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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

Hilda Speaks: New SBUSD Supe Talks Vision, Values, Reopening, Racism & Equity

Hilda Maldonado, in her first interview since being named Superintendent of the Santa Barbara Unified School District, said that the nation's multiple health, economic and social crises represent a "perfect storm for us to be innovative" in public education.

"There's a part of me that thinks of this moment as a great opportunity for us to really think about what education is (and) how we prepare students for their future," Maldonado told Newsmakers on Tuesday.

"There's a bit of a perfect storm for us to be innovative and think about education as a way to prepare our country to continue to lead the world," she added. "I do see it as an opportunity."

Maldonado sounded an optimistic while practical tone as she prepares to assume leadership of the district on July 1 - a position she applied for months before knowing that the job would be reshaped, not only by the global Covid-19 pandemic and the economic collapse that has followed, but also by an ongoing wave of anti-racism political protests and social unrest.

A 54-year old associate superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, whose professional career has focused on multilingual and multicultural education issues, Maldonado was chosen to replace the outgoing Cary Matsuoka after a national search, a hire the school board announced on May 27. Our profile of her professional and personal background is here,

The new superintendent is still in the process of moving to Santa Barbara -- "I'm this close" to getting a place, she told us -- but took time out before heading back to L.A. to answer some questions about the huge challenges that confront her in taking over the 14,000-student local district.

(By coincidence, both host and guest were adorned with medical appurtenances from minor surgeries a day earlier; vanity being the basis of everything, to paraphrase Flaubert, Newsmakers' executive producers made a command decision to publish only the audio version of our interview, committing the video to the dustbin of history).

Among a host of issues in the interview, Maldonado spoke about:

The reopening of school. As the district and board explore options and tentative plans for the new academic year, Maldonado said she is not altogether certain that the schools will physically reopen on August 13, as forecast.

"I'll be honest, I cannot lie, I can't say I'm confident one way or the other, because we really need to have science guide us on this...

"If I could have crystal ball and give you the answer I would do it, but there are a lot of things I still need to learn about it, in terms of protective equipment, being prepared, what the Covid-19 experts are going to tell us about social distancing practices…

"We also have to recognize the workforce has needs as much as the students have needs… my job is to make sure we are taking care of both groups..

"My hope is, we will communicate a little more often on our progress towards getting there…What I can say is that teaching and learning have to continue (but) in what manner that will look, we’re going to have make that work for everyone."

The Achievement Gap. Perhaps the biggest academic challenge for Maldonado lies in addressing the Achievement Gap, the dramatic racial and ethnic differences in educational performance within the district. She said that she would conduct a "root cause analysis" of the problem, beginning with curriculum and teaching practices, adding that "there are some hard conversations we need to have." One key is helping the "large number" of students in the district whose first language is not English, she emphasized.

"The practices that we bring to instruction around English learners needs to look different, just like in the case of special education, for example. This idea that we want to teach everybody as if they learn the same way is something that we need to look at and talk about."

Literacy. Another key to making significant progress in academic performance, she said, is ensuring every student learns to read early, a difficult task that requires a range of approaches.

"There are many tools, many practices to reach our children. There are kids that are going to learn to read through rote memorization, there are kids that are going to decode each and every sound of the letters, there are kids that are just going to start to read because they have amazing vocabulary.

"And all those ways of learning we have to take into account and look at to find out whatmit is that kids need and how are teachers prepared to meet students where they’re at so that we can close those gaps."

Learning loss. The new superintendent acknowledged that the abrupt shutdown of schools because of the coronavirus and the unplanned introduction of distance learning will mean that many students will retain less of the material they worked on during the past school year than normal. She worries especially about students who struggled with the basic "physical capital of technology" in even getting online to participate in remote classes.

"The kids who don’t have internet access, who don’t have devices, who don’t have someone questioning them, guiding them, helping them along, are going to have probably double the loss they would have in a normal year.

"I'm most worried about those students whose families don’t have online access...How can (they) catch up when they're already behind, and now we’ve left them further behind. It’s almost like not having a textbook...

"Imagine kids that have to figure out, is the library wifi open so that I can use it? Do I need to go to the free wifi at McDonalds to try to log on, take a test or do an assignment? That is some real inequity, and so can how you expect to have learning happen in those environments?"

Student demands. Amid the nationwide protests that have followed the killing by police of George Floyd, a group of Santa Barbara students have presented a list of demands they want the local school board to enact to combat racism.

"These are incredible students. I think as adults, we really need to listen and we really need to think about how we create these school environments that are really places of joyful learning, safe schools, where everybody is included.

