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SBUSD Supe Hilda Maldonado's 'State of Our Schools': "This is how we will become unified"

(Editor's note: Hilda Maldonado's first day of work as Superintendent of the Santa Barbara Unified School District was July 1, 2020, in the depth of the pandemic, As Covid now recedes as a day-to-day emergency issue, she at last has the chance to deliver her first, in-person, annual "State of Our Schools" address, after focusing intensely for nearly two years on discerning, navigating and managing the fallout of a global public health crisis for the district's 13,000 students, 600 teachers and 900 staff members. Here is a text of her remarks, as prepared for delivery on Thursday morning (May 19) at 9 a.m. at the Elings Park Amphitheater, part of an event sponsored by the Santa Barbara Education Foundation).

By Dr. Hilda Maldonado

In a recent meeting with our district’s athletic directors, high school principals, and Associated Student Body leaders, we got into a very deep and emotional conversation.

What does Santa Barbara Unified stand for?

The answer wasn’t obvious, and that was a bit concerning.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t have core values or a mission statement, as you see that anytime you tune into a board meeting.

“We prepare students for a world that is yet to be created.”

But how do we get there? It isn’t just about book smarts or catchy one-liners.

How do we infuse our core beliefs into helping children be the best versions of themselves?

And we landed on three distinct, yet intertwined words: Respect. Integrity. Community.

As I sit here thinking about the State of Our Schools, I can’t help but wonder what we are doing to assure that these three pillars are integrated into all that we do.

Thankfully, I see artifacts of each in much of what we’ve built in the nearly two years since I took the reins as superintendent.

From the cutting-edge Ethnic Studies program to progress with our Emergent Multilingual Learners to a focus on social/emotional health for both our staff and students — we are building the path toward the unknown of tomorrow.

Are we where we need to be? Absolutely not.

We have plenty of work to do, but it’s admitting that we aren’t perfect that will get us there.

We don’t have to see eye-to-eye to move forward hand-in-hand.

This is how we will become unified.

Yes, there are some internally — and externally — that don’t buy into my vision for Santa Barbara Unified. I am a firm believer that this discourse will make us better, I would even say more holistic.

I believe in show don’t tell.

I believe in data.

I believe in goal-setting.

I believe that every child must be afforded the same opportunities.

But I can’t do this work in a vacuum.

I need stakeholder input, whether that is a community-based task force like we did throughout the COVID-19 crisis; or a student advisory group that meets monthly to provide critical perspective; or from my colleagues who serve on instructional council and challenge the status quo..

This is not the Hilda Maldonado plan. This is the Santa Barbara Unified plan.

I’m not blind to my detractors, I’ve seen the same headlines as you have. I’ve read every critical email of the innovative work that we are doing. I’ve listened to staff members that feel like they aren’t heard.

So I’m doing something about it.

I spent two months doing a school-by-school listening tour, to hear about everything from gaps in curriculum to campus safety to student outcomes.

And it’s already creating change.

Not only are we addressing literacy and math through a collaborative dissection of our data, we are also in the middle of assessing a trio of new curriculum options at the secondary level for our historically underserved EMLs. That came via a critical conversation with an educator at Dos Pueblos — it forced me to stop, calibrate, search for data, and help execute on a new plan.

This is how we will become unified.

I lose sleep at night wondering if we are doing enough to support our teachers, particularly as we navigated COVID-19, where there were often more questions than answers.

And now that we can again focus on curriculum and professional development instead of a global health crisis, I know that I have to make up for lost time.

That’s nearly 24 months of missed opportunities for relationship and partnership building — and for those that have gotten to know me a little bit, you know I thrive on face-to-face brainstorming and calibration. It’s why I’ve spent more than three decades as an educator.

And, yes, we have new obstacles as we see beloved senior leaders leaving the organization — it’s quite literally hundreds of years of experience leaving that simply cannot be replaced.

But it is also an opportunity to both bring new perspectives into our school district, as well as experiences that can help us solve critical issues.

Change is never easy, and I say that from personal experience. But staying razor-focused on building the best version of the district that we can, that will help us continue to innovate and push the boundaries of what is possible.

This is how we will become unified.

In recent months, we have collectively had to address growing concerns over anti-Blackness in our schools. At a pair of board meetings, we heard the hurt and anguish this has caused members of our community.

But instead of sticking our heads in the sand, we are taking the difficult path to change. We are holding our school-site leaders accountable for tracking anti-Blackness in our schools and proactively addressing it. We are challenging what it means to be a “safe adult” on campus, making sure that no incident goes unaddressed. Change starts with holding each other accountable for our own actions.

At the district level, we have formed the Combating Anti-Blackness Working Group, a collection of students, teachers, principals and community leaders, all gathering to have a needed discourse on how the school district can positively impact our community at large.

This is how we will become unified.

There are many incredible assets in our community that most others yearn for — the level of entrepreneurship and expertise in our little slice of paradise is simply astounding.

And we need all of it infused into our school district.

Voltaire once said that, “with great knowledge comes great responsibility,” and as we continue to realign our schools, I need that knowledge in our boardroom and in our classrooms.

Recently, we’ve heard from an army of medical experts about our policy of universal iPad use for all students, particularly those from Transitional Kindergarten to second grade.

We’ve had many private meetings, as well as a very public meeting where we’ve been able to identify and address the core issues at hand.

And it has led us to creating a new direction — having our TK-2 students hand in their iPads before the start of the summer.

When a community rises up to take care of our children, it is our duty to listen. We might disagree along the way, but discussion and resolution are absolutely mandatory.

This is how we will become unified.

I’ve had the honor of visiting with some of our brightest student leaders, who are so passionate about their educational experience that I wish I could bottle it up and serve it to every child. And they’ve also served me a slice of humble pie.

We have much further to go.

How do we address access to challenging opportunities for all? How do we address “representation”, where a Latina kindergartner knows (and is encouraged) that the STEM path is one they have access to? How do we make sure that a student knows how to seek help for their mental health? What is the mechanism for a student to report being sexually assaulted?

It comes down to being proactive and not reactive.

When students feel informed, there will be little reason to react because they will have already found their path. This is how we impact student outcomes.

We must listen to our children. We must resolve to listen before we speak. We must act before we react.

This is how we will become unified.

As we emerge from a world dominated by a global pandemic, the educational and social/emotional gaps that we have as a district have become more painstakingly obvious, as they couldn’t be hidden by the hustle and bustle of a “normal” school year.

But, we can no longer use the pandemic as a crutch or an excuse, but allow it to offer us grace and compassion as we move forward.

I readily and humbly admit that the culture at Santa Barbara Unified is a work in progress.

Who’s ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work with me?

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