Episode 19: 2022 Superintendent of the Year with Dr. Vivian Ekchian
Dr. Vivian Ekchian was named the 2022 Los Angeles County Superintendent of the Year. Vivian Ekchian is a lifelong educator, visionary leader, and champion for equity with a relentless focus on accelerating student outcomes. A longstanding Glendale resident, Dr. Ekchian is a 30+ year urban school district educator with a proven track record of implementing reform in complex systems. Her refined ability to develop leadership and talent, focusing internal and external educational partners on a common goal and building coherence, has benefited countless students, employees, families, and community members. Much of her success stems from her life experiences, including a multicultural upbringing and journey to Southern California as an immigrant. Dr. Ekchian is currently the superintendent of the Glendale Unified School District, the third largest school district in Los Angeles County, serving 24,500 students in grades PreK-12.
As superintendent, she has been instrumental in building partnerships with outside organizations to close the digital divide, provide dual college enrollment and internship opportunities for students, open health and wellness centers at every middle and high school, and expand the district’s before and after school childcare program. Under Dr. Ekchian’s leadership, Glendale Unified was recognized as a countywide model for successfully navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Ekchian is the recipient of a Distinguished Educator Award from California State University, Los Angeles and Women in Educational Leadership Outstanding Contributions to Education Award. In 2018 she was honored by Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Krekorian for her dedicated service and immeasurable contributions to the Armenian community. These awards underscore Dr. Ekchian’s vision of education as a game changer, which holds the power to create leaders of the future who will thrive in our globally competitive workforce.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nati Rodriguez [02:56]
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. I’d love to start off by talking about your most recent recognition for successfully navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. Will you speak to some of the practices or programs launched that have stayed on in the Glendale School District?
Dr. Vivian Ekchian [03:12]
Yes, certainly. The pandemic did hit us by surprise, but it also provided us with the opportunity to really have a laser like focus on equity. We began the conversation around what our students with greatest needs required in order to continue their education and continue to close their learning gaps. One piece that certainly was accelerated was closing the digital divide, offering every student and every family member, not just a laptop, but also giving them hot spots, trying to find out what type of support was available at home. If there wasn’t support at home then we launched our learning pods and invited our kids who needed additional support to spend time at school, supervised and facilitated by our own staff members. Our after-school programs expanded significantly as a result of the pandemic because we learned to partner with community members and also community organizations, like the YMCA and the city. We have doubled the number of students that we serve before and after school, and that would not have happened had we not been engaged in childcare during the pandemic.
The other piece that is really significant that has stayed and actually expanded, is our relationship with our community partners. We formed a healthcare partner group, and we had hospitals represented. We had individuals who came with expertise that we met with on an ongoing basis, who provided us advice on vaccinations, on testing, on a variety of issues that were relevant at the time. Now we’ve expanded that partnership as we now have wellness centers on our campuses. We partnered with UCLA – Sound Body Sound Mind, and our middle and high schools have fitness centers. We didn’t just say, okay, during the pandemic we had a partnership, and now we will sunset the partnership. We’ve actually begun long term relationships with them, so the sky is the limit. Glendale Adventist, USC Verdugo – all the hospitals in our area have become long-term partners for us, and the goal being students first, and health and wellness really becoming an everyday discussion, not just during the pandemic, but looking at the whole child, looking at the entire family, and ways in which we can support our students and their families every day.
Nati Rodriguez [06:15]
Yes, it certainly takes a lot of different partners. We recently had a conversation around teens getting support for mental health. I’m curious if that’s part of this work and what does that look like for students getting support now?
Dr. Vivian Ekchian [06:30]
Absolutely. Not just at our middle and high schools where we have wellness centers set up, we also have hired many more psychologists and health and wellness experts to support our students. We have incorporated into our school day – our schedules have changed – mindfulness exercises, we have webinars and presenters on an ongoing basis. It’s not just part of one department’s work, but it’s part of the infrastructure of supporting our students, because we know that students must feel safe, must feel included, and have to have the opportunity to speak to someone if they choose to, for additional help. Part of that dialogue has been to facilitate the conversation through our students. We have student voice panels and students from all of our high schools come together, representatives, and speak about what’s on their mind. Most recently, the conversation was around all these resources exist, but how can we overcommunicate? How can we make sure that every child, every student, every young adult has the opportunity to learn more about what’s within our school system and what is also beyond?
