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SB School Board Picks New Supe: Who Is Hilda Maldonado?

Santa Barbara's school board on Tuesday night unanimously selected Hilda Maldonado, a top Los Angeles school administrator whose professional career has focused on multilingual and multicultural education issues, as SB Unified School District's new Superintendent.

The 54-year old Maldonado, who will replace outgoing Superintendent Cary Matsuoka effective July 1, currently serves as Associate Superintendent for Leadership, Development and Partnerships in the sprawling, 650,000 student Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the country. In Santa Barbara, she will earn a base salary of $250,000, plus benefits.

“This pandemic is ushering in a new era of education while shining a spotlight on the inequities of the old education system," said board president Laura Capps. "We need a tested leader who has the expertise to harness new opportunities, engage the community and propel our schools forward for the future. Hilda Maldonado is the leader for this transformational time."

It was believed to be the first time in history that a school superintendent was recruited, interviewed, hired and introduced entirely online, thanks to the pandemic and the miracle remote meeting app Zoom. The announcement of the board's 5-to-0 vote came at the start of its latest virtual meeting, and was followed by a brief appearance from L.A. by Maldonado, who also introduced her husband, an IT engineer, and two college sons, each of whom dutifully waved from behind her.

Maldonado came to California from Mexico at the age of 11. She knew no English, and she has said that her personal experience in public school as what educrats call an "EL" -- English Learner -- has shaped her professional passions and pursuits.

"We are truly living in extraordinary times," she said last night. "All across the country we are seeing evidence of the immense inequities programs for our most vulnerable populations of students -- our English Learners, our students with disabilities, children living in poverty.

"The loss of jobs, food insecurity and the digital divide will have lasting impacts on education for our students," she added. "I want to assure (the community) that the promise of a quality education will not go unfulfilled in Santa Barbara Unified.

"I'm ready to lead with an equity and excellence lens," Maldonado said.

State of play. Capps and several of her board colleagues at times seemed almost giddy in announcing the hiring of Maldonado, as several members of the all-women board noted that the district's leadership now is exclusively female.

"Women in leadership" exclaimed board member Jackie Reid. "Here we go!"

Despite last night's joviality, however, the appointment comes at a time when the district, like others throughout California, faces a worrisome menu of bad choices in deciding whether, when and how to reopen Santa Barbara's schools, which were shuttered in March.

In Los Angeles, Maldonado "has been at the helm of leading" the school district's pandemic response, Capps said, including the overseeing of a "Grab-and-Go" food program that has delivered over 21 million meals to students.

Maldonado's arrival also comes as SBUSD, again like other districts, continues to struggle with the stubborn performance problems arising from the so-called Achievement Gap between racial and ethnic groups, including the chronic academic problems of English Learners, students for whom English is not their first language.

Currently, more than 40 percent of the students enrolled in SBUSD have been classified as an "English Learner" at one time or another.

Last month, the board adopted what is called the META plan -- for Multilingual Excellence Transforming Achievement -- an educational, social and cultural strategy to help address the achievement gap with the aid of expanded bilingual, multilingual and dual-language programs.

Maldonado has done considerable work over the last two decades on such academic matters. Her professional LinkedIn profile begins this way:

My vision is to expand and explore the multiple languages of our students as assets and to reimagine the contributions that our dual language students provide. I am passionate about improving life for students who come from underprivileged homes and who are bilingual and bicultural. I believe that public education can be the great equalizer and that all students deserve a world class education.

Another glimpse of her perspective on the importance and challenges of multi-language learning is found in a project she carried out as a Stanton Fellow for the Durfee Foundation, a Los Angeles-area community fund, in 2016. In a summary of the project, she wrote:

"The Challenge: Los Angeles Unified School District is the second largest school district and the nation’s largest English learner enrollment district with over 93 languages spoken. The City of Los Angeles has a diverse population with a myriad of languages. I am interested in the question of how might we leverage the multi languages in Los Angeles as assets rather than deficits? As part of this mega question I would also like to answer the following questions:

  1. Why is literacy such a strong barrier for many students in the US when some Third World countries have higher literacy rates?

  2. How might Los Angeles leverage the languages spoken in the city to improve outcomes for its residents and lift youth and their families out of poverty?

  3. Why do so many of our students fail to thrive in our school system? How does language and poverty impact their learning?

... I wanted to figure out how an education system could address the issue of educating students in a language they didn’t yet understand and who were showing severe delays in mastering literacy and reading comprehension. I also wanted to learn more about how these students home language might be valued and leveraged to learn a second language."

The personal is the professional. Described as "an evangelist for bilingual education" by one profiler, Maldonado's professional passion as an educator and administrator aligns with her personal lived experience.

