Barbara Nakaoka

Barbara Nakaoka

As told to Valerie von Frank 

The way you handle the budget speaks volumes about where your priorities are. When I began teaching, I saw the power of professional development because it enabled me to help students learn better and learn more. At the start of my superintendency, we built in cost savings so we could redirect money and continue with professional development because expectations are ratcheting up every year. Unless you provide training for teachers, principals, and everyone in the system, you will not be able to handle those expectations and create change that benefits students. 

I am a hands-on superintendent. My message to the instructional division and district has been about the value of professional learning communities and the need for professional development. I put an emphasis on building trust so professional development is accepted. 

We set specific expectations not only for schools but for employees. Setting expectations is a catalyst in getting the work done and moving the money to be able to do training. We use state categorical money targeted for intervention and Title II money -- whatever money we can eke out. We hire district program specialists -- teachers on special assignment -- who present but also go into classrooms to work with teachers. We bring in consultants for their expertise in instructional development. The key is monitoring implementation.

Professional learning communities have been the pivotal change in the district. We use them at all levels, including in the superintendent's cabinet, to make data-driven decisions. We interject data all the time to solve problems. District departments use data to determine what to work on. District-level administrators have to be trained as much as site-level staff, so they all take part in professional development. For example, when a teacher says he or she is being asked to do "X," human resources staff need to know what that "X" is. 

At the site level, learning teams meet at least twice a month. We hire substitutes at times to allow teachers to work in learning teams, and we're working hard to develop individuals' leadership skills within learning communities. District-level departments work with site staff and facilitate meetings at the site.

For a large district, consistency is a leveraging point. Working in isolation drains money. You have to focus on alignment all the time. For example, central administrators met with the high school principals and asked them key questions, then gave direction to the secondary division so we were all on the same page. Money and time weren't wasted on things that wouldn't receive support or that weren't meeting the needs of teachers and staff. 

The types of things that worked in the past are not going to continue working. Standards are helpful because standards give us guidelines to leverage change, and professional development standards give us the impetus to enable students to have the best-qualified educators.

Barbara Nakaoka ( is superintendent of Hacienda La Puente Schools in City of Industry, Calif.