Stanislaus State graduate Denise Wickham (’98, B.A. in Liberal Studies), walked the halls of Ceres’ Caswell Dual Language Academy, popping into more than a dozen classrooms and sitting down to read a story to first graders.
Such a visit is something the Ceres Unified School District superintendent, a one-time fifth-grade teacher, loves to do, and she showed she hasn’t lost her knack in the classroom, mesmerizing the children with the story, “Sofia Valdez, Future Prez.”
“I feel I’m always a teacher,” said Wickham, who moved into administration after teaching in Manteca for eight years. “I’m a teacher at heart. I do presentations for our principals. I do a leadership academy, where I interact with classified leaders and aspiring leaders and new leaders to our district, and I love that.”
She’s also an adjunct professor in Stan State’s administration credential program, currently teaching Community Participation in Schools. She was honored for that role as the 2021 Professor of Education of the Year by the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA).
“It gives me that opportunity to stay grounded in what it is to be a teacher,” Wickham said. “It gave me empathy for what our teachers were going through during the pandemic.”
Beyond that, teaching the course for educators looking to move into administration turns the teacher into a student.
“I get to hear what their current challenges are and their current realities,” Wickham said. “Because I’m not at a school site every day, I don’t always have that perspective. Being able to interact on a professional level when I’m teaching the course, and on a personal level during breaks and after class, teachers are sharing with me what their challenges are with students or their district, with parents, the community. It’s very rewarding for me. There are universal challenges.”
Teaching at Stan State, she said, is also a great opportunity to recruit quality people for Ceres Unified, a district that serves about 14,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.
Filling positions is just one of the roles she plays in overseeing Ceres Unified, a job she’s held since 2021.
She prepared for the top leadership position by serving as deputy superintendent of personnel services and working side-by-side with predecessor Scott Siegel, since 2008.
Prior to that, she served as Ceres’ director of curriculum and instruction for two years and its supervisor of projects and assessment for one.
She moved into Ceres Unified after having served as an assistant principal in Manteca for one year and as a principal at a Riverbank elementary school for six years following eight years in the classroom.
Her affinity for Stan State and Warrior culture — “A Warrior is resilient, driven, courageous, passionate about what he or she does,” she said — stems from finding her place here.
The daughter of a Portuguese immigrant who had a dairy in Manteca, Wickham was placed on a vocational tract at Manteca High School until her junior year when her counselor took notice of her grades and suggested she was college material.
She took extra courses her senior year to meet requirements and enrolled at UC Davis.
“I was 17, because my birthday falls late in the year, and I was pretty overwhelmed,” Wickham said. “I was a first-generation college student. My father was an immigrant, so he couldn’t help me navigate the college system. I was relying on a high school counselor who helped me change my life by helping me apply for grants and scholarships in order to go to college.”
However, she was unable to secure on-campus housing, which only exacerbated her discomfort. After a quarter, she decided to move back home and commute to Stan State. Her story mirrors that of countless Warriors, currently home to nearly 75% first-generation college students.
Originally a criminal justice major with visions of becoming an attorney, she took a course called “Going to Prison.”
“It really resonated with me,” Wickham said. “During that course, I was able to go into courtrooms and shadow public defenders and prosecuting attorneys and get a feel for what that life might be like. I decided I wanted to help individuals not get to that point in their lives, and the best way to do that was to start when they were young and influence their decision making and learning opportunities.”
She switched to liberal studies to become a teacher and has never looked back.
Although she left the classroom, her joy in being around children hasn’t abated, as the opportunity to read to first graders indicates.
“My drive to enter administration was to be able to influence teachers on a different level, to help students on a wider scale by supporting teachers in the classroom,” she said.
Wickham is doing that, both at Ceres and at Stan State.