Hilda Maldonado the New Santa Barbara Unified School District Superintendent. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

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Hilda Maldonado was appointed to be the new superintendent of the Santa Barbara Unified School District in May and will officially take the reins July 1. Though she is coming from her position as the associate superintendent of leadership and partnerships in the Los Angeles Unified School District, her path to superintendency began much earlier.

She moved to the United States when she was 11 from a small town in Jalisco, Mexico, where her family had a dairy farm. Her parents were not able to attend school after the 2nd grade, but they were determined their children would receive education. They left the farm to work in factories in the United States so that Maldonado and her brothers could attend school full-time. Once the young girl learned English, she began to thrive. 

In the mountain town where Maldonado’s mother grew up, school was not free and the townspeople had to all pitch in to pay the teacher’s salary. Because Maldonado’s grandmother died when her mother was 9 years old, the only way she could contribute was to make breakfast for the teacher every morning. Eventually, the community could no longer help support her and she had to quit school. 

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“I think her story is what drives me,” Maldonado said. “Education is such an important part of life, and I just think about how that little girl was dying to learn. That is why I do this. That is why I care about this for myself, I care about it for my children, and I care about it for our children, collectively.”

Maldonado is taking the helm at a time that is uniquely challenging and unpredictable for the district. The uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic continues to grow. Since the schools closed in March, some parents have reported that their children are already experiencing learning loss, and most families are anxiously awaiting next week’s announcement about the hybrid class model that will be used in the fall, to learn if they will be able to return to work. 

The district is also negotiating with student protesters who, in support of the larger Black Lives Matter movement, delivered six demands to the district aiming to dismantle the systemic racism in schools.

“We are facing some really tough challenges right now,” said Laura Capps, president of the district’s Board of Education. “But I can tell [Maldonado] will have the right approach. She’ll reach out to the community; I can tell she is a strong leader through her sense of community.”

Though the school district will be undergoing many changes, not all of them will be unchartered territory for Maldonado: The incoming freshman class of 2024 will be the first to take ethnic studies courses as a requirement for graduation; plans are already in the works to convert McKinley Elementary to a dual-language immersion school in fall of 2021; and the district just adopted the META (multilingual excellence transforming achievement) plan, which implements culturally and linguistically focused education models into district schools. For Maldonado, much of this will be routine.

“When she became the bilingual coordinator, that’s when she really started taking off,” said Ana Escobedo, an administrative coordinator at LAUSD who has worked with Maldonado for 24 years. “Her goal with these kids was always to use their first language as an added benefit, not as something to set them back. She really became a force for kids who need it the most.”

Since Maldonado began her career in the district as a bilingual teacher more than 30 years ago, LAUSD expanded dual-language programs and improved results for English learners under her leadership. She led the English learner and Standard English learner Master Plan for LAUSD. 

“She even got the name of the Language Acquisition Branch changed to the Multilingual and Multicultural Education Department,” Escobedo said. “I hope, if nothing else, that that alone gives you an idea of her vision and her passion. To try and get a well-established department’s name changed in LAUSD, well, we joke about it now, but it was a huge accomplishment.”

Her mother was always a driver behind her devotion to multilingual and multicultural education, Maldonado said. Spanish was always spoken in their home growing up in an effort to keep their culture and roots alive. She said that no child should have to leave behind their language or culture to get an education.

“I have no control over my successor, but when I found out it was [Maldonado], I was thrilled,” outgoing Superintendent Cary Matsuoka said. “She has inherited a commitment to equity.”

Though the retiring superintendent is right that Maldonado will inherit some of the equity programs developed during his tenure, they won’t come to fruition until Maldonado takes over. And she may also inherit the controversies that have followed Matsuoka in his last two years, particularly pertaining to equity.

The district has contracted with Just Communities Central Coast, a nonprofit that provides cultural-proficiency and implicit-bias training, since 2005. Though the optional program operated for 13 years with little controversy, in 2018, a group of parents tried to sue the district over the partnership because they considered its curriculum to be “anti-Caucasian, anti-Christian, and anti-male.” 

Matsuoka was repeatedly in hot water for the Just Communities contract as well as a slew of other PR nightmares responsible for transforming the once-dreary board meetings into packed, hours-long public comment sessions where members of the public spoke in support or contempt of decisions to either introduce or remove programs and curriculum from district schools.

“[Maldonado] has an ability to listen to diverse opinions, but she also has an urgency to act on behalf of children and families that come to our public school system,” said Mónica García, a 14-year boardmember on the LAUSD Board of Education, about Maldonado’s style when it comes to finding a consensus on contentious issues. 

