SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Second graders who don't know how to ride a bike; a privileged teen who's great with horses, but doesn't know what a noun is. Those are just two examples of the wide gap in life experiences found in classrooms in the Santa Barbara Unified School District.
Can anyone level the playing field? Superintendent Cary Matsuoka believes he has the answer.
"This is a community that has lots of opinions about what they would like their school district to do," Matsuoka told NewsChannel 3.
The Superintendent spent more than one hour at the KEYT station in mid-April, touching on what he sees as strengths and weaknesses in the District and his vision for the 17 schools he oversees.
Matsuoka has spent nearly four decades in education. Santa Barbara's District is the third he's led and comes with a dubious distinction, what he calls, "a low to medium degree of crisis, constantly."
"There are some practices in Santa Barbara that, they're behind by a decade."
Matsuoka said supporting English-language learners and Special Education are the top two areas where local schools are behind and lacking. He said too often, students with language barriers are labeled as "disabled" and put in Special Ed classes.
He calls Santa Barbara "a big town and a little town" and says part of that is a good thing.
"There's a really tight knit community here and that supports our schools," he said, citing the overwhelming passage of the bond measure during the most recent election.
However, Matsuoka sees weakness in the city's geographic isolation.
"We need other school districts to push us, to learn from and honestly, to compete with."
Keep in mind, Santa Barbara is one of just three districts within 13 and a half miles. Silicon Valley (where Matsuoka worked before), has 30 districts within 20 miles. Matsuoka said his top goals include equity among the district's 17 schools, 800 teachers and 15,000 students.
"We have schools that are doing really, really well -- Washington, Roosevelt, Adams has risen -- but we've got some challenges with our poverty schools."
Right out of the gate, Matsuoka said the biggest change students and parents will notice is a renewed focus on literacy, at the elementary level.
"When we see every third grader reading so that they're ready how to learn the curriculum, 4th grade on, that's when we'll see the turning points."
When it comes to educating local teenagers, the Superintendent has concerns when students head into the real world job force.
"Part of my broad vision for what our students are equipped for is a world that's so dynamic and changing that our graduates know how to reinvent themselves every five years. Because that's what's happening in the workforce."
The path Matsuoka is currently on gives him a front-row view to the academic and social disparity among our local students.
"School districts have probably the biggest responsibility and opportunity to close that gap."
And he's well aware that social media plays a big role, both good and bad.
"Today, I think the risk for kids is ... it's in a hidden space."
Rumors and social media propelled the district leader -- who places great importance on communication -- into the hot seat in the days following a chatroom threat involving students at San Marcos High School. Parents were outraged.
"They heard about the story through TV. That's going to break trust," Matsuoka said.
A town hall meeting, an apology, and word that the Royals' principal would be demoted to a teaching position at the end of the year fueled more anger, for a large number of parents.
Matsuoka has said repeatedly he cannot go into particulars involving Principal Ed Behrens because it is a personnel matter. However, he did make a revelation.
"Having a new principal at San Marcos is really an unrelated item to the whole communication piece and school safety."
NewsChannel 3's Beth Farnsworth asked Matsuoka about a photo taken during a meeting with parents that appeared to show him flipping the bird.
"I don't flip people off," Matsuoka said. "Whether my hand was in that position or not, or photo-shopped, I don't know, I don't remember. But I don't flip people off. That's not who I am. That's not the way I've led my life."
Matsuoka said in the coming weeks and months, the District will ramp up resources to help students with Dyslexia and other learning differences. Work is also underway to create a new Task Force, in collaboration with UCSB, that will focus on safety issues at at SBUSD schools.