Part of that dialogue that began during the pandemic was also the concept of community schools, wraparound services. I’m happy to report that we’re now expanding that to our elementary level, and we will be soon launching our first elementary wellness room, that is again with another partner, the California Credit Union. So, it doesn’t always have to be health care partners, but the funding and the commitment through philanthropy, to look at the whole child and support real time within our school day and beyond the school day, is one of our long-term goals.
Nati Rodriguez [08:30]
That’s great. That’s fantastic to hear; great that this is going beyond the services that were provided during the pandemic.
Nati Rodriguez [09:20]
I’m curious. I read that you were less than one year into your role as superintendent at Glendale when the pandemic started. How has this experience impacted your leadership and what you thought the role would be and where you are now?
Dr. Vivian Ekchian [09:34]
One of the silver linings of the pandemic as far as my leadership was, I came in as a servant leader, but it helped me accelerate my relationships with the community, with the parents and the students, because we needed to be connected. There was a necessary discussion about every possible aspect of the pandemic and learning, academic achievement, and wellness that it wasn’t a scheduled monthly meeting with parents or the community, but it was daily interactions to do what was necessary to support our students. As we put students at the center of our community, I had a chance to get to know many different people, even though it was by Zoom sometimes, but other times, even meeting outdoors, just to be safe. I was able to establish very strong relationships quickly. I think just like we talk about closing the digital divide, it also offered me the opportunity to become closer to many, many members.
For example, individuals at the city level, those that we already discussed in the healthcare industry, but parents. We had many, many Zoom meetings with parents and the number of parents who were engaged in the discussions was much higher than it had ever been before, because it did make it easier for them to be able to tune in and it gave them the opportunity to speak up in a safe space, school by school, and also district wide.
May I just also add one additional piece as it relates to my leadership and being new to the district – I was able to connect with my cabinet members at a different pace than I would have had it not been during such an emergency. My cabinet members took on projects that were not necessarily part of their core job description and they began their innovative job crafting because the opportunity existed for them to develop projects, to work with one another and to flesh out their interests in ways that they had never been able to do before. That was also another opportunity for me to support them, get to know them. Many of them have changed roles as a result of the work they were doing during the pandemic.
Nati Rodriguez [12:02]
Wow, that’s great that you were able to facilitate that transformation at the cabinet level and those relationships with the parents and the school communities. What does parent involvement look like now, where we are, not necessarily completely in a great place post-pandemic, but how is the district communicating with parents now?
Dr. Vivian Ekchian [12:26]
We have an incredible office of communications. I have to say that on a daily basis is continuing to post information, but also interactive. Yesterday we had our LCAP conversation, and our parents were able to call in or ask questions. We have had the opportunity for schools to engage in surveys. For example, five of our schools are in the application process in January for the Implementation Community Schools Grant and part of the planning was to be able to survey parents, to have focus groups. We have many different social events. We continue to celebrate what’s right in our schools, and if there is a ribbon cutting, we may open it up, whether it’s a building at Glenoaks that has been completed, parents are invited, and they have a voice. It’s really important for our parents to feel that they are participants, and they are engaged, and they are not coming in to receive just information, but they contribute in ways that allow us to offer differentiated support as well.
Parents are welcome to give us feedback and we incorporate the feedback into the work that we do. We are a living organization that thrives from feedback and always tries to be better today than we were yesterday. So we welcome parents in our schools. We have many parent volunteers, we have an incredibly active PTA, and we have an equity, access and parent engagement unit that used to be a categorical unit and more compliance focused, which we hope to be able to transform into a place for every parent, from those that are new to the country, to those who have lived here and have gone through our school system, to come together to the table, to lean in and say, what is it that our kids need now? How can we collaborate with one another to bring out the best opportunities for our students to be college, career, and life ready?
We also were the first school district, to my knowledge, in California that started our own college savings account with seed funding from our educational foundation. We applied for a grant at the state level. Now we’re pleased to say that the entire state is engaged in a savings effort. We saw the need for that even before it was actionable by the state. We have a lot of innovation happening, and that doesn’t happen alone. It’s many different people coming together and speaking about what matters and how we can prepare our youth being the next generation of leaders in our country, and we’re super proud of them. Our students are most definitely the most amazing human beings in our community.
