This California leader is using AI to expand his reach—and become multilingual

The Santa Ana Unified School District is launching "Sofia," a virtual AI assistant programmed to answer questions and serve families throughout the community.

Several months ago, Santa Ana Unified School District Superintendent Jerry Almendarez and his team recorded a video message to their school community. In the video—recorded in English—Almendarez shares his journey from being a student in a working-class family to overcoming obstacles and landing a leadership role in one of the largest school districts in California.

You can also find the same video recorded in other languages including Spanish, a language he’s not fluent in.

Almendarez and his executive cabinet have been engaging in AI-centered conversations for about a year-and-a-half now, he says, with the goal of learning how the technology can be leveraged in various administrative areas. “The communications department looked into it and stumbled across this translation platform [HeyGen] and that’s when they started to experiment and explore,” he explains.

All it took was recording his message in English, uploading it into the platform and “voilà, the Spanish video was created,” he says.

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As traditional AI etiquette would require, the translated videos included a disclaimer crediting AI for production. Almendarez says they were very well-received by his community.

“We did get some comments in Spanish from our Spanish population,” he says citing engagement from his targeted audience.

Using AI beyond communications

Aside from targeted outreach, SAUSD has some exciting projects in the works, says Almendarez. The district is developing an AI virtual assistant to answer families’ questions about their child’s education.

Meet Sofia, a “learning, evolving gateway to vital information for parents, staff, and community members,” Almendarez wrote on social media showcasing the technology.

In this video, you can watch the district’s Chief Communications Officer Fermin Leal interacting with Sofia, giving folks an idea of its capabilities:

“As we develop and train the model, we’ll eventually put it public-facing on our web page for community members to access,” says Almendarez.

Advice for on-the-fence leaders

A recent EAB survey revealed that only 37% of superintendents say their district has a plan for incorporating AI instruction in their classrooms. The technology is still in its infancy, although its functionalities allow educators to leverage it for enhanced learning and leadership. Almendarez invites other leaders to experiment with AI and get a feel for its use in their roles.

“They should start by having a conversation about learning more about the platforms and how they can be used,” he says.

When ChatGPT was first released in November 2022, Almendarez brought the tool to his meetings with cabinet, classified directors and principals to share its value and potential. One of the most important stakeholders in this conversation, however, are parents. “We’ve done a few parent trainings,” he explains. “The reason is to give parents the resources to help their kids with homework.”

Superintendent Jerry Almendarez and students using VR headsets (photo provided by SAUSD).

This month, the district also published its first draft of its AI guidelines, which serve as a roadmap for students and community members to thrive and feel supported in an “AI-augmented world,” the document reads. The guidelines include information on upholding academic integrity, transparency, AI in the curriculum and other key focus areas.

“As technology continues to advance, particularly with the increasing intelligence capabilities of machines, our guidance on AI integration is designed to be forward-thinking,” the guidance reads. “It is adaptable to future technological changes, ensuring that it remains relevant and effective in fostering a balanced and ethical learning environment.”

Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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