Dr. Antonio Shelton welcomes staff back to another year at Samohi campus, Shelton’s first as SMMUSD Superintendent, during Monday’s district Convocation event at Barnum Hall. Credit: Thomas Leffler

Dr. Antonio Shelton wants to be more than just the Superintendent for Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, he wants to be a culture changer.

The educator of 23 years, 18 of those in administrative positions, was hired for the Superintendent role on June 1 after serving as Samohi Principal and the district’s Executive Director of Secondary Schools. The district’s first internal hire at the Superintendent position in over 60 years, Shelton acknowledges that this back-to-school period requires a “broader reach and broader responsibility” to educational partners and students alike.

“My consideration is not a back-to-school just for the high school, but now it’s the whole system and the individuals who are employed by our system … to ensure that they have a successful school year,” Shelton said. “My reach is bigger, my heart has grown even bigger, because now I’m responsible for more kids, from the smallest babies all the way up to the ones that are transitioning to college.”

In his previous Executive Director role, Shelton provided support and mentoring to district principals, a mentorship he has expanded to the entire district staff via a healthy dose of self-reflection. During management retreats prior to the school year, Shelton began by telling his constituents his story, where he came from and how he got to SMMUSD. Before being based on the West Coast, Shelton previously held leadership positions in Ohio, including the Principal position at Indian Hill High School.

After sharing his story, Shelton asked staff to reflect on how and why they became educators, stating that it will help them work together to better impact students. As he puts it, he asks his staff to figure out how the “I” can work within the “us” of the district. At Monday’s district Convocation event, guest videos from speakers such as SMMUSD Board of Education President Maria Leon-Vazquez and Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association President Claudia Bautista summed up key reflective words like “empowerment” and “curiosity.”

“