High school grad with middle school language skills rises to become Modesto superintendent

New Modesto City Schools Superintendent Sara Noguchi talks with FFA members at the Stanislaus County Fair on Friday, July 20, 2018.
New Modesto City Schools Superintendent Sara Noguchi talks with FFA members at the Stanislaus County Fair on Friday, July 20, 2018. Modesto City Schools

When considering the diversity of the district now under her leadership, new Modesto City Schools Superintendent Sara Noguchi can see herself among the students — a few times.

She’s the girl whose family is assured she’ll attend college. But she’s also the child with no plan to make that happen. And the child performing well below grade level.

Noguchi, previously an associate superintendent at Twin Rivers Unified School District in the Sacramento area, was hired as MCS superintendent in early June and began her contract July 1. She said she applied for the Modesto job because she wanted to be a superintendent, to work with the Board of Education to have a greater impact on an entire district than her positions as associate and assistant superintendents had allowed.

She sees her skill set fitting well with the district. “What drives me in my work is ensuring that the kids who don’t have a voice have a voice, and often times those are kids in poverty, or ELL (English language learners), or refugees, or put any label on there. Modesto has a large population of that.”

Modesto City Schools needs to “educate all,” Noguchi said during an interview in her office last week. The district has strong high schools to help high-achieving students push themselves, accomplish great things, attend universities and, hopefully, then return to the community. “We need our average kids to be able to stretch and go out of their comfort zones to reach the heights that our high-achieving students are. But we also have our low-achieving students we need to work to support.”

Of the students living in poverty, the superintendent said, “That is my work. I’ve lived and breathed it and that is my passion.”

Noguchi, fourth in a family of six children, was raised in the small community of Independence in Inyo County in the eastern Sierra. When she was in ninth grade, her parents divorced and her mom moved to Davis to attend the university. A single parent living off student loans, her mom was “surviving” and not paying attention to much beyond her own studies, Noguchi said.

“In my family, it was expected we all would go to college, even though there was no money anywhere,” she said. So when she graduated from Davis High in 1980, she enrolled at Sacramento City College. There, assessment tests placed her at a seventh-grade writing level and eighth-grade reading.

“So then it was, ‘Shoot, now what do I do?’” She was so excited to study geography and psychology, yet cracked the books only to realize she couldn’t read them. “It took me four years to get through Sacramento City College” to learn the skills she needed to advance further.

Read the Superintendent’s Entry Plan

Noguchi earned her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from CSU San Diego, her master’s in curriculum and instruction from Sacramento State, her administrative service credential from the University of the Pacific and, also from UOP, her doctorate in education, administration and supervision.

“The point being, there are a lot of kids in the back of the classroom who have barriers to them being successful that aren’t within their control: being hungry, poverty, parents working two jobs or being workaholics who don’t have time,” she said. “Those kids who are silent, who don’t have a voice, those are the kids I’m passionate about.”

MCD Board of Education member Charlene West said she’s impressed by Noguchi’s background, honesty and transparency. “I believe she will make sure all of our students are given the opportunity to thrive, including those from our groups of students who need a little additional support,” she said.

Through a career she began as a middle school math teacher in the early 1990s, Noguchi said she’s seen education through a variety of lenses, including as a parent. She has a son, 30, working on his doctorate in entomology at UC Davis; another son, 22, at Sac State who’s soon to be a teacher; and a daughter, 20, who’s a nursing student.

As an administrator, she’s learned you don’t come into a school district with a plan laid out. You build from within. Just a couple of weeks on the job in Modesto, she’s hearing from staff and the board about issues that need to be worked on immediately, Noguchi said. “One, we need to absolutely tackle academics in the elementary level in reading and mathematics,” she said.

The district also needs to ensure it’s supporting administrators to retain them and make sure they’re being as effective as possible. “The only way going we’re going to affect what really matters — and that’s kids in the classroom today and their learning — is the teacher,” Noguchi said. “And the major support for that teacher is the principal. So the better that principal is, the better support they can give the teacher.

“We need to move the dial on academics across the board, but I’m very focused on the elementary level at this moment. “

Board of Education President Amy Neumann said she’s counting on the superintendent raising student achievement. “Our test scores are not where they should be and we need to do better for our students and our community.”

Noguchi’s third area of immediate concern, the superintendent said, is working to ensure passage of a facilities bond measure on the November ballot. The state’s yearly maintenance fund is not near what is needed to support quality teaching and learning environments in the district, she said.

Neumann, West and their fellow board trustees Chad Brown and Cindy Marks all said the superintendent collaborates well with educators, families and the community. “She will work well with MCS staff, the community, MJC, CSU Stanislaus and the business industry to ensure college and career readiness for our students,” Marks said.

Brown said the board’s visit to Twin Rivers Unified included discussions with Noguchi’s co-workers that showed her to be “a true collaborator, one who allows her staff to demonstrate their creative strengths in a very supportive structure.” He wanted a superintendent who would focus on equity for all students, he said, and support creative instruction that will improve learning.

Noguchi said engaging parents, especially, is the key to shifting success for children. “They are the first teachers for kids, they know their child better than anyone, so what can we do to support that?” she said. She could hold forums, she said, but she’s found it’s more effective to meet parents where they are, so she intends to do things like attend a Latino Community Roundtable meeting to hear parent voices.

Within Modesto schools are children who will go on to lead school districts, companies, perhaps even the country, Noguchi said. They just need the support. Someone easily could have looked at her in her youth and thought, “You really have no place,” she said. “We have to recognize that everyone has a place, you just have to believe in them.”