Santa Barbara Unified School District Superintendent Hilda Maldonado
Hilda Maldonado has been hired as the new superintendent of the Santa Barbara Unified School District and starts on July 1. (Courtesy photo)

While in the fifth grade in Los Angeles, a boy in the lunch line accidentally poked an 11-year-old Hilda Maldonado in the eye with a pencil. The jab hurt, physically and emotionally, and Maldonado was speechless.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Maldonado, now superintendent of the Santa Barbara Unified School District, told Noozhawk. “I didn’t have the words.”

She literally didn’t have the words. She didn’t speak English. 

Born in Tijuana, Mexico, Maldonado came to the United States at 11 years old. She grew up in poverty in the border town of Rosarito Beach. 

On July 1, she will begin her new role at the helm of a district with about 15,000 students.

Maldonado most recently worked as the associate superintendent of leadership and partnerships for the Los Angeles Unified School District. She studied journalism in college before switching her major to speech communication. She worked for a while for Spanish-language TV station Telemundo

She gave up the skyscrapers of L.A. for the red tile roofs of Santa Barbara.

“There is an aspect of my life that has always been designed by others,” Maldonado said, referencing her immigrant experience. “I didn’t get to choose where to live. I have always had this longing to live somewhere else. The stars aligned reasonably well. Life has never handed me things, and I had always had to do a lot of things to get where I want to go.”

Maldonado, 54, will cruise into a district full of challenges, controversies — and opportunities. Her predecessor, Cary Matsuoka, was well-liked by many in his so-called “cabinet,” but not so much with many parents, particularly those affiliated with a group called Fair Education Santa Barbara

Matsuoka, hired in 2016 from the Milpitas Unified School District, walked into a buzzsaw of parental furor after he demoted Ed Behrens from his principal job at San Marcos High School, a move that led to a lawsuit. Matsuoka also was criticized for his oversight of the Multimedia Arts & Design Academy, after a then-employee allegedly sent inappropriate texts to a student that were not immediately reported to authorities.

He’s been the target of parents who are skeptical of the district’s partnership with Just Communities Central Coast, which provides cultural-proficiency and implicit-bias training. As many of those same parents called for the school board not to extend his contract, Matsuoka abruptly announced his retirement last winter. 

Maldonado said she has her eyes forward. 

“I would want to hear directly from them to hear what their concerns are,” Maldonado said. “I have seen a little bit of it during the board meetings, but I think it is more powerful to sit down and talk to people and see what they propose. How would they like to run this? There is a lot of space in leadership for including all voices, but there’s also a time when you have to take a stand and do what is best for students.”

Nearly two-thirds of Santa Barbara Unified’s population is Latino, and many who are English-language learners or “emergent multi-linguals.” For Maldonado, it’s a population she cares deeply about because she was one of them.

“I come from deep poverty, and I feel like the school systems are not designed for us,” she said. 

Maldonado, who did not go to preschool or kindergarten, grew up on a dairy farm. During school, she would walk home for lunch, where her mother would cook up hearty meals such as fideo soup, tacos or chicken tostadas. Eventually, her family moved to a “tiny apartment in L.A.”

She recalled her first day of school in America — and the lunch that was served. 

“My first meal was a Sloppy Joe,” she said. “I didn’t touch it. I said, ‘Oh my gosh, what is it?’ I didn’t really like school lunches. They were horrible.”

The first year that she experienced Halloween, she said she didn’t know what it was.

“Everyone was wearing Halloween costumes,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going on. No one told me. I felt like I was being punked.”

Some of her teachers were Mexican-American but did not speak Spanish. Maldonado, at the time, assumed that teachers who looked like her father spoke Spanish, so she thought her teachers were purposely not talking to her.  

She said it was always a struggle to fit in and feel comfortable.

“If people laughed, I would laugh,” she said. “If people look concerned, I would look concerned. I didn’t understand why.”

She acclimated, however. By the eighth grade, she was elected student government representative. 

Because of what she experienced, she said she believes strongly in cultural proficiency training. She’s looking forward to learning more about the Just Communities curriculum. 

“I think it is courageous and it’s the right work,” Maldonado said. “I would want to see it. I would want to dig into what is turning some people off about it. Even with what we are seeing right now with civil unrest and how we approach the world — this is not just a Santa Barbara issue. It’s a national issue about how we perceive others.”

She said she’s committed to what she calls equity with excellence.

“When we talk about equity, it doesn’t mean less for others,” she said.

She said she also knows that she needs to learn the Santa Barbara culture.

The landscape is littered with management and executive leaders who parachuted into Santa Barbara with the skills, but no knowledge of the culture or the people on the front lines doing the work. 

“As an outsider, I need to meet the different constituencies and listen to the different groups,” Maldonado said, adding that she is focused on literacy and understanding students wherever they are. “How you approach an English learner who is 5 years old and is learning to read has to be very different than if you are teaching a 15-year-old who has had schooling in another country and has full mathematical and English skills.”

She has a three-year contract with the school district and will earn $250,000 annually. She plans to rent a place in Santa Barbara for now and eventually buy something. Her children are in college in L.A., and her husband will go back and forth between cities. 

The little girl who once had no words now has plenty of them, and she said her goal is to empower young people to also use their voices.

“How do we build community within the school district?” Maldonado said. “It is not just what is happening inside classrooms. We have to look at who people are, not just their academics, but into their heart and soul.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.