Nati Rodriguez [15:31]
Can you share more about the savings account? How does it work? How did this come about?
Dr. Vivian Ekchian [15:36]
We began a pilot in 2018 with $10,000, and we selected two schools – Roosevelt and Cerritos – and every student was offered a savings account at the time. We had an opportunity to write a $300,000 grant, and we offered the savings account to every first grader in our school district. Now, because of the California Kids Investment and Development Savings Cal Kids Work, we will be able to offer it to our students and even those from last year that are historically underrepresented, socioeconomically, students who are unhoused and students who are foster students. That has become a district wide effort. We will be doing presentations for parents and community members, and particularly even reaching out to students who graduated last year, to make sure that they take advantage of the funds.
Nati Rodriguez [16:43]
That’s great. That’s fantastic to hear. When I was growing up, there was not enough conversation around savings and managing money.
Dr. Vivian Ekchian [16:52]
And college – we’ve known for a long time – college begins in kindergarten. It’s not just the financial aspect of it, but the discussions at school sites and in our classrooms of the academic expectations, the supports in place, but also the realization that college is only a few years away, if that is a pathway that our students select to engage in. If not, career technical education is also one of our other priorities, and for all of our students, we’re seeking internships in our community and we’re looking forward to having them participate as part of their coursework. As we changed our academic schedule for our students to block schedule and a seven-period day, it was intentional and deliberate, so all of our students would be able to pursue their passion courses and interests and be able to attach them to an internship in the community.
One of those would be with Glendale Memorial Hospital. Glendale High School has an internship program, and students from Glendale High School have an opportunity to go work with and shadow, at Glendale Memorial Hospital, physicians and other individuals in that industry, and it’s a paid internship. It’s really one of many models that we hope to pursue in our school district because we know the application of learning has to be real-time and having role models that look like you allows you to dream big. We’re all about aspirational goals and fulfilling those by scaffolding the supports necessary for our students to be able to see themselves in these roles.
Nati Rodriguez [18:42]
Yes, that’s wonderful. It’s amazing when students get to see what they’re learning is relevant and they’re able to apply this in a real setting.
Nati Rodriguez [19:12]
Just shifting gears, the way you’ve described everything that’s going on, that’s a lot. We’d love to hear just what does a typical day for you look like in this role?
Dr. Vivian Ekchian [19:22]
Well, I can say my typical day today started at 03:38 a.m. because I’m an avid reader and I feel as a leader and learner, I’m in need of always filling my cup by learning more and being able to relate to others that I may not know personally. But by learning about their stories, I am able to continue mine in the most positive way. I love to start the school day at a school; seeing students interacting, playing, learning together generates the energy necessary for me to go all day long. Usually after the visit to the school site, for a particular observation of a program or just classrooms or discussions with students, I’m at the office meeting with cabinet members. Sometimes we’re analyzing data, other times we’re planning for a meeting, or receiving feedback on a program, or an implementation and the revision of the work.
Generally speaking, meeting with parents, and I’m known for that, and I’m very proud of it, everyone and anyone who wants to have access to me, has access to me. There isn’t that level of hierarchy that you must first meet with this person or that person. Obviously, we’re all coordinated and coherent in our work and inclusive. I do spend a lot of time meeting with parents and community members and students if they wish. The evenings are generally school site activities or community activities, and we’re a very vibrant community. Every night there’s at least one or two functions that I’m happy to attend. It’s important to be visible as a leader. It’s important to have aspirational asks – whether it’s a pandemic or any other reason – I’m very unapologetic about asking for more for our students. I’m known for that, and I’m proud of it, and it’s for the right reasons. So, I rarely accept a no. It’s usually not yet, and there’s a way to get to it, and it’s always in the best interest of our students.
Nati Rodriguez [21:43]
What does continuing your learning and professional growth and collaboration look like at this level? Do you speak or work with other superintendents in local school districts?