Coming with her mother from Mexico at age 11, she spoke Spanish but no English when she was enrolled in elementary school and assigned to fifth grade, a circumstance she recalled several years ago in La Comadre, a newsletter for parents and teachers of kids in L.A. schools:

"Because her class instruction was taught in English only, Hilda was assigned to attend an English as a second language class for one hour per day. Her memories of this English as a second language instruction are very positive. Hilda credits this experience as her motivation to become a bilingual teacher.

'I was developmentally at a stage when I was still an eager learner and I already knew how to read and write in Spanish so I just needed to learn the words. It wasn’t that hard for me, but I know it can be challenging for other students who don’t yet know how to read,” Hilda reflected.

A product of public schools, she earned an Associate's degree at Glendale Community College," before completing her B.A. in Speech Communication and Rhetoric, at CSU L.A., where she later acquired a teaching credential, with bilingual certification, as well as an M.A. in Educational Leadership and Administration. She is currently enrolled in a doctorate program at Loyola Marymount, studying Social Justice Leadership.

After several years as a teacher, she became an elementary school assistant principal and has worked her way steadily up the professional ladder at LAUSD since.

A civil rights investigation. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education, under Arne Duncan, President Obama's Secretary of Education, opened a civil rights enforcement investigation of the district, questioning whether LAUSD's policies and practices afforded equal opportunities to English Learners and African-American students, worsening the achievement gap.

The next year, the district and the department's Office for Civil Rights signed an agreement that, among other things, called for, LAUSD to produce and implement an English Learner Master Plan.

Maldonado emerged as a key figure from the controversy; appointed the district's Executive Director of Multilingual and Multicultural Education, she oversaw enactment and accomplishment of the goals and benchmarks for the issue.

Former Santa Barbara journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning education reporter Rob Kuznia wrote about it for the Los Angeles Daily News:

"LAUSD’s strategy for teaching English to these students is detailed in its 150-page master plan, which was overhauled last year after a federal civil rights investigation found that English learners weren’t getting the same quality education as other students in the district.

Under the new plan, the district is more closely monitoring the progress of its English learners, with tutoring and other forms of intervention available to those struggling with either language or academic lessons.

'The goal is to increase proficiency in elementary grades, before students get to middle and high school and get mired in the long-term category' said Hilda Maldonado, director of LAUSD’s Multilingual and Multicultural Education Department.

'We’re using more of the district’s data system to be able to monitor the progress and achievement of our students.'”

Bilingual politics. In 2016, Maldonado's area of professional focus gained more urgency, when California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 58, which repealed the state's two-decade long ban on bilingual education, and gave local districts broad latitude in adopting curricula to help students learn English.

"Under Prop. 58, it's about all kids," she said at the time. "Parents of monolingual students could take advantage of dual-language programs. We consider it a win-win approach for all kids to become bilingual."

In 2018, she moved to the superintendent's office, first as Senior Executive Director of Diversity, Learning and Instruction and then Associate Superintendent of Leadership Development and Partnerships. In that position, she earns a salary and benefit package of $204,000, according to Transparent California, and reports directly to Austin Beutner, superintendent of the huge district.

During a 2018 panel discussion of bilingual education sponsored by the Public Policy Institute of California, Maldonado clearly stated her fundamental view on the English Learner debate: "The priority should be to value our students' home languages as we look at how we can ensure that they succeed," she said, also emphasizing the importance of early language intervention.

"Focusing on intervening for students in the later grades is a lot harder than focusing on K-3 literacy instruction," she added.

The personal and the professional. Her write-up of her fellowship project for the Durfee Foundation also provided a glimpse of her personal journey:

"As I reflected during the self-retreats on the process of my own learning, I realized I was making things too complicated. I was being rule-bound and not person-bound in the development of the resources and approach to the work. 

The organizational and transformational leadership that was needed to support students came to life and I no longer felt like the immigrant child that had become the executive director. Instead I felt like the worthy human being that came from a culture and family that offered a lot to this country and city.

Just like the process of becoming a butterfly I felt myself metamorphose into a more calm and confident leader through the work of building relationships, gathering information from experts, listening and learning at both a personal and professional level."


Images: Hilda Maldonado, as she became the new school superintendent via Zoom; Maldonado with workers in "Grab-and-Go" pandemic food program; Maldonado at the time of her Durfee Foundation fellowship; Maldonado's Twitter pic; Pro-Proposition 58 campaign image; On the first day of school in 2017, Maldonado (l) appeared with LAUSD school board president Ref Rodriguez and board member Monica Garcia (r) with a banner announcing a district program to support immigrants (LAUSD).

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