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SB School Board Candidate Wendy Sims-Moten: "We've Got to Meet Our Kids and Families Where They Are"

As she seeks a new term, SB Unified School District board incumbent Wendy Sims-Moten constantly emphasizes the importance of "equity" in shaping public education policies, a perspective she says she has drawn from working with families of kids too young to go to school.

As executive director of First 5 Santa Barbara County, a state-financed organization to support early childhood development from prenatal to children age five, Sims-Moten says she has learned it is crucial to "understand and meet our students where they are."

"There are so many variables that need to be included in looking at those (test score achievement) numbers," she said in a conversation with Newsmakers. "When we break it down, what do we need to make everybody is getting there, and that means we need to meet students where they are, meet families where they are, and be okay with starting there and know that's a starting point...

"That may mean more family support, that may mean (special help) for our English Learners...," she said. "Families that are coming in - some kids might need glasses, kids might need different things - what do they need to get to that level playing field? We cannot get there without looking through an equitable lens."

In the Nov. 3 election, eight candidates on the ballot, seven of whom are actively campaigning, are seeking three seats on the five-person SBUSD board, amid an extraordinary political atmosphere shaped by the pandemic, widespread unemployment, anti-racism protests and the recent arrival of a new Superintendent.

To provide a platform for the contenders to share their views, and a venue for voters to learn more about them, we've invited each of the hopefuls for a socially distanced, one-on-one interview about some of the major issues facing the district.

Wendy was born in Texas and came to Santa Barbara thirty years ago, she said, where her son attended public schools. She has a large extended family -- "If you see that movie 'Soul Food,' that's really us having dinner" - which she credits as "the foundation of the values that lead me and guide me through decisions and conversations."

Four years ago, she was one of only three candidates who signed up to run for three vacant seats on the board, along with Laura Capps and Jackie Reid (also now running for a new term). When the trio joined the board, she said, they were "learning and getting our footing."

"And as we were, there were a lot of slippery things that were going on and so we were learning how to be a board in the midst of all that," she added. "So I feel we did the best that we could and certainly there are always things that you want to improve and certainly one of them might be in terms of communication, how to communicate a little bit more transparently."

Asked to grade the incumbent board, Sims-Moten awarded the incumbents a "B," as she discussed a range of issues and controversies facing the district. Here are excerpts, lightly edited for clarity.

Assessment of incumbent board. "I would give us a 'B.' Because we all want absolute excellence (but) we always want to be in position where we’re moving and improving.

"Because when you measure things, don’t use it as a weapon, but rather use that data in assessing us where we need to pivot, where we need to go, where we need to change direction. So the data that’s out there...we’re obviously not where we want to be, but we need to better communicate that there are some steps, there are some improvements.

"Equity is a huge part of that. Meeting the kids just where they are...

"Four years is seemingly a long time, but it takes a little bit longer and that’s (why it's) important for me to run for re-election."

On test scores. "That's not the only indicator of success. Movement is a large part of that. But what does it take to move it, to improve that – there may be successes within that.

"So those numbers are certainly not where we want them to be, but when we break it down, what do we need to make sure everybody is getting there. And that means, we need to meet students where they are, meet families where they are, and be okay with starting there, and know that that’s a starting point and always adjusting what we need to do...

"Understanding and meeting our students where they are. That may mean more family support. That may mean our English Learners.. there are so many variables that need to be included in looking at those numbers. And I know that people live there, but we cannot get there without looking through an equitable lens, making sure we meet our kids where they are."

On equity. "Equity is hard. Because as soon as the word is used, people start to hunker down with their own resources, and say 'that means that you’re going to take something away from my student,' when in fact, it’s really giving, it's saying, 'I recognize where your students are' -- and higher achievers, middle achievers – how do we do that to ensure that everybody’s needs are being met?

"...Families that are coming in -- kids might need glasses, kids might need different things. What do they need in an equitable way means that you’re meeting people where they are, engaging them, getting them the resources they need to get to that level playing field.

"Looking through an equiable lens – who needs what?...Then we can be equal, because we’ve put in the necessary resources for additional needs and support that needs to happen for our students and families to be on an equal playing field."

On departed Superintendent Cary Matuoka. "I would give him a 'B.'

"Not having hired the superintendent…We came in, and Cary was there . I also think this board was learning and getting its footingm and as we were there, a lot of slippery things were going on, and so we were learning how to be a board in the midst of all that was going on. And we didn’t really have, as a board, an established relationship with the community

"So I feel we did the best that we could and certainly there are always things that you want to improve and certainly one of them might be in terms of communications, how to communicate a little bit more transparently

"In terms of being an ally of (Matsuoka), as director of First 5, I have a relationship with my commission and its important to have them to support me – they hired me to carry out the vision of First 5. We (board members) hire our superintendents to carry out that vision, so it's important to support them, to be able to give feedback, to be able to navigate through – they’ve got to know that they’ve got the support of the board. They can’t do the job if they have to wonder is the board going to do this or do that...

"In terms of my votes, I wouldn’t change any...maybe the way it’s communicated…Being in the seat is so much different than looking at the seat…I feel much more steady (and) the time and commitment it has taken…has prepared me for re-election."

On Just Communities and Ethnic Studies. "I as a person of color, a woman of color, a leader of color, it has been the experience of the racism that is there – subtle not so subtle. And it goes to, when people are uncomfortable having to move or look at another side, you begin to dig in and say 'not me.'

"We know this country – there’s been inequality and racism since forever it continues today. We're just now – the voices have been raised...Yes there’s racism -- let’s not shy away from that... Education is supposed to be the great equalizer (so) this is an opportunity to have open and honest conversations and that’s what the implicit bias training is, in terms of Just Communities.

"Ethnic Studies gives you the opportunity to hear about the contributions of others and (have) candid conversations in terms of seeing others, in terms of what you’ve been taught and what you’ve been raised through..

"But if you're a person of color who has never seen or heard or read about who you are, you're only defined by one part of this country. So it's take a look at yourself , to look through the eyes of others...walk in other shoes...

"Let's not shy away from that. We know there's inequities here, we have some of those inequities in our schools, so lets just call it what is -- there are some racial systemic issues that we need to all face if we really say, 'In order to form a more perfect union.'"

On First 5 and early childhood development. "Those early years, you’re starting to engage the brain. You’re talking and reading and singing, so you’re really engaged. And it’s also an opportunity at a very early stage to engage parents and support them...

"How do we get them ready for the K-12 system, and what I hope to do is to better align the early care with the K-12 system because then kids will be ready...

"(It's) important that we do not make our kids, pre-K and pre-school, invisible -- and that’s an important part of making a successful school district because we are starting stronger in identifying developmental delays that may be going on, how we can support families. So that’s what I bring, I bring that lens."

On Covid and returning to classrooms. "We're moving slowly. We need to learn and pivot. We know how critical (face-to-face learning) is to the emotional health of all of us, certainly to our students...

Hopefully we're going to do that, December, January, but not sooner than it's safe to do so."


You can watch Newsmakers' full conversation with Wendy Sims-Moten on our YouTube channel by clicking below...and...the podcast version is here.

Here are links to our previous conversations with board candidates:

Health inspector Elrawd MacLearn is here.

School administrator Virginia Alvarez is here.

Photographer and literacy advocate Monie de Wit is here.

SB realtor and candidate Brian Campbell is here.

SBUSD board president and 2020 candidate Laura Capps is here.

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