Our Next School Superintendent

Santa Barbara Unified Faces a Transformational Time

Credit: John Cole, The Scranton Times-Tribune, PA

As the voice of the community, the biggest responsibility any school board has is the selection of a new superintendent. Since January, my colleagues and I on the Santa Barbara Unified School Board have been diligently working on that task, and I couldn’t be happier with the outcome. First, we heard from hundreds of parents, staff, students, and community members about the qualities they were seeking. Then, despite the pandemic, nearly 50 candidates from across the country became part of a competitive process. On May 26, with a unanimous 5-0 vote, the board appointed Hilda Leticia Maldonado, Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) associate superintendent for Leadership Development and Partnerships. She is a mom, a former teacher and principal and now the highest-ranking Latina in the second largest school district in the country.

Here’s what I was looking for in our next superintendent and why I believe Ms. Maldonado is the leader we need at this transformational time.

First, Covid-19 means a new era of education is upon us. Our challenge is to harness the opportunities within the crisis by improving and modernizing the way we support the students we serve. This means transitioning to more personalized learning that utilizes technology, as well as being innovative with the many other resources that schools provide, including nutrition and mental health. Now more than ever, we need to reach students where they are.

Since the pandemic struck, the size and scope of the LAUSD’s response has been extraordinary, and Maldonado has been at the heart of these efforts. She’s been instrumental in leading the teams responsible for implementing free meal distribution, serving over 21 million meals to students since schools closed. She’s also been at the helm of the transition to a cloud-based call center to ensure rapid responses to families and employees. As Maldonado told us, she is someone who warns against “analysis by paralysis” and recognizes that during times like these there is a need to act boldly while also remaining flexible enough to shift gears when conditions inevitably change. I look forward to her leadership here.

Secondly, Santa Barbara Unified has a long way to go to improve student academic success and close the persistent “achievement gap.” Despite improvements, creativity, and good intentions, too many of our students aren’t meeting state academic standards. Sadly, the scores track along ethnicity rather than capability. For example, in some grades, twice as many Caucasian students meet or exceed literacy standards compared with their Latino classmates. A fundamental fact about our district is that nearly half (44 percent) of our students are classified as “Ever- English Learners” meaning that at least at one point in their K-12 education English was not their primary language. Indeed, every teacher is a language teacher which means, for example, history and math instructors are always teaching language and content at the same time. Thus learning how to be intentional with every student is important, as is our newly passed initiative: the  Multilingual Excellence Transforming Achievement plan.

In Ms. Maldonado we’ve hired an English Learner herself who has made it her life’s work to help the very students we have been challenged to effectively serve. A child immigrant from Mexico, Maldonado credits supportive public school teachers for helping her excel in school, and her mother’s love and encouragement for her strong work ethic, maintenance of her Spanish language and cultural traditions at home. Under her leadership LAUSD expanded dual language programs and improved achievement for English Learners. I believe she can, and will, do the same here — and as a result, all of our students will benefit.

Lastly, Santa Barbara is a strong and engaged community and our school district can and should be at the heart of it. It’s a point of pride that we have more nonprofits per capita than anywhere else in the world. Many people don’t just live here, they participate here, whether through a community organization, a place of worship, their school or simply keeping up with the latest debate within local government. As an example, Santa Barbara is the birthplace of Earth Day, and each year a whopping one third of our population participates in the Community Environmental Council’s outdoor celebration.

Maldonado will be, I believe, a leader who sees the value in all that our community has to offer and will take advantage of it for the benefit for our schools. Her charge at LAUSD has been to collaborate with community organizations and Fortune 500 companies to develop innovative solutions that address equity, achievement and resource gaps. A lifelong learner who is currently completing her PhD, she’s already participated in one of Santa Barbara’s beloved nonprofits, Courage to Lead, a leadership and renewal program for executive leaders.

As we move forward during these unsettling yet inspiring times, I believe Santa Barbara Unified will embrace the new and persistent challenges that confront us and enter boldly into a new era of education.

Laura Capps is the president of the Board of Education, Santa Barbara Unified School District.

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