By Hilda or High Water

By Gwyn Lurie   |   January 25, 2022

Santa Barbara Schools Superintendent Super Intends to Get the Job Done

Some jobs are just plain hard. Hard because no matter what choices you make, some people are bound to be disappointed. I sometimes felt that way when I served on the Montecito Union School District Board, because everyone wants what’s best for their children, but not everyone agrees on what’s best. So I would remind myself of Eleanor Roosevelt’s sage words: “Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway.”

I’ve thought about this a lot as I’ve watched our schools try to constantly adapt to confusing and ever-changing information and guidelines, not to mention their need to respond to the political biases and agendas of community members and other stakeholders.  

Smack at the center of it all is our relatively new Superintendent of the Santa Barbara Unified School District, Hilda Maldonado. And she would be the first to tell you that she didn’t have a red carpet rolled out for her when she arrived, three months into the pandemic, as the first Latina and only the second woman ever to hold that position – not to mention doing so at a historically challenging time.

At times I’ve felt that the press Supt. Maldonado has received has been unduly harsh given the herculean challenges she has faced since the day she arrived. I wondered how she was feeling about where things are at in the school district where, if you believe what you read, you might imagine the district is in a state of chaos.  But don’t believe it. Maldonado is soldiering through. As Winston Churchill famously said, “When you’re going through (COVID-19) hell… keep going.”

Q. Eighteen months into your job at the district, how are things going?

A. Well, I came with this agenda of changing the world. I was very hopeful about many things that we could do here to improve outcomes for all students. And we’ve been able to put some things in place, but we keep being thrown off our course. So, I’ve learned that having to be adaptable and flexible, and dealing with paradox and uncertainty and ambiguity, is what leadership calls for right now. 

You joined our school district in July 2020. Just three months into the pandemic.

Yes… I came in with a real optimism that it’s going to be over soon… And I came out of L.A. having just had a teachers’ strike. So I went from a major teachers’ strike to the pandemic. I knew the teachers’ strike had a beginning and an end. And I think with the pandemic, at first I had this similar belief like, “Okay, there’s going to be a beginning and an end.” 

But maybe not so much. That’s what I’m starting to hear from the scientific community – that it might make more sense to think of managing COVID as something that’s with us for a long time, like the common cold or the flu, as opposed to this idea that there’s a beginning and an end to COVID because the absolute end could be a long time coming.

To that point, when I was working initially as a new leader with cabinet members, I leaned in on some articles from Harvard Business Review that talked about what other people were doing at the time. And I found this really cool article to share with my cabinet members that talked about something called the Stockdale Paradox, which talks about this idea of being optimistic but also realistic at the same time. So I had us read it, talk about it. And I had our principals read it, talk about it. And that was last year in the fall where we really talked about how to manage this by understanding what happens to people in crisis. 

Admiral Stockdale described what happens to us as humans, especially those of us who are very optimistic, who are like, “Okay, by December, it’ll be over,” “Or by March it’ll be over, or by July.” And then when we start to see that it’s not happening, the decline that happens psychologically for people who are expecting that very defined ending. And so we’ve leaned in hard on, instead, this idea of keeping ourselves going, of sustaining. Of not putting an end date on our energy and our effort. I leaned in hard on this myself as a leader to keep myself going like, okay, I’m optimistic, but at the same I’m also going to be realistic.

How is the morale of the teachers right now?

Very low… I would say that all of us, teachers and staff, are having a difficult time because… we started with Delta, that gave us one set of guidelines. Now we have Omicron, which gives us a different set of guidelines… That curveball that keeps changing our behaviors is what is tiring everybody. So the balance I have to strike is “Okay, we have these new guidelines, but now we’re still going to keep going even though the finish line keeps moving.

It has been a mixed bag. When I walked classrooms all last week and this week, the people that are there that are safe, that are healthy, they’re happy. The kids that are in school are happy, they’re learning, but we’re also cognizant of the fact that, whoa, we have about 20 percent or so of our people missing. And it’s that space where it’s hard to figure out how to impart, “We’re going to be okay.”

Superintendent Hilda Maldonado aids in the week-long testing efforts across the Santa Barbara Unified School District, including here at Santa Barbara High (Courtesy of SBUSD)

Can you talk about what has gone into the decision to keep the schools open?

I don’t have a choice. I cannot close schools by myself… The law as it stands does not allow me to offer that [learning by] remote choice that we had last year. The current law states that if a parent doesn’t want their child to have in-person schooling, they need to choose independent study. The only way I can close the schools is in consultation with Public Health and the county superintendent. And it has to be because I am low on staff available to teach kids. And we’ve not reached that threshold.

