Sophia Mendoza is Director of Los Angeles Unified School District’s Instructional Technology Initiative.

Apr 10 2023

Q&A: Empowering Students and Educators with Technology

Sophia Mendoza, director of instructional technology at one of the largest school districts in the county, is focused on impacting the next three generations.

More than half a million students call Los Angeles Unified School District home. Sophia Mendoza has called the district home since she was a child and has spent the past 25 years giving back to the institution that gave so much to her.

She became director of LA Unified’s instructional technology initiative in 2015 and helped restructure the department’s digital transformation approach to make pedagogy central to classroom technology. She continues to make her mark while overseeing a team of 30 coaches who support more than 25,000 teachers.

Mendoza spoke to EdTech about internet connectivity, computer science education, equity, professional development, artificial intelligence and advocating for those without a voice.

EDTECH: Tell us what brought you to education and how that prepared you to lead a team of instructional technology coaches.

MENDOZA: I grew up in Pacoima, a town in the eastern San Fernando Valley. At the time, it was primarily first-generation and second-generation Mexican American, working-class families.

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I decided I wanted to make an impact in my community, that is why I became a teacher at the neighborhood elementary school where I grew up. After becoming a teacher, I was asked to lead a very innovative reading program in the late 1990s that focused on meeting students where they were in literacy. This was a precursor to personalized learning, but without the technology component.

I then became an assistant principal at a school that had a very high population of students with disabilities. My role there at the time was to advocate on behalf of the students with disabilities, as well as ensure that the teachers had the necessary professional training. That was a really a monumental point in my career, because I learned so much about advocating for our students with disabilities and their families.

EDTECH: What would you say is your core approach to bringing together technology and pedagogy?

MENDOZA: I lead with instruction. The instruction is my endgame, and everything in between is a means to an end, including technology.

Along the way, I use digital citizenship competencies, and at the foundation are the ISTE standards for students, educators, educational leaders and coaches, threaded with computer science. It all intersects.

RELATED: K–12 districts use technology as guardrails for digital citizenship.

EDTECH: What would you say are some challenges that your department is focused on addressing today?

MENDOZA: Right now, we are ensuring that our educators and educational leaders have the most rigorous and relevant professional learning that will impact student achievement for college, career and beyond. We are also continuing to ensure that all of our students have connectivity at home. That’s a big piece because, as we know, learning happens anytime, anyplace.

EDTECH: Why do you believe that technology is an essential part of the educational offerings at LA Unified?

MENDOZA: Technology is everywhere, and technology is for everyone. It has become essential to how we exist in our modern society, and we have a responsibility to ensure that all students develop competencies in using technology to navigate the world.

We need to consider measures to empower our youth, our families and our educators when they are in these online spaces.

EDTECH: You spoke about opportunities with artificial intelligence a few years ago. Today, the topic seems more popular than ever. How are you helping teachers integrate AI into the classroom?

MENDOZA: Just before Covid-19, we came together with several community partners to create a professional learning series to help educators have a better awareness of artificial intelligence.

We really drove home that AI is not anything that we need to shelter our students from. What’s been key is that our teachers feel empowered to have some of these conversations with their colleagues, with their students and, most important, with the families that they support.

MORE ON AI: What are the pros and cons of ChatGPT in education?

EDTECH: LA Unified seems to be leading the way by embedding computer science education throughout the entire K–12 educational experience. Tell us why this is important.

MENDOZA: When I first stepped into this role, I dug into the demographics of students taking AP computer science. What I discovered was that predominantly white and Asian boys were participating in the course. Although 73 percent of our students were Latino and 8 percent were African American, these students were not represented. Girls were not represented in these courses in computer science either.

For us computer science education is about equity, access and opportunity. So we started working closely with a small group of educators and principals, then made recommendations to the school board. They then passed a resolution to ensure that by 2025, all students would have access to computer science education, starting with our youngest learners.

Sophia Mendoza quote


EDTECH: You have won several technology awards over the years, including Latino Technology Champion of the Year for 2022 and Technology Administrator of the Year. Why do you think that is?

MENDOZA: Being a first-generation Mexican American woman and a working mom, I feel this extreme responsibility to show up, to represent for others who may not have a voice at the table or who may not be in the room.

I want to make sure that I impact the next three generations by being an advocate for those who may not have access to technology — or, once they do have access, ensuring that they’re able to use it in an ethical, productive way that will help shape their future positively.

EDTECH: How do you work with your IT department?

MENDOZA: I have regular and steady communication and collaboration with our IT team. This strong partnership is an essential condition for propelling collaborative projects forward. It’s the main ingredient to our success on joint efforts. One collaborative project that I am very excited about is our upcoming launch of cybersecurity education for all students and educators.

DIVE DEEPER: Districts train students in cybersecurity and network operations.

EDTECH: How do you scale professional development for 25,000-plus educators?

MENDOZA: In 2018, I realized we couldn’t keep up with the demand for in-person professional learning, so later that year we began experimenting with virtual meet ups with our ed tech coaches in online meetings. The positive feedback from participants set in motion efforts to leverage our learning management system to create high-impact, virtual professional development.

Little did we know that we were being set up for a massive shift in delivering professional development remotely in 2020.

Once distance learning happened due to the pandemic, we converted our in-person professional development to online synchronous and asynchronous sessions with office hours.

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And to answer your question on scalability, the sweet spot came when we partnered with other divisions. We were able to collaborate where the intersections made sense and would best impact student learning.

One example of that was in May 2020 when we set off on what our superintendent at the time called our “moonshot” certification — the Los Angeles Unified Future Ready Certification. We were able to certify 14,000 educators in future-ready learning skills. They were certified in everything from social-emotional learning, digital citizenship, anti-racist education, ISTE standards, computer science education and more.

EDTECH: Any advice for schools that may be still doing in-person training and want to transition to online? Any one thing that you have learned that you think would be helpful to readers?

MENDOZA: I always like to start small to grow. It leaves space for you to be able to iterate and change. It is also alright to make course corrections from time to time, based on the data that you receive from your participants, facilitators and student learning outcomes.

Photography by Matthew Furman

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