“She is an all-kids believer,” García continued. “I expect her to be able to say to the community and the board that the goal isn’t to dismantle achievement or support for what’s working, but the goal has to be to recognize the need for equity and to advance supports for the ‘not yets.’”

“She is a ‘thought pusher,’ that’s what I like to call her. And she is open to having her thoughts pushed back. She is very open to hearing other perspectives, but at the same time she is like, ‘Okay, enough talking, it is time to implement,’” said Carla Barrera-Ortiz, principal of STEAM Legacy High School in LAUSD.  “She is good at consensus building and she can bring together a group of individuals and get on the same page with an action plan.”

LAUSD is the second-largest school district in the nation. It serves 734,641 students — more than 50 times SBUSD’s population of 14,335 students. Maldonado may not seem a likely candidate for the downsize after spending decades in Los Angeles, but her small-town childhood keeps her rooted. 

What might be more unique to the new district, though, are the extremes between student economic classes in the classroom. Oftentimes in Santa Barbara public schools, a student whose family owns a multimillion-dollar home is seated next to a student whose family is homeless or lives in a crowded apartment, sharing a bedroom with many other family members. 

“Hilda has been able to lead in the neediest of schools, but she also has been able to work with the not-so-neediest of schools and work with those leaders,” said Carla Barrera-Ortiz, principal of STEAM Legacy High School, which he founded. The engineering-focused school serves mostly low-income immigrants and first-generation students. “She can respond to the needs of every kind of school and leader, which is what I think she’ll bring to Santa Barbara.” 

Maldonado will use the city’s distinctive qualities to her advantage. She is a strong proponent of creating partnerships with entities outside the district, so when she discovered Santa Barbara County has more nonprofits per capita than any other county in the state, she was thrilled. 

“I’ll be looking for partners in the philanthropy world or the nonprofit world that share the same goals and outcomes that the principal and I have,” Maldonado said. “The principals need to define what their school is; for example, are they an arts-focused school or a STEAM-focused school, or do they have a strong culinary program? If that’s the case, I want to partner with restaurants so the kids can get experience outside of the class, something like that.”

When schools shut down from the pandemic, Escobedo said that she watched Maldonado’s ability to form partnerships advance even further. She said that Maldonado immediately “partnered with anyone and everyone” to make sure that the students had devices, Wi-Fi or internet hotspots, toys, physical education equipment, and more. 

Maldonado led the Grab and Go meal deployment, which so far has been utilized for over 13 million meals in the weeks since schools shut down. The Los Angeles Chargers and local radio and television news channels partnered with the district and directly collected donations for the meals and other supplies, such as devices. Maldonado also created partnerships with companies such as Pixar, which provided remote art lessons, and Fenway, which provided remote music lessons.

“I ask myself what happened in our system that makes us choose to live somewhere to educate our children, rather than educate our children where we live,” Maldonado said. 

Maldonado’s philosophy is to use partnerships to help repair that system. Despite SBUSD receiving just one percent above the state average for per student funding, Maldonado aims to bring the needed resources to each school through community partnerships. Meeting the state’s minimum requirements and relying on its funding alone will keep certain schools from receiving the resources they need to educate students.

She also emphasized her faith in the whole-child concept, which emphases seeing and teaching each student as an entire individual, rather than focusing only on academics. SBUSD has made great strides toward this in recent years, particularly in terms of promoting mental wellness in schools and contracting with the Family Service Agency and CALM for counselors and therapists.

She referenced a letter she read from a Holocaust survivor to school principals.

“The people who committed crimes during the Holocaust were doctors, engineers, and trained nurses,” Maldonado said. “It was clear that education has to be more than academics. It has to have humanity.”

Maldonado just recently completed her doctorate degree in social justice leadership at Loyola Marymount University. She received her bachelor’s in speech communication and rhetoric and her master’s degree in educational leadership and general administration from Cal State University, Los Angeles. She was able to attend college through scholarships and through the Upward Bound program, which provides financial support to high school students from low-income families and from families in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree.

Maldonado and her husband, Kamran, are spending the next few weeks relocating before Maldonado begins her new position on July 1. They have two sons at college, Joshua and Ari. She will earn a $250,000 annual salary.

“I felt a lot of shame growing up and not speaking English properly,” Maldonado said. “Back in those times, you were not allowed to speak another language or say you can speak another language, so it was beat into me to feel ashamed. Now I feel pride, and that’s what I want for our kids, too.”

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