"We should be listening to them, and their experience should be first and foremost in our minds, both in terms of education and in some of the injustices that we are seeing and the way that they are demanding we look at at some of our systems through a different lens."

Racism. Maldonado answered carefully when asked if she believes SBUSD is beset by "systemic racism," an affliction that Black Lives Matter protesters have ascribed to many public institutions.

"There have been a lot of demands from the federal government, from the state government that have put all of us into the position where the thing that matters the most is assessment scores. And we’re all measured by that one score, whether it’s a score for the school or a score for the classroom or a score for the student.

"And it’s almost like we’ve forgotten why we educate people and what the outcomes of education should be for. And I think that when you have so much pressure, and maybe not so much support, to contend with the challenges that different circumstances, different environments bring, it could feel pretty stressful.

"So I wouldn’t want to blanket systemic racism, again let’s tackle the root causes, let’s look at what is happening."

School safety officers. Among the demands of the students is the removal of sworn law enforcement officers from campuses, at a time when all three public high schools currently have a full time officer on campus. Addressing the issue in general, without reference to the local specifics, Maldonado said this:

"It is an unfortunate reality that we have schools that are no longer safe havens. Look at all the mass shootings that have happened across the country, before what we are currently going through, and the need for a sense of protection.

"I've had people say, 'look if you get rid of them, kids who’ve been bullied ,or kids who rely on somebody like that won't feel safe, or parents won’t feel safe if they don’t know that there is somebody like that who can protect (kids) from other harm.'"

"I would want us to have, again, a real look at who are the people who are doing the jobs. There’s also the sense that the position exists, but the person who’s doing the job has to match the description.

"When the people who are doing the jobs forget that their job is to protect and serve, that’s when we have problems."

Priorities. Given the school district's recent approval of new ethnic studies and language immersion programs, Maldonado said her experience and expertise in working on multi-language and multicultural issues positions her to lead the implementation of these and related innovations.

"It seems like the district has had a trajectory of making some of these changes already, through the adoption of the ethnic studies courses, through the recent adoption of the multilingual plan, so I feel like there’s already some of that movement happening...

"I think I'm a leader that’s been brought in because I match a lot of what they’re looking for to implement some of the things that they’ve been working towards and because of my past experience in implementing large systemic changes."

Public trust. Maldonado said she also will work to begin to restore trust in the district, following several years of high profile controversies and conflicts.

"This idea of feeling trust in the system...was part of the stakeholders feedback that was gathered by the consultants' group that was hired to do the superintendent search.

"As a leader in L.A. Unified…I know that we’re constantly trying to win the public’s heart, trust and heart, in some of the work that we’re doing."

Values. In discussing her approach to education, Maldonado repeatedly spoke of a "holistic" strategy that aims to produce good citizens as well as students who achieve and excel academically.

"Have we lost our way? Have we only thought about assessment outcomes as the end-all and be-all of education? Or do we think about really educating the student at all levels, their minds, their hearts, their soul?

"Are we really developing students who are kind, compassionate human beings?

"it’s almost like we’ve forgotten why we educated people and what the outcomes of education should be for."

Equity. The word "equity," which the outgoing superintendent identified as a top priority for the district, over the past several years became the focus of unhappiness for some groups of parents, who view it as subsuming traditional academics. When we asked Maldonado what "equity" means to her, she spoke in personal terms, about her family and her own educational journey.

"My mother had a second grade education. She grew up in Mexico, in a mountain rural community, where to have a teacher meant that the community gathered together to pay the teacher's salary. And because her mother died when she was young, my mother would get up early and make breakfast -- so that was her contribution. to be able to have access to a teacher.

"Education for me is driven largely by my mother's experience, and why it’s so important to have that access, because she didn’t have it beyond second grade. And when we came to this country (Hilda arrived in the U.S. at age 11) that was one of the things she instilled in us constantly.

So by the time I got to high school, I was selected to be part of an Upward Bound program, and if I had turned to my mother in high school and said 'hey, I need help with my financial aid applications, which college should I select to go to, should I get this grant or that grant?' she would have had no clue what was talking about

"Of course she was also very busy working to try to feed her family.

"But my friends would have had their parents fill our their financial aid application, would have their parents say 'no you’re not going to Cal State L.A., you’re going to UCLA'...would have said 'of course, we're going to pay for your room and board and the dorms.'

"That is a very, vastly different experience. So equity to me means that people like Upward Bound, people that are in the business of helping students navigate these large systems, provide that extra support. And that shouldn't take away, doesn’t take away, from the family that knows how to access and has the means to send their child to college.

"So that’s what equity means to me. I wouldn’t have had that extra help otherwise."


Listen to our full interview with Hilda Maldonado on the Newsmakers Soundcloud channel.

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