Additionally, if I were to get to that point where I was short of staff and I had to close, then I have to call them “snow days”; they would be categorized as emergency days. And then I have to tack those days on to the end of the school year because I am still obligated to offer [schooling] for 180 school days.

Does that come down from the governor’s office?

It’s Education Code Section 51747G and 51749.6B. It’s an assembly bill. 

Are you receiving a lot of pushback from parents for keeping the schools open?

I have not received a lot of parents asking me to close schools… Actually, I have received less than 10 emails asking me that, from teachers or parents, honestly. 

“I’ve learned that having to be adaptable and flexible,
and dealing with paradox and uncertainty and ambiguity,
is what leadership calls for right now. “
– Santa Barbara Schools Superintendent Hilda Maldonado

What is the feedback you’re getting from teachers?

I’ve been walking schools with the Teachers Union president. They just want to know what’s next. So, going back to the Stockdale Paradox, what’s going to happen next? When are you going to test us again? And what’s that going to look like? People need to just hear a lot of reassurance from me, why it’s safe to be in school and that I’m willing to support them with N95 masks, adequate ventilation, purifiers, those kinds of things.

Does the district have enough rapid COVID tests?

Yes. We do. We had a supply of about 24,000. I believe we’ve used about 12,000 of those in this round of testing. That’s just in our own internal supply. As you know, in December, we distributed close to 16,000 at-home kits. And in addition to that, we have the contract with Aptitude at the Earl Warren Showgrounds. This week we received 26,000 additional tests. So, we have a pretty good supply for us to do a couple of more rounds… But with that said, we have about 3,000 people that had been out for about two weeks that are going to start to come back, and we’ll need to use some of the testing supplies for that. And then decide what our next round of testing is going to look like. If we’re going to do the massive testing again or if we’re going to do more of the randomized, where we just randomly choose kids, keeping an eye on where the outbreaks might be. And the hard part is the tracking of cases, depending on if you’re at day one and coming back for day five, day eight, day 11, all those things are crazy making.

Have any kids ended up in the hospital?

Not to my knowledge. I have not heard of one yet.

Can you talk about the mental health impact COVID has had on students and what, if anything, the district is doing to support these kids?

…In the school walks I’ve had, I’ve asked kids, “How are you doing? How are you feeling? Are you happy being in school in person?” And they’re all saying, “Yes, keep the schools open,” but I hear second and third hand how much kids need us to stay open, for the sports, for the extracurriculars, for the opportunities to be with their friends. We do have a system of reporting mental health issues through the CALM and FSA contracts that we have. And we have personnel at school that are there to get the referrals for either family counseling at the elementary or individual student counseling at the secondary levels. I know that their cases are full. I know that there are wait lists. 

In early December I convened a group of ASB presidents along with our student board member. And we talked about the issues that were coming up and those kids told me that some of their friends are experiencing depression, lack of motivation, lethargic feelings about life and school, worried feelings. 

And the kids in that group also expressed to me, “Can you help us?” Like we sit here in these offices and we’re like, “Oh look, we have the contract from CALM and FSA and here’s the website and here’s how you do it.” And we pat ourselves on the back and we think we’re doing great. But how that gets translated to a student is not clear. And what we heard from those kids in December (Laura Wooster, who’s my student engagement specialist, was there in the room with me. And so was Shawn Carey.) We heard from the kids, “We don’t know how to access that. Where is it? How do we find it? How do we help other kids know it’s there?” So that’s what Laura is working on.

Santa Barbara High Principal Elise Simmons registers students prior to taking a COVID-19 test on January 10 as part of a district-wide testing mandate (Courtesy of SBUSD)

Is it difficult with the COVID testing and the daily protocol that it’s an honor system? Because I do hear from some of the kids that people are going to school when they know they have COVID, but they don’t feel like they really have an alternative.

Maldonado: Not only is this an honor system, but I also cannot force somebody to take the test.

And so that’s why we offered the other options. And we can’t prove that they’re positive. So that’s another challenge.

Is there any silver lining to all this?

Yes. There’s definitely a silver lining. And I think the silver lining is that we have realized that we have to take care of one another. What I do and the choices that I make today impact you, impact the student next to me, my friends that are in my classroom, my neighbors, my teachers, that we’re all connected. We have learned that we are not separated as people, that we really are here as a community responsible for each other. That’s my perspective. That’s the silver lining that I see.

Do you have a good relationship with the other professionals in the district? Principals, other staff members, do you feel like you’ve built up the kind of relationship and trust that you feel you need?

I think to a degree with some, not so much with others. [During COVID] I haven’t always been able to interface with a lot of people. I’ve been stuck trying to make decisions really last year in the office. So I had more of like the closer view with my cabinet who were translating for me a lot.

