Hilda Maldonado.
Santa Barbara Unified School District Superintendent Hilda Maldonado focuses on the positives during Thursday's State of Our Schools event. Credit: Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo

Six out of 10 students in the Santa Barbara Unified School District are socioeconomically disadvantaged. Nearly 10% are unhoused. About 13% have disabilities, and 15% are emergent multilingual learners.

Still, the district has a 95% high school graduation rate.

Those statistics were among the information shared Thursday by Hilda Maldonado, superintendent of the Santa Barbara Unified School District, at the annual State of Our Schools event hosted by the Santa Barbara Education Foundation.

“I want to make sure you thank your principals, our teachers and our cabinet for getting us there,” she said.

Maldonado, hired in 2020, seems to have hit her stride as superintendent.

Pedro Paz, executive director of the Santa Barbara Education Foundation, introduced Maldonado, who glided up the stairs and onto the stage as the uplifting song “Forever Young” by Alphaville soared through the speakers of the Carrillo Recreation Center.

“That’s my walk out song, in case you are wondering,” Maldonado said. “Welcome, good morning and buenos dias.”

About 200 people were in attendance, including educators and elected officials.

Maldonado talked about how education and learning have been transformed, punctuated by the COVID-19 pandemic. A Mexican immigrant, Maldonado said she never could have imagined the technology of today’s world and that learning would have taken place on a screen.

To demonstrate, she brought up a video of the artificial intelligence program ChatGPT on a large screen. She input, “What is knowledge, teaching and learning?” and the program displayed a speech, defining knowledge, teaching in the 21st century and “how teachers are now facilitators and guides.”

She read from the Chat GPT text: “Overall, knowledge, teaching and learning in the 21st century are characterized by increasing access to information, student-centered approaches, technology integration, digital literacy and a shift toward lifelong learning.

“These changes reflect the need to prepare individuals for the increasingly complex and interconnected world, see.”

Maldonado joked: “There’s my speech. That’s all you need to know,” which incited laughter from the crowd.

Maldonado painted a picture of teamwork and collaboration and hammered home the theme that technology is a unifier. What was created for a few, serves the needs of all, she said.

The district has about 12,000 students. Of that, 61% are Latino, 31% are white, 2.5% are Asian, 2.8% are two or more races, and nearly 1% are African-American/Black students, Filipino, Pacific Islander, and American Indian.

She praised the change to Universal Access, which combined honors and college preparatory students into single classrooms.

“This is equity in action,” Maldonado said. “We are not talking about it, we are doing it, and I am so proud of our teachers and administrators for adapting and innovating — but most importantly, asking us to do the right work.”

She discussed how the district has invested in professional development for teachers. The district has spent more than $5 million on hiring “specials” teachers at every elementary school to teach art, music and PE.

“This allows our elementary teachers to use the time to prepare and work on ways to improve their practice while the students are with their ‘specials’ teachers,” Maldonado said. “Job-embedded learning time is an innovative way to collaborate.”

Maldonado said that for the first time since 2007, all elementary teachers will have a common set of materials to teach reading.

“When teaching kids how to read and write, it’s important to have the right tools for teachers,” Maldonado said, explaining that the district had approved the Wit & Wisdom/Fundations curriculum.

Adopting new instructional materials was a huge task and started in January with an evaluation process that was intentionally designed to include teachers from every grade level and school, emergent multilingual learner experts, special-education experts, literacy and language experts, principals and administrators, Maldonado said.

State of Our Schools event.
About 200 people gather in the Carrillo Recreation Center to hear Superintendent Hilda Maldonado talk about the state of the Santa Barbara Unified School District. Credit: Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo

One of the highlights of Maldonado’s speech was when she showed a video of emergent multi-language students explaining why reading is important.

One child said, “When I read I also feel like I am in the beach where the waves are crashing. It makes me feel peaceful.”

Another student in the video said, “It takes me to a place and I get to people myself into other people’s shoes.”

Maldonado said she imagines a world where there are book fairs, writing contests, reading gardens where students can curl up with a book under a tree, celebrity guest readers in classrooms, and a multicultural festival that celebrates reading and opens windows on the world.

“What if we held a literacy week in the cities of Goleta and Santa Barbara, where we celebrate reading and writing to help motivate kids to read, bring the joys of reading to students of all ages, and make all children feel safe, valued and welcome?” Maldonado said.

Joshua Molina

Joshua Molina, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com.