Dr. Vivian Ekchian [21:47]
I do and I thrive; building relationships with peers is really important to me, so over time I’ve met many, and I informally stay in touch with them through the LA County because we have 80 school districts. We certainly have collaboratives that allow us to partner with one another. I can think of partnership with Las Virgenes, where we together are working on credentialing programs and participating in that for our teachers, for example, teachers that are now teaching transitional kindergarten and the certification that goes with that. We love to learn from them. I’m also happy to share when asked about the promising practices in Glendale, we have our neighboring districts that once a month meet called the Five Star. I also have national leader level colleagues, having completed the Fellowship for Public Education. Recently, we met at Yale several times a year and learned, studied together, and shared practices which were instrumental in our ability to see that we were in the same storm but not in the same boat. Whether it came to public health, it came to masking, it came to vaccinations, or any other subject, it’s always really important to stay connected across the nation as well, not just in California, and then California School Board Association meetings, we just had one last week. I seek opportunities to learn with my peers, and I search for partners who want to do great things together. Earlier today, I was speaking to a superintendent in Anaheim about afterschool programs and how we can incorporate the arts and music into the after school on a regular basis. We’re not in this alone, and we learn a lot from one another. I’m thrilled to say that there’s so much we can share, so we’re not all reinventing on our own.
Nati Rodriguez [24:14]
I read that you started your career as a third-grade teacher and taught in various roles for ten years. What motivated you to go into administration?
Dr. Vivian Ekchian [24:27]
I don’t think it was a conscious process of one day I want to go into administration. I was a mentor teacher. I had opportunities to share my knowledge and my practices in my classroom with other teachers and eventually realized that if I wanted to have a greater impact in being able to influence other educators, I was able to do that by becoming a principal or functioning in a variety of roles. I very consciously led a human resources department in another school district because at the end of the day, regardless of how much professional development is offered. It’s the recruitment and retention of the most outstanding educators that has the greatest impact for our students. I’m pleased to say that I’ve always selected the next position I want to go to in a very thoughtful and deliberate way. I haven’t just moved around for the sake of change, but really in order to have a greater impact. Educators are influencers. I know that statement wasn’t as prevalent years back, but the ability to be able to speak to the community, speak to students, make changes to programs, redirect resources purposefully to level the playing field for students who don’t have a voice, is my passion, is the reason as to why I continue to come to work every day. Because there are kids that don’t have a voice, I am going to be the facilitator of that for them.
Nati Rodriguez [26:15]
I love it. I love it. I’m just thinking about these various roles and experiences, particularly the HR. You were made for this moment, right as a leader.
Dr. Vivian Ekchian [26:24]
I’m very lucky to be in this moment.
Nati Rodriguez [26:27]
What advice would you give educators when deciding whether to stay in the classroom or follow an administrator’s path? Because often we see that some of the best teachers become administrators and there’s this conversation around whether these folks should stay in the classroom and who should go where based on their skills, talents, desires, passions.
Dr. Vivian Ekchian [26:50]
I think your values and belief systems do not change. Regardless of what role you’re in, that is how you make the greatest impact. It’s not what you want to be, but who you want to be, that is the driver in the work that we are doing in education. You can pivot back and forth. There’s not one formula of success as to where you feel you can make the greatest difference. We should allow ourselves the opportunity to pivot when necessary or when we feel that’s where we want to be.
Nati Rodriguez [27:25]
Beautifully said. What was your own K-12 experience like?
Dr. Vivian Ekchian [27:29]
I always share freely that I came to the United States at the age of 19, so I did not have the same educational experience as students in the United States. It was rigorous. I do not ever remember any kind of mental health support being even available, perhaps because of the era in which I went to school, but also maybe the places that I had the opportunity to learn. I think we’re far more student centered here and the happiness of our students and their ability to see themselves as valuable citizens is particularly important. I think my experience has helped me understand our students better. I always come with a view of windows and mirrors – mirrors because you have to know yourself and to be able to see yourself or who you are; windows that there’s a world out there that you don’t know and you have to show empathy to be able to understand it, and not judge, and not make decisions based on what you know, but really be a good listener.
Often in the books that I read or in the opportunities I have to learn from others, I always look for strategies and ways in which I can empathize and understand what the true needs are, rather than making assumptions of what the needs are. One of the books that I had the opportunity to read most recently was from a person who is now very successful, David Ambroz, in his book A Place Called Home, speaks about being unhoused for a very long time in New York and what that meant to him. Without knowing what the experience of an unhoused young person is, one cannot support that person. No matter how many directions or resources we receive from state level or the county level, it’s actually interacting with the students who have that need to be able to help them based on what is most necessary.
