Elise Simmons
Santa Barbara High Principal Elise Simmons says she jumped at the opportunity to return to the school. Among her priorities is building a strong sense of community. “When students see the teachers are collegial and have relationships,” Simmons says, “it impacts their experience in the classroom and hallways.” (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

The school doors are open, and a new principal at Santa Barbara High School has set the goals for the year that is underway.

Elise Simmons, a veteran educator, is leading the high school in the Santa Barbara Unified School District after being with the district for 19 years. She is the second woman to head Santa Barbara High School in its more than 140-year history.

Simmons has served as an eighth-grade teacher at La Cumbre Junior High School; a seventh- and eighth-grade social studies and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) teacher, an intervention coordinator and an instructional coach at Santa Barbara Junior High School; an assistant principal at Santa Barbara High; and as principal at Alta Vista Alternative High School and La Cuesta Continuation High School.

“I was always involved in some leadership role, even from my first year — whether helping select the instruction or materials,” Simmons said. “Everybody’s memories of being a Don are positive. I’m glad to be back and part of that.”

She received a bachelor of arts degree and a master’s degree in education from UC Santa Barbara and her doctorate from Concordia University in Chicago.

Simmons said she jumped at the opportunity to return to Santa Barbara High because she missed the teamwork and collaboration that exists on campus.

“Even though I was still in town, it wasn’t here at Santa Barbara High,” she said. “There are a lot of people and programs that I missed.”

Simmons will be focusing her efforts at Santa Barbara High toward a handful of priorities, noting that “they are all things that have been going on either districtwide or existing.”

Transforming Santa Barbara High into a social-emotional learning school is high on the list for Simmons, emphasizing social-emotional learning as a cornerstone of high school education.

Social-emotional learning is the process through which people acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions.

Simmons spoke of the mental health support from community partners such as AHA!, which recently trained Santa Barbara High School’s ninth-grade teachers with self-management tools for implementing practices in the classroom and tips on how to create and build a sense of community.

The school also is offering weekly mindfulness sessions for staff and students.

“What we experienced as a community last year with the Thomas Fire and the Montecito debris flow, that cut deep into our community,” she said. “We also have lost students at Santa Barbara High in the last two years, so the social-emotional learning piece is allowing us to continue to focus on strength, but at the same time be honest about how we are feeling and be supporting.”

She noted districtwide efforts to support student wellness and a new mental health framework that outlines supporting students.

“As a district, we have been working on restorative approaches, and restorative approaches are how we deal with discipline and any sort of disruption to a community,” she said. “The only way you can have a community is if you spend the time to get to know each other, and understand each student on the individual level.

“That also helps the teachers gear their instruction and curriculum towards the students that are sitting in front of them.”

Simmons said she also has plans focusing on the professional learning communities.

The discussions may vary, but the intent of professional learning communities is for educators to create common classroom assessments and to collaborate on academic success.

“What is happening in science, history and English — it’s relevant to that content and grade level, but we have some common skill expectations,” Simmons said. “Some common language that we are learning, so that all students walk away from our school college and career ready.”

Embracing and understanding the new College and Career Indicator on California’s School Dashboard will be another major thrust in the year ahead. California’s School Dashboard measures districts and schools based on academic performance, college and career readiness, English-language learner progress, graduation and suspension rates, and more.

“It’s acknowledging that kids have many different passions,” Simmons said. “There are many different ways to show that you are college and career ready.”

Ensuring that all athletic programs are “healthy, positive and safe” for all students is another focus for Simmons.

Similar to the social-emotional learning list of curriculum goals, which focus on the emotional safety of students, Simmons plans to institute athletic experiences that promote emotional learning.

The school district has developed a head coach comprehensive evaluation form that helps identify how to support coaches in a wide range of areas, from professionalism to facility management, Simmons said. 

“What I expect of our teachers, I expect that of our coaches,” Simmons said. “The athletic field, pool (and) gym, it’s an outdoor classroom.”

Santa Barbara High offers more than 15 California Interscholastic Federation sports.

“More than half of our students at Santa Barbara High are involved in an athletic program, and meanwhile, the other half is cheering them on,” said Simmons, a student-athlete who played soccer. “The athletic programs are an important part of our school and our tradition.”

In addition, Simmons has plans for improving staff communication and developing high-quality relationships and building a strong sense of community in the school. Santa Barbara High has 200 employees across 44 acres of campus.

“Another one of my focuses is making sure the adults are happy,” Simmons said. “We support each other, and that filters down into the classroom.

“When students see the teachers are collegial and have relationships, it impacts their experience in the classroom and hallways.”

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at bholland@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Brooke Holland, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @NoozhawkNews

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at bholland@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.