JUNE 2022 | DR. CHRISTINA KISHIMOTO
Dr. Mary Sieu, long-serving Superintendent of the ABC Unified School District in Cerritos, California – a high-performing school district that is nearly 95% students of color – was prepared for her school leadership role through her upbringing as an immigrant child in the diverse urban corridor of Chicago, Illinois. Her neighborhood at that time was a gathering of Asian, African-American, and other racial and ethnic groups – a multicultural, multiracial poor community figuring out education, access, the English language and the climb out of poverty as best possible. She describes the tension between family culturally-centered support and being forced by circumstances to interact across racial and ethnic groups for survival, as “a very challenging time.” Families of varied cultural backgrounds and upbringing were living together learning about each other’s perspectives and ways of doing things for the first time.
While Mary straddled this cultural dichotomy as a Chinese Cantonese speaker in an English language public school, her family engaged her in cultural celebrations through her church. “My mom always took care of us. She would make these incredible dresses for us. I had one particular favorite dress I seemed to always wear to the sword drill at the Baptist Church of Lakewood.” Mary laughs as she describes this typical story of childhood innocence. “I often won these competitions, even the Illinois State Championship one year, and do you know that the only thing I cared about was the potato chips that everyone would give me afterwards for winning!”
In the early 1980s Mary had the opportunity to go back to live in her home country of China for three years. While she was there, she spent time with family who encouraged her to think differently about the life-changing cultural experience of life in the United States. “I remember so vividly how the life of a person in China resonated with me and I even went back three more times to my village,” including later on after she was married. She remembers the words of one of the elders who advised her, “The most important fact that you need to remember is that you will always be the same person.” They also said, “You should never forget this time in China.” This unforgettable connection to China, left lasting imprints on her life perspective.
During Mary’s Kindergarten school year, she met a teacher, Ms. King, that would determine her career trajectory. Ms. King took particular interest in her, helped build her resolve to see beyond the challenges to the opportunities before her. “Ms. King was an incredible woman who wrote to me for 13 years, every Thanksgiving and Christmas. And I said to myself, I would like to be that kind of person.” With her teacher as her role model, Mary pursued teaching and taught for 15 years before seeking administrative positions, dedicating herself to public education.
The racial tensions of her childhood years also showed up in school during her professional years as well. Mary recalls an important personal turning point early in her teaching career when she saw a Vice Principal pull an African American child out of class who was misbehaving and “hit the child repeatedly outside my classroom door.” She describes her severe discomfort as a new teacher watching an educational leader do this and vowed never to treat a child disrespectfully. This incident had lasting effects on her as she thought about student learning engagement and positive behavior modification, as a teacher and leader.
As a woman of color, Mary believes that women in this nation have the opportunity to pursue leadership. Yet, she acknowledges that she really can’t name other Asian woman Superintendents despite her success. “I know of only one other Asian woman Superintendent and that is Anita Chu of Garvey School District in L.A. County. She will be assisting me in the Superintendents’ Academy [a training program for future Superintendents that seeks to diversify the candidate pool] this next school year.” Mary believes that more women should be in the Superintendent seat. “The biggest impediments to women are questioning themselves, doubting themselves. Just go after the seat.”
Dr. Sieu’s history of successful academic leadership, particularly over the past ten years as school Superintendent, is a living statement that gender-biased views of women of color in leadership are part of a stubborn false narrative that has been proven wrong over and over again by leaders like her. She has no fear of taking on local politics to stand up for student rights to quality facilities, instruction, teachers and opportunities, while leading as a collaborator.
This has been a special year for Mary, as she along with 27 other family members celebrated her mother’s 94th birthday. She also just received a contract extension from her Board through 2024, with ten years of Superintendent service in the district already completed. She feels supported and lifted up by her California colleagues, her community and her family, and looks to support other women to enter the profession.
Mary Sieu is our June Voice4Equity leadership feature!
Dr. Mary Sieu has served for ten years as the Superintendent of Schools for the ABC Unified School District in Cerritos, California. ABC Unified is an award-winning District comprised of ten preschools, 30 schools and serves over 21,000 (K-12) ethnically diverse students in the cities of Artesia, Cerritos, Hawaiian Gardens, and portions of Lakewood, Long Beach, and Norwalk. Follow Dr. Sieu on Twitter.
Zippia reports that the nation’s School Superintendents are still largely white and male, with 14% Latinos; 10.2% Black; 4.6% Asian, and 0.6% Native Nations despite changing national demographics that state that fifty percent of our public school students are BIPOC.