Superintendent Hilda Maldonado focuses on ‘humanity of our kids’
From a young age, Dr. Hilda Maldonado’s family instilled in her the importance of language and education. But she quickly and acutely learned, too, the value of advocacy.
That’s who Dr. Maldonado is, as the superintendent of the Santa Barbara Unified School District: a supporter for educators and students alike, from the classroom to mental health and anything in between.
Dr. Maldonado took the helm of Santa Barbara Unified in July 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was wreaking havoc across the country. And schools were not spared.
When Dr. Maldonado came to SBUSD from Los Angeles, schools had been shuttered already for about four months. It wouldn’t be until March 2021 when schools reopened for in-person learning. And after today, masks will no longer be required (albeit, strongly encouraged) in schools, according to the Governor’s Office.
“It was a series of steps and learning that we went through” throughout the pandemic, Dr. Maldonado told the News-Press, recalling how SBUSD traversed ever-changing metrics, created socially distant classroom spaces and navigated staffing issues. “It’s been layers of learning that happened, but we knew that the best place for students was going to be in person.”
Now, too, Dr. Maldonado is focused on the mental health of those within the school district. SBUSD partnered with CALM and Family Service Agency of Santa Barbara County to provide resources during the pandemic for children, and the district is now working with teachers to make sure their workload is manageable, she said.
Aside from the pandemic, Dr. Maldonado is taking on the challenge of equity and inclusion — which takes many forms.
Lately, the Santa Barbara community has been rocked by instances of racially-charged language and “hate violence” seen particularly in middle schools directed at black students, Dr. Maldonado has said. One parent reportedly said her son was called racial slurs and students kneeled on his head and neck while referencing George Floyd, the black Minneapolis man whose murder at the hands of police officers sparked nationwide protests in 2020.
“I really want to take on this challenge of equity for our students, creating safe school environments that really include everybody, that address the diversity and inclusion issue that we’re currently seeing,” said Dr. Maldonado. “That’s a foundation for everything else that’s going to happen.”
Dr. Maldonado said the Santa Barbara Unified School District has large wealth disparities among its families, another potential hurdle for equality in the classroom.
“We want to be an excellent school district for everyone where everyone excels, so how do we close those gaps that exist,” she said. “Money doesn’t solve everything. Access doesn’t solve everything. How do we stick to the humanity of our kids and be a school district that meets all of those needs? For some, it’s going to be as basic as food and safety. For others, it’s going to be mental health services, and for others, it’s going to be academics.”
Prior to coming to SBUSD, Dr. Maldonado’s career took her through nearly every facet in education over the past 30 years, from starting off as a bilingual translator to leading a school as its principal and more. Most recently, she was the associate superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Dr. Maldonado said she’s fortunate others made investments in her while she was in Los Angeles. She attended a professional leadership program at Harvard University and had a national platform through the Council of Greater City Schools, a group that advocates for urban public school systems.
At SBUSD, Dr. Maldonado is the first Latina and only the second woman to serve as the district’s superintendent.
She is an alumna of Cal State Los Angeles and earned her doctorate degree in social justice leadership from Loyola Marymount University. She is a recipient of the Stanton Fellowship Award by the Durfee Foundation.
But it’s her family who she credits for setting her on an education trajectory.
Her mother, growing up in Jalisco, Mexico, could only attend school if she made her teacher breakfast every morning. She had access to school until the second grade, learning basic math and reading. Her father only attended school through the first grade.
Yet both of her parents are avid readers, immigrating to the U.S. when Dr. Maldonado was still a child. They taught her and her five siblings the importance of education and speaking multiple languages — and speaking them well.
“She saw people around her who had access (to education) growing up as a way to get out of poverty. For her, it was her dream to come here and have us have that opportunity and access,” Dr. Maldonado said of her mother.
But it is her brother, who was close to her in age, who gave Dr. Maldonado her voice and drive for advocacy.
When her brother began to exhibit unusual personality changes, Dr. Maldonado convinced her parents to have him checked out at County General Hospital in Los Angeles, now known as LAC + USC Medical Center. At first, the doctors barely gave her brother, who was then 20, a glance. He’s on drugs, the doctors said, and can be taken home.
Dr. Maldonado was incensed, as she recalled, and challenged the healthcare professionals, convincing them to actually examine her brother and mortifying her parents who were taught not to challenge authority.
She was right, the doctors ultimately said. Her brother was having a “psychotic episode” and needed to be hospitalized.
Dr. Maldonado spent the next several years advocating for her brother and his well-being, taking him to doctor’s appointments as needed. Unfortunately, her brother died by suicide at the age of 28.
“That informed why I am such a passionate advocate for families and children,” Dr. Maldonado said, noting how for many families, including the Latino families in SBUSD, mental health can still be considered a somewhat taboo subject. “I need to be at the forefront of talking to families about that.”
As for the next chapter of SBUSD, Dr. Maldonado said she will be a listener to the community, really learning about the experiences of her students and their families. And she wants to continue to partner with the Santa Barbara community.
“I really believe strongly — and that’s what drew me to Santa Barbara — you can’t divorce a school from a community,” Dr. Maldonado said. “We are the heart of the community. We hold the keys to the future of our community, which are the kids we get to educate.”
“This work has to be done in partnership. It’s not work you do in isolation.”