Nati Rodriguez [29:50]
Yes. Thank you for sharing that. Anything else that you’re reading, watching or listening to right now that you’d like to share?
Dr. Vivian Ekchian [29:56]
With my principals and my cabinet, we’re reading the book, The Listening Leader by Shane Safir, and creating the conditions for equitable school transformation requires listening. We’re on chapter nine now, and it’s particularly focused on listening to parents and being able to understand why they say what they say and where they’re coming from and how we can support them in their journey of being parents because parenting doesn’t come with a book, every person’s experience is different.
I usually try to read a few books at the same time, but for different purposes. One that I’m intrigued by, and I haven’t completed but I will during Winter break, is Entry Planning for Equity Focused Leaders. I had the opportunity to meet the author, Jennifer Cheatham, who used to be the superintendent of Madison, Wisconsin, but she was also assistant superintendent in Long Beach a while back. It’s ways in which I can learn to empower schools and communities in our conversation about cultural humility – whether it’s culturally relevant education, and we’ve made great strides in that area by changing many of the books that were utilized in our schools for the purpose of teaching – is to really understand how you can bring an entire community together that may not necessarily be on the same page or have the same understanding of what cultural humility looks like, but others have done this. What worked in Madison may not work here, but being able to read the book, reach out to the author – I had an opportunity to listen to her speak on that subject not too long ago – gives me a coaching experience, gives me the chance to ask someone who’s been there before, of ways in which I can improve my practices as a superintendent.
Nati Rodriguez [32:04]
I’m hearing you say a lot about what you’ve taken from others to then give more to your students, your school community, your teachers and leaders that you work with.
Dr. Vivian Ekchian [32:16]
I’m a huge advocate of promoting women and individuals who historically have been underrepresented, and I have lived that work. Every time I have an opportunity to hire a cabinet person or mentor a female protege, I spend a lot of time and effort wanting to support them because, certainly we have to help one another, and it’s not to say that I have the formula, but I am dedicated to promoting other women, women of color, and being able to understand the journey that has brought them to where they are as I’ve lived that journey myself. I’m the first female superintendent in Glendale after a long, long history of only male superintendents, and I’m the first female Armenian superintendent, which means a lot to a community that is a diaspora outside of Armenia, the largest one, to see a female role model for all the women and girls who may have goals but aren’t sure that they can aspire and succeed.
Nati Rodriguez [33:31]
Yes. Thank you. What a wonderful opportunity for the Glendale community to see you in this work.
Nati Rodriguez [33:54]
I’m curious what fills your cup? You spoke to this a little bit. What else helps you and motivates you every day?
Dr. Vivian Ekchian [34:01]
I always want to start the day with students because seeing their joy of learning and their ability to simply say what matters fills my cup. I also like to surround myself with positive individuals who, regardless of their past experiences, know that hope is what matters, coupled with hard work and the opportunity every child can succeed. What fills my cup is that I am resilient and have a passion to help kids be successful. I have a picture behind me called Esperanza, and my father gave that picture to me. I framed it. I’ve had it in the last 20 years in so many different offices. It’s always behind me because I need to know that I have that support and hope that drives the work that I do every day. So, I find ways to inspire myself.
Nati Rodriguez [35:15]
Yes, it sounds like it. Thank you and you’ve inspired us. We can see why you’ve been voted Superintendent of the Year.
Dr. Vivian Ekchian [35:23]
You’re very kind. On that note, I have to say I happen to carry that title, but it’s as a result of all the hard work of everyone in my school system, all the students, parents, community members, and my staff. I happen to be carrying it, but it is really a district wide recognition, and that’s what matters to me.
Nati Rodriguez [35:44]
Is there anything else that you would like to share with the Learner audience before we sign off?
Dr. Vivian Ekchian [35:50]
I think leading and learning goes hand in hand, and to eliminate barriers for our students is part of the solution to help every child succeed. Being empathetic to every person that you meet is a requirement for success, because trust is only built if you remove judgment from every situation. There’s a purpose as to why we’re here, and it’s on us to take advantage of it and make it happen for those that may not be as privileged as we are.
Women in Educational Leadership Outstanding Contributions to Education Award