Checking in with Santa Barbara County’s New Educator-in-Chief

By Nick Schou   |   August 13, 2020

On May 26, the Santa Barbara Unified School District Board of Education voted unanimously to hire Hilda Maldonado as Superintendent in charge of the education of the county’s more than 14,000 elementary, junior and high school students. Maldonado’s prior job: Associate Superintendent of Leadership and Partnerships for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the largest school district in California and the second largest school district in the United States.

Hilda Maldonado

Santa Barbara Unified Board President Laura Capps, who helped make the selection after vetting 50 highly qualified applications from across the country, announced the hire. “This pandemic is ushering in a new era of education while shining a spotlight on the inequities of the old education system,” said Capps. “We need a tested leader who has the expertise to harness new opportunities, engage the community, and propel our schools forward for the future. Hilda Maldonado is the leader for this transformational time.”

With her years of experience as a bilingual teacher and coordinator, assistant principal and then principal at two schools, Maldonado came with high praise from LA Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner. “The Santa Barbara Unified School District will be well served by Hilda’s commitment to equity and excellence for all students,” said Beutner. “She has served students and families in LA Unified for more than 30 years as an open and innovative bilingual teacher, administrator, and senior leader. We thank her for her tireless advocacy and leadership and wish her the best in her new role.”

With classes set to begin as early as next week for Santa Barbara’s students, the Montecito Journal asked Maldonado to take a few minutes away from her hectic schedule to field a few questions about herself and how she’s gearing up for this year’s uniquely challenging fall semester.

Q. Congratulations on your new job! Can you tell us a little bit about your background, where you grew up and how you ended up at LA Unified? What were some of the biggest challenges and accomplishments you can point to from your career as an educator and particularly as assistant superintendent?

A. Thank you! I was born in Mexico and immigrated to the U.S. with my parents and five siblings at the age of 11.

I grew up in an area north of LA called Montecito Heights. After college graduation, I worked a couple of years in Spanish TV and became a bilingual teacher after learning about it through a show we did to cover this new approach to teaching. Having been a student who only spoke Spanish, I felt a strong desire to give back to my community and help students like myself.

As a teacher, and later as a school administrator, my biggest challenge was championing the assets that students like me bring to school. It was common for people to have a desire to help students and create perceptions that the students were less intelligent because they didn’t speak the “language of school.” This resulted in students getting assigned to lower level classes or being classified as students with disabilities and placed in special education. My most proud accomplishment was increasing the number of dual-language program offerings and increasing the number of students who receive a Seal of Biliteracy in their diplomas along with restructuring classes in middle and high schools for English learners.

As an assistant superintendent I am most proud of the work with building partnerships, some of which resulted in creating food-delivery grab ‘n’ go’s that many of our neediest families could count on!

How did you find out about the opening here in Santa Barbara? How much time have you spent up here and who do you know in the local education community? How do you think your experience at LAUSD will inform your work in Santa Barbara? What do you think makes SB different from LA when it comes to the specific challenges faced by educators here, and what aspects are similar or universal that you can point to?

I was approached by a recruiter about the Santa Barbara position. I am an alumni of the Courage to Lead program led by the amazing Ken Saxon and was coming here for leadership retreats since 2018 on a regular basis and before that just as a visitor. I am just now meeting educators in the local community and Dr. Patricia Madrigal and Michelle Robertson from First 5 LA were both colleagues in Courage to Lead. In education, all of your experiences build on each other as you become a seasoned educator. LAUSD invests well in their employees and I was given many opportunities to attend leadership development programs like Harvard’s Professional Leadership Development and Public Education Leadership Program to name a few.

These valuable lessons inform the work in Santa Barbara. The difference I have observed so far between the two is the relationships amongst people in Santa Barbara. The size of this community makes it easy to accomplish tasks and communicate in ways that LA is challenged with. I believe both systems have similar challenges when it comes to educating Latino, African American, English Learners and students who participate in Free and Reduced Lunch programs. This is, of course, a national and state issue that I’m proud to say SB is seeking to remedy and improve upon. I have been very inspired to now work in an environment filled with people who have a strong social-justice vision.

You are coming into this new position at a uniquely challenging time because of COVID. Can you provide some insight into these specific challenges and what kinds of solutions you envision?

The challenges of leading in a COVID environment are unique to education because our work is done in community. We are uniquely positioned to build relationships with our families, students and each other because of our daily contacts in classrooms and through school events. The feelings of isolation that result from social distancing are felt strongly in educators whose job is to teach and counsel students and watch them grow and learn.

The most challenging problem to solve is the incredible disparities that exist for children whose parents’ jobs or work hours require them to leave their children alone and fend for themselves. The only solution I can envision at this time is that teachers and school leaders will be rethinking how teaching and learning happen given the use of technology, while emphasizing relationship building with students and families.


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