Serving students and families, especially those with the greatest needs, gives Scott Kuykendall purpose, but his role as Stanislaus County Superintendent of Schools supporting 25 school districts and 110,000 students, wasn’t preordained.
Raised on the west side of the Valley, the 1994 Stanislaus State graduate attended the University of Oklahoma as a pre-med student with plans of becoming a dermatologist after his 1989 graduation from Orestimba High School in Newman.
It turned out classes like calculus and organic biology were not for him.
He came back to California and enrolled at Modesto Junior College. When a buddy transferred to Stan State, Kuykendall followed without a real plan, but mentors and opportunities led him to serve others in a classroom.
“People fascinate me,” said Kuykendall, who has an innate ability to put people at ease. “I enjoy helping people. With education comes the opportunity to serve, and I think that’s where I’m most comfortable.”
His career plans probably took hold, he said, the second year he was a Stan State student and spent the year studying abroad in Spain.
“I just think studying abroad is a fantastic opportunity to grow up,” Kuykendall said. “You must rely on yourself. It forces you to engage in unfamiliar situations, and you get the opportunity to meet incredible people and discover the world is amazing, and the people in it are truly amazing.”
He was 21 when he ventured to Spain and had “the best year of my life,” at least until he experienced the joy of marriage and having three sons, he said.
He spent time in Madrid and attended a university in Granada, in southern Spain. He visited France, Italy and Portugal, before returning to Stan State with a better vision of his career path.
“That opportunity to go to Spain and really learn Spanish, helped to leverage my career choice,” he said.
He found a mentor in Steve Stryker, who was launching Stan State’s Teachers of English Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) program.
“Steve was a new professor at the time and building a new program. He took me under his wing, and I learned a tremendous amount about the art and science of teaching techniques,” Kuykendall said.
After graduating from Stan State, Kuykendall got an emergency credential to teach English as a second language at Gustine High School. He completed his credential work through Chapman University’s online program.
“I left Stan State feeling confident in my own abilities to be successful,” Kuykendall said. “I think a lot of that had to do with encouraging professors and the opportunities they gave me. I was going into education because seeing the joy, and how fulfilling their own profession was to them, made it attractive to me. To see other people doing it, and doing it masterfully, gave me an example. They were definitely role models.”
He loved being in the classroom, where he could play his guitar, sing with his students and watch them perform skits.
Gustine High’s principal saw something in Kuykendall, though, and urged him to apply for an assistant principal position.
“He told me, ‘You can do great things as a teacher in a classroom and serve 150 students a day. If you really want to make a difference, you should think about becoming a principal, because then you can affect the entire school,’” Kuykendall said. “That resonated with me.”
He served as an assistant principal at Gustine, then at Elliott Alternative Education Center in Modesto. In 2006, he became the principal at Johansen High School in Modesto.
After a year, he was named director of secondary education for Modesto City Schools.
“I enjoy helping others. I’m constantly rooting for the underdog. When I was in Spain I was rooting for the bull and much of my educational career has been directly or indirectly serving students in alternative education, special education and non-native English speakers.”
In 2011, he moved to the County Office of Education to oversee alternative education programs, including the Come Back Kids Adult Charter School, which offers adults an opportunity to earn a high school diploma.
Leading those programs was rewarding, and helped “the underdog” he loved, but when Stanislaus County Superintendent of Schools Tom Changnon announced his retirement, Kuykendall ran to fill the elected position.
That constituents upon whose doors he knocked didn’t know what the Superintendent at the County Office of Education did wasn’t surprising.
“I didn’t know who the county superintendent of schools was or what he did when I first started teaching either,” Kuykendall said.
He told voters about the county’s more visible programs: spelling bees, mock trials, academic decathlons and sixth-grade outdoor education camp.
He was elected in 2018 and re-elected in 2022.
“For me it’s being able to ensure a sense of continuity, so we know the high-quality services and programs that the Stanislaus County Office of Education (SCOE) provides are sustained,” he said. “SCOE’s main function is providing services. We are constantly helping our local districts, helping our communities or helping families in a variety of ways. I really enjoy helping people and this work fulfills my sense of purpose and mission.”