And then there’s so many decisions you make as a superintendent. The COVID stuff is just one aspect. There’s budgets; there’s so many other things. Like with our community, there are decisions I have to make that they have to live with and translate and some are more happy to do it for me than others.

What about in the greater community? I know when we spoke a year ago, you felt like there had not been a red carpet rolled out for you in Santa Barbara. How are you feeling now? 

I feel that my relationships with local leaders are really good. For example, Van Do-Reynoso (County Public Health Director) and I communicate a lot via text. The new mayor, Randy Rowse, knows me because his son works for me and so we’ve had a couple of exchanges… Some of the council people as well, I feel like if I reach out, they immediately respond to me. I’m building a relationship with the new City Administrator, I’m building relationships now more with the City of Goleta administrators and the mayor because of the whole issue around the SRO (School Resource Officer) at Dos Pueblos and San Marcos. I have a great relationship with the Police Chief, Barney Melekian. Bill Brown, the Sheriff, and I don’t agree on everything, but we have a respectful relationship. The supervisors and I have not had a lot of conversations anymore, but I think they have their own hands full. And guess what, we have vaccine clinics in our schools, just like I asked for a year ago. And now they’re begging me to have them in our schools. So in that sense things have come full circle.

I know that some of the press you’ve received, you feel is not fair and inaccurate. I’m wondering what you feel is the biggest misconception about your leadership?

I would say the misconception about my leadership is that I am difficult to work with. It’s sort of the way the stories are coming out. I am a firm but fair person. And I’m also making or passing down decisions that aren’t always made by me alone in this office. I’m collaborating with lots of people on keeping us safe. And I think the other big misconception is… I’m not the only leader that has people that are leaving. But I’m the only one that’s been written about.

Do you think that kind of scrutiny and criticism just comes with the job? 

My aspiration was to be a school principal. That was the height of what I wanted to achieve in life. And I was a single mom with an eight-year-old son when the opportunity presented itself. When I talked to my mom about it, she said to me, “Just don’t ever forget you are not a gold coin.” I was like, “What are you talking about? What does it mean? Of course, I am not a gold coin.” She goes, “Everybody loves a gold coin. Right? Nobody’s going to ever reject a gold coin. So don’t expect everybody to love you and be okay with you because you are not a gold coin, you are just a person doing the best that you can.” My mom only went to second grade. That’s the top of her education. And she’s the wisest woman I know who has given me so much wisdom and all these little idioms and I just hold onto those because they’ve helped me get through a tough first year as a principal. And this same advice has helped me navigate my path as a superintendent here.

Who do you feel is bearing the biggest brunt of this whole COVID experience?

Students and children. The reason I am an educator is because I believe in future generations. I absolutely love young people. I think that when I leave this world, I hope I change lives for kids in the right way. For me that’s my life’s work. 

Here in Santa Barbara but also in other parts of the world, in communities, the virus has changed how we live and how we conduct ourselves in the world. And in the U.S., we value individualism and individual choice, and this virus basically has swept in and created this new way of behaving that’s kind of stopped us in our tracks and said, you’ve got to look at what’s happening to others.

Hopefully this next generation, this COVID generation, will be better than us about taking care of each other. But the biggest impact is kids have lost these natural stages of development that you go through from the early preschoolers that start to parallel play with each other, then start to learn to communicate and then create groups and sort of grow up and go through their developmental stages. All that has been interrupted. And that’s put some kids at a loss in learning how to be with each other, especially when it comes to the social skills that we need to be successful later on in life.

I am just so grateful for the people that support us, that cooperate with us, that understand why we’re making the decisions that we’re making, and also my staff. I’m talking about the support staff, teachers, and administrators, who have gone above and beyond. I have an amazing staff that pivots with me and supports the things that we need to do to support kids. So in spite of it all, I have a lot of gratitude for a lot of people’s support.

What are your top priorities at this point for the district under semi-normal conditions?

Well, we have to get our hands around what we’re really doing in the elementary reading program. Teachers need time, they need time to learn the new math that we adopted because our math courses are not what they should be. So while we have lots of kids that are doing extremely well, we still need to get better at our broader student outcomes in those areas.

And then of course we have our emergent multilingual students that need a lot of supports from us, along with our gifted and talented students who also in their own way have different needs around learning and teaching. And then we have our students with disabilities and, for us, being able to differentiate on all those spectrums is also very much needed. God willing, if I could just stop worrying about the pandemic and sit with teachers and talk to them about curriculum so we could look at things together and make the better decisions we need to so that we can improve outcomes. That’s what I so look forward to doing.  


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