Santa Barbara’s New Schools Superintendent Makes Her Way From Fire to the Frying Pan(demic)

By Gwyn Lurie   |   August 31, 2021
Dr. Hilda Maldonado on campus at Santa Barbara High (Photo by Nick Masuda)

When I arrived at the Montecito Journal, I received some push back for writing about affairs outside of Montecito. But I felt strongly then, and still do, that many aspects of life in greater Santa Barbara are integral to the lives of Montecitans. That goes for healthcare, social impact work, the development of downtown, the arts, who is the mayor, who serves on city council, the board of supervisors, and of course, the quality of our local schools.

Specifically, those of us who live in Montecito and send our kids to the local feeder schools have a strong vested interest in what goes on in the Santa Barbara Unified School District. Having chaired the Montecito Union School Board during its search for a new superintendent, which ended with the hiring of MUS’s current Superintendent Anthony Ranii, I know how challenging and vital it is to find the right fit to lead a school district.

In the case of Ranii, he was basically lured to Montecito with brochure-like promises of beautiful weather and strong resources, only to be faced with the 2018 Thomas Fire and subsequent debris flow. Ranii more than rose to the occasion, and in fact became one of our community’s most vital leaders during that tragedy.

Not unlike Ranii, Dr. Hilda Maldonado began her reign as SBUSD superintendent during a crisis: the pandemic was taking hold and our nation lapsed into a chaotic racial reckoning. But that’s only part of the firsts Maldonado has faced.

Maldonado is the first Latina superintendent in Santa Barbara’s history, even though Latinos make up 37.1% of Santa Barbara’s population. And she is only the second woman to hold that position. I had the chance to sit down with Maldonado late last spring, and then again recently before school started this year to speak with her about her plans, her aspirations and the challenges that she is determined to overcome. As vaccinations levelled off and it has become clear we’ve not yet reached the end of this scourge, Maldonado voiced her determination.

“I believe our kids need to be in school and that we must do everything we can to ensure that they stay in school in person,” Maldonado said.

Maldonado launched undeterred into the work she did over the summer and her plans moving forward:

Maldonado: We’ve been super busy. I’ve only really taken four days off this summer. We had a Summer Teacher Institute where about half the teachers (from the whole district) came every day to San Marcos High. We did a bunch of workshops. We had keynote speakers then they had breakout groups in their school levels. 

Then we opened summer school, which was about 2,000 kids in elementary who came for six weeks, Monday through Thursday with Friday field trips all over town. Then of course, we did junior high and high school as well. We had a Leadership Institute for a week following that, and there was a lot of discussion about how do we lead equity work? The themes were always equity in action for the Teacher Institute and for the Leaders Institute. 

What do you most look forward to with school starting?

I’m very much looking forward to getting to know all of our students, teachers, families, and community members. I believe Santa Barbara can be a leader in education and we have all the best people in place to achieve this.

Dr. Hilda Maldonado is in her second year as superintendent (Photo by Nick Masuda)

The ABCs of Maldonado’s Plan . . .

Maldonado: This year we will focus on academics, belonging, and connections. I call them the ABCs of school improvement. Through investments in personnel who will support our teachers and students we plan to focus on the achievement journey for every child daily so that we can guarantee an excellent educational experience for all. Achievement includes academics, social and emotional wellness, and connections to their teachers and learning environments.

…I will be working with local philanthropies on a healthy child initiative to bring together resources to conduct vision, hearing, and dental checks to our students who have not been seen by a healthcare provider for over a year. We want to go beyond checkups and ensure they get eyeglasses, hearing aids, and dental care.

Maldonado was excited to make this next announcement:

Maldonado: Did you know that in 2022-23, everybody’s going to get free lunch? We will no longer be requiring any kind of income verification. I’m also working on providing additional leadership development to prepare aspiring leaders so that we can have future school site leaders ready to serve our students, families, and communities. 

What are your greatest hopes for the district and what are the greatest challenges that we face?

Maldonado: My greatest hope is that our district becomes a model district for how to be inclusive and look at the humanness, for lack of a better word, of every child in the system. I believe that every district has similar challenges that we do which is high wealth [mixed with] high poverty, resulting in race-based outcomes that are very much along the same lines. But I believe there’s also great opportunity in Santa Barbara because of its size and the commitment that I feel both internally and externally around this equity agenda for our community.

What do you see as your greatest challenge?

Maldonado: Our biggest challenge is folks understanding that when we help those that are historically not successful groups, it doesn’t take away from those that have been. Another big challenge is when we speak about race issues, it doesn’t mean we don’t consider that everybody has a challenge to overcome, but there has been a historical pattern we’re talking about. Because I speak so much about students of color, I have received mail about whether my agenda may be biased. So being able to bring people in to help understand what it is I’m trying to move the district towards is definitely one of my greatest challenges.

