.
We started to restructure our newsletter to lead with a story spotlighting a school, a teacher or a principal within LA Unified and their promising practice of leveraging technology to support student achievement. These articles were written by the practitioner, and they were told from the point-of-view of the person who was living and doing this work. Instead of a top-down approach, it was more of an organic storyline.
In the beginning, we only had around 200 newsletter subscribers. I had to rethink who was getting the information and how they were getting it. Our readership has increased since then, thanks to a strategic campaign. In every PD session that we held, we included a link to our subscription link.
We also shared this information with all of our other outlets, like our elementary and secondary principal organizations. We shared it with our local district superintendents. We have a very active Twitter handle that we shared it on.
As a result, we started posting links to our newsletter on Twitter. We also worked closely with our office of communications to ensure that any time we had a PD session or event, a media release was prepared and sent out to garner the good news for our local media outlets.
We’re also publishing articles in various magazines and blogs. Speaking at conferences has also been very powerful. Just being there, networking and learning from others has been powerful. I talk to others and say, “Let me tell you how we’ve grown and what our lessons learned have been.” I think everything happens for a reason, and we’ve learned from that. My hope and desire is that other districts can learn from us.
You've spoken a lot about collaboration and communication between leaders. But what about coherence for those who actually interact with the technology in their classrooms — the teachers?
MENDOZA: We are strategic and ensure that we offer multiple sessions of PD across the district. We have about three district sessions on any given topic, and we ensure that those sessions are replicated across the district multiple times in different places throughout the school year for easy access. The sessions rotate throughout the city.
What we found was that, in the past, the professional development sessions were happening in one central location, which is not conducive to learning for everyone. We wanted coherent messaging.
Another part of this was adopting our practitioner school model, so that each local district has between two or three schools that are creating models of excellence for other schools to learn from.