This interview is part of an ongoing series of candidate profiles ahead of the General Election on November 3, 2020. Stay tuned to our Election 2020 page for all of our latest profiles and election coverage.

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Community involvement is an integral part of Santa Barbara Unified School Board incumbent Wendy Sims-Moten’s life, which is why she is pursuing a second term to continue her efforts and help lead through the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Wendy Sims-Moten

As the CEO of the First 5 Commission, she understands the importance of reaching children and families young. Not only does early contact help boost literacy rates, but she said it also gives parents and family members the opportunity to work with their local school and be an integral part in helping to teach their child and ultimately close the achievement gap. Her focus on early intervention is a key part of her motivation to stay on the board.

Sims-Moten has lived in the area for 30 years and raised her now-adult son in district schools. She has sat on numerous community boards and taken many roles in the community, including as the founder and chair of the African American Women of Santa Barbara County Luncheon, member of the Santa Barbara Women Political Committee, and member of Democratic Women of Santa Barbara County, among others.

The Independent sat down with Sims-Moten to discuss her first term on the board and her outlook on current issues.

Can you talk about the role you feel you’ve played throughout your first term on the board?

For me, part of my job on the board is to advocate for other voices. For moms who can’t be there, for parents who work and can’t be there. It’s really important for me to make sure that people are visible. For 53 years, an African-American had not been on this board at any level, so therefore the community wasn’t really visible. So here we have, years later, things that are illuminated in COVID, things that had to do with George Floyd —  the same issues that we’ve been talking about are being illuminated, but they’re not new. We’re just in a new era of who’s capturing what. 

I’m glad that student voices are loud because they’re the ones that are going to make the change. Supporting them through this process is what I want to continue to do on this board. The progress that we’ve made has not been easy, but again, there’s been a lot of history of the same thing, different day in Santa Barbara District.… And people get used to that and get comfortable in that. And so when you start to say what we need to step out a little bit further so that we can be successful with the sum of all parts, that’s a pivotal role the board has to play. We have to be student centered. 

What is your take on the district’s low literacy scores? What can be done differently to help boost literacy?

For me, it certainly starts early. The earlier you are talking, reading, seeing, and engaging that brain, that’s what has that long-term impact. Teaching parents and supporting parents as the student’s first teacher, that’s really where it’s coming from too in terms of how successful students are — how engaged are the parents early on…. That’s why you hear me always talk about making sure our younger ones are there; that’s when their brain is most optimal to retain it.

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At home, you know — it’s important to understand who our students are because we can talk about data, we can talk about everything that’s there, but what is the experience of the family home? How do we start there? And I mean start helping — not judging, not telling them what to do or what they need to succeed. 

Latinos and students of color, low-income students, and students with learning disabilities are suffering the worst when it comes to literacy and other academic areas. What is your opinion on the district’s achievement gap?

My mother is the reason that I stand here and am able to talk firmly and confidently to you about it. She was expected, in the ’60s, to clean houses. That was the expectation [of Black women], and you’d be the exception if you did anything else. And so that’s sometimes the attitude toward our students, too. We can put the best programs and practices in place, but if we don’t have an expectation that they’re going to succeed and that they have the potential to do it — that’s a whole lot, because you can be inspired to get to that next step if someone believes in you.

My mother said, ‘No, I have to make a better life for my children.’ And so, thank God, she did. And she said she dared to buck what people thought was going to happen for her life. So she went back to school, and she became a nurse, her passion. She put care into her patients and into us. She really knew that there was a better way and that we had it within our DNA to do whatever we need to do because we’ve seen her do it and my great-grandmother and my great-aunts. 

I think when you’re in school, you get told a certain way, you get trapped in a certain way, because that’s just the way it’s been. And we dare to lift up and say, no, we need to make sure everybody has the opportunity, equity and access to it. George Washington Carver said education is the golden key to the door of freedom. But if you don’t have access to that key, that door is still locked. 

You’ve probably used the term “fiscal responsibility” during board meetings more than any other boardmember the past few years. Can you elaborate on its importance to you?

It’s important to be fiscally responsible and accountable so you have the resources right now. Because in the middle of this COVID where funding is decreasing and you wouldn’t think that it would — it should be increasing — it’s not. But we have a hefty reserve because we kept pushing and saying we’ve got to do that. And Cary [Matsuoka, the previous superintendent] was very instrumental in having that done and making sure it would be fiscally viable through this rainy day that is now…. It’s really important that we make sure that we have the resources so we’re not wondering. And therefore our students who sometimes are already behind the eight ball, who need it the most now when we can’t physically help them, we can help. We can make sure that we continue to feed folks — they should have nutritious meals and they’re coming in. 

Fiscal responsibility means that they have everything that they need and they know when they come to Santa Barbara Unified, they’re going to be fed; they’re going to be educationally challenged.

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