Was your work in Los Angeles good preparation for your work here?

Maldonado: In Los Angeles, I was given a pretty incredible opportunity when I was asked to lead the multi-lingual multi-cultural education department. Actually, it was called the Language Acquisition Department. I had a chance to do that work in collaboration with the Office for Civil Rights out of the Department of Education and the Department of Justice at that time. Which basically called our district out on the poor outcomes of our English learners, which were dismal, where we had generations of kids who had gone through our system in the middle grades and in high school, starting with us in pre-K or kindergarten who were not proficient after six, seven, or even eight years.

That work taught me a lot about what it means to bring all parties to the table. The most important group was hearing from the students. When I got to hear what students thought about where they were in the system [in relation to] their hopes and dreams, I realized they didn’t understand they were so far behind and the catch up they needed to make was momentous. It really made me understand how much urgency we need to have around every day counts, every moment counts, every year really counts for all kids. Not just for some, but for all kids.

It sounds like you need serious engagement from all of the stakeholders.

Maldonado: Engagement is so important and it’s a tool I definitely use, being able to bring people to the table and listen to the voices of the different groups. We learned that teachers really need to understand, “How does it look when I teach a child who doesn’t speak the language that I’m using in the classroom?” Building capacity of the teaching force and the administrator force is another tool that I bring. I think there’s a feeling many times in education like, “If you buy this program, or if you do this strategy, or if you spend money here, there’s a silver bullet.” But that’s not really the case because the job is about people and each and every unique case needs to be treated as each and every unique case.

It’s more about giving enough tools to the teacher to be able to appropriately say, “For this student it’s visual. For that student it’s auditory. This one has social and emotional issues, so let me try some tactile.” And just really being able to understand what different ways of teaching children can look like.

In my experience, when you talk about trying to bring up the level, people immediately think you’re neglecting the highest-level students. How do you help the community understand that when everybody does better, everybody does better?

Maldonado: I think it’s through showing your results and being transparent about your goals and reporting on those goals a couple of times a year, and being honest about whether you’re achieving those goals or not. For example, going back to English learners, if I report graduation rates for English learners, they’re going to be dismal because who is the denominator of those kids? In Santa Barbara, the graduation rate for English learners is approximately 16%.

Dr. Hilda Maldonado says it will be a priority this school year to get to know students, faculty, and staff on a deeper level (Photo by Nick Masuda)

Sixteen percent? That’s staggering!

Maldonado: Yes, it is. Now going back to the denominator, the questions we should ask when we hear that is, “Who is in that group? How long have they been in the school system?” There’s a difference between an English learner who arrived in ninth grade or eleventh grade or tenth grade, versus one that came in kindergarten.

What is the percentage of kids in the district that you would consider housing or food insecure?

Maldonado: I believe that statistic is 15%. But overall poverty rate… is close to 51%. 

So, how do you begin to lift up the students who have traditionally struggled for a number of reasons?

Maldonado: [Last spring] at the board meeting, for example, I highlighted first-gen kids who’ve been accepted to college and the scholarships they’re getting. I did that because we’ve heard nationally, how there’s so many poor outcomes for kids like me. But I am one of those kids. I wanted to show that there’s all these other amazing stories. You’ve got to balance the story. The bad with the good. 

My mom always says, “I love all my children the same.” I wonder if it wouldn’t be helpful to find a way to acknowledge other kids too, so the community knows you think about them. Do you know what I mean? So that all groups of kids know they’re a priority. Maybe that balance would help both/all groups of kids?

Maldonado: Yes, yes. It’s definitely something I need to get better at. I think that the other part of it is I’m only now barely starting to walk classrooms. I’m barely starting to get to know some of these kids. I’m interested in your thinking around how do we recognize both groups of kids? 

I wonder if both sets of kids, by putting them together and honoring both, if that wouldn’t help normalize things and give different groups a way to recognize and acknowledge and relate to each other. If it would make the one who hasn’t been recognized before feel more part of the mainstream and if the more historically mainstream kids maybe would get used to knowing that it’s not just about them… do you know what I mean? Might that provide more of that elusive “equity” within the local educational experience?

Maldonado: That’s beautiful, you got me. That’s exactly what I’ve been struggling with, I get that.

Talk to me about being a woman leader in Santa Barbara. You’re only the second female superintendent in the city’s history. And the first Latina, which is both horrifying and surprising to me. What is that like? 

