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Noozhawk Article: Schools Chief, Others Credit Leading From Within…

Schools Chief, Others Credit Leading From Within for Helping Them Navigate Pandemic Year


Student letters and drawings show their appreciation for jackets they received from the Santa Barbara Education Foundation.
Student letters and drawings show their appreciation for jackets they received from the Santa Barbara Education Foundation. (Courtesy photo)

The COVID-19 pandemic caused major shifts in the educational landscape, acutely affecting students, parents, teachers and administrators. Spearheading efforts for the Santa Barbara Unified School District was Hilda Maldonado, who stepped into the role as superintendent on July 1, 2020, marking her first year among the most challenging years of leadership in her long-tenured career.

“While it has been one of the hardest years in leadership for so many of us, I’m most proud of our principals, leaders, staff and teachers, and grateful to parents for trusting us with their children,” Maldonado said.

While nothing could have prepared the district for the unexpected and sudden shift to remote learning, Maldonado credits the training she received from local nonprofit Leading From Within for helping her navigate the challenges.

Maldonado participated in the 2017-18 Courage to Lead cohort, a year-long leadership and renewal program consisting of quarterly retreats and small peer circles intended to nurture inner lives of leaders so they can have greater impact on the communities they serve.

Maldonado said there are a number of tools from the Courage to Lead program that she drew upon over the past pandemic year, including the importance of self-care and the ability to trust “my own internal leadership strengths.”

“It would be easy to throw in the towel during the pandemic and walk away, especially when our decisions were criticized and questioned,” said Maldonado. “However, I knew that through the [Courage to Lead] program, my leadership voice was strengthened, and if needed I had a support system to help me with those moments.”

Among that support system were the staff and board members of the Santa Barbara Education Foundation (SBEF), many who are also Leading From Within alums, allowing for an unspoken, yet trusted network of like-minded peers.

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“Covid took everyone by surprise and there were a lot of needs that became urgent pretty quickly,” said Margie Yahyavi, a Courage to Lead (CTL) alumna and CEO of the SBEF. “The district called us into action, and we immediately raised funds for Wi-Fi, hot spots, iPads and chargers for students living in vehicles.”

With about 14% of district students classified as homeless, access to Wi-Fi was important before the pandemic, but the need dramatically escalated during Covid, with more than half the 13,000 students in the district coming from low-income families.

SBEF mobilized quickly, raising more than $300,000 for students’ online and academic resources, in addition to procuring funding for art and music supplies, food security, and jackets to warm students attending school with open windows and outdoor classrooms.

“We were all focused on helping the children,” said Eryn Shugart, donor advisement officer for SBEF and a CTL alumna. “I certainly think it helped that many of our board members are graduates of a Leading From Within program (including Terri Allison, Eder Gaona-Macedo from Future Leaders of America, and Victoria Juarez).

“We were all on the same page with a shared sense of values and professional tools enabling us to act quickly and effectively.”

“I know that I am more effective in my job due to the training I received at Leading From Within,” she said. Shugart credits touchstones the training promotes for serving as constant reminders for how she leads and lives, including listening more attentively, and judging others less.

“The shared practice of touchstones allows us to communicate more effectively,” said Yahyavi. “I think we all acknowledge each other as human beings first, and there’s an intrinsic level of trust and mutual respect that is critical in how we relate to one another.”

Trust and transparency governed how Maldonado communicated during the pandemic. As she learned more about the virus and guidance, which was ever-changing, she strove to ensure information was presented to everyone in the organization and outside the district in a direct and transparent manner.

“As with any transition, and in building new relationships, it is important we establish trust and openness,” Maldonado said. “The (CTL) training informs how I show up as a leader to the work and the way that I ensure that I build relationships with those around me whether they are from Leading From Within or not.”

“I believe the strength of our relationships is based on a deep understanding that we are working for a purpose that is higher than our own self benefit,” she said. “I believe we agree that we aim to improve the lives of children in Santa Barbara, and that means our work has a clear focus.”

For more about Courage to Lead, visit For more about Santa Barbara Education Foundation’s work to support students in the Santa Barbara Unified School District, contact Shugart at 805-284-9125 or

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