Maldonado: I think as a female leader I’ve had to insert myself into spaces instead of being invited or told about spaces that I could be in.

Have you felt welcomed?

Maldonado: That has not happened at all. There hasn’t been a welcome mat from many people since I’ve arrived, but we’ve been dealing with a crisis, so I just chalked it up to dealing with a crisis.

Then as a Latina I think there’s also, again, a need for me to prove that I have the right to lead here. I’ve had to expect respect from people, remind them that I… and for Latinos respect is a big thing, we live and die by respect. Or lack of respect. That also has been a challenge for me as a Latina leader — the recognition that I earned this job fair and square, not just because I’m a Latina female, but because I’m actually a good leader and I want to be known for that, not so much for being a Latina female.

In the spring when we spoke you felt like there had not been any real welcome mat rolled out for you… something you largely chalked up to the pandemic. Do you feel different now?

Maldonado: Yes. the pandemic made it difficult to connect with people, however things changed as has been the case with all things COVID. For example, last week I had a breakfast meeting hosted by Janet Garufis (president of Montecito Bank & Trust) and Christine Garvey (trustee at Montecito Bank & Trust, CSCIU, and Sansum). We met with many of the healthcare agency executives to discuss a whole child health initiative. In addition, we hosted a Latino Leader Roundtable with elected officials, nonprofit leaders, community leaders, and had a chance to share our goals. I found these two groups to be exceptionally welcoming and open to supporting our students and schools.

I guess it’s hard for you to assess this because you have been here so far during such a strange time, but do you feel like there’s enough collaboration between departments and entities here in Santa Barbara? 

Maldonado: No different than Los Angeles, but the pandemic has basically forced that collaboration. One of the values of being a Latina leader is that our culture is based on collaboration. It’s the whole before the individual, which has its pros and cons as you can imagine. I do not do well unless there’s collaboration happening. I’ve had to spend a lot of time on that kind of work. One of my biggest messages to my cabinet is, “If one of you contacts another, you need to know that that communication is your priority because you guys are a team. If you’re not answering each other on a meeting request or a collaboration, you’re not part of the same team.”

Then there’s also the importance of collaborating around the issues. We all have to sing from the same hymnal, meaning all be on the same page. My experience has taught me that especially because L.A. is so large, you all have to be on the same page, or many things can go wrong.

Can you tell me a little bit about Parent University? 

Maldonado: It’s a program run by Dr. Patricia Madrigal that has been funded by Jon Clark from the J Bower Foundation; she has a set of curricula for parents of Latino kids, first-gen kids, on what they need to understand about the school system to know how to engage with the system and what their kids need. I think there is this very middle-class assumption of what parents know about schools. Through Parent University, you take away those assumptions and you’re very explicit about what parents need to understand and know about school systems in the U.S.

I went to school in Mexico until I was 11 [where the priorities were] God, schools, then everything else. Teachers are revered in our culture, principals are revered, and we would never question authority. If a teacher says your child is failing, your child is failing. We would never challenge the teacher.

I understand that mentality very much, my own parents… and Latino parents will come to school if you’re the teacher and say, “How is Hilda behaving?” That’s all they ask. Because all they care about is, “Did you uphold our family’s sense of being well-behaved and respectful?” That’s the value statement for us. If we’re coming to you with that, you think, “Well, they don’t care.” No, they do care and they actually trust you to do the right thing and be the professional. There’s a lot of misunderstanding there. Parent University is intended to fill in those gaps, help parents understand, and give them the tools to collaborate with the system in a different way.

We’re also in a very interesting time, I guess we’re in the information era where information is pushed out, but it’s given in bite sizes. No one reads all of an article anymore. So, knowing how to get the attention of parents, just enough so that they get the essence of your message is really important.

As the new kid in town, you’ve been on something of a listening tour, right? If you had to distill down what you’ve heard, what would it be?

Maldonado: I connected right away with the very clear message I got when I first got hired as the superintendent here, the message that talked about the importance of transparency and trust around this district. You can only build transparency and trust through effective communication. My bachelor’s degree is in speech communication. 

I’m not sure most people fully appreciate what a highly political job superintendent is. That you are serving so many different constituencies and at any given moment, you’re not going to please everybody. 

Maldonado: My mother taught me that lesson when I first became a principal. Her whole message was, “You are not a gold coin therefore not everyone will love you.”

Well, I certainly understood what she meant by that. So, here’s the final six-million-dollar question… are the kids going to stay in physical school this year?

Maldonado: The nationwide and the statewide push is we’re going to be in-person and I think it’s the right thing to do. I think it’s definitely something we have to do. I just don’t see us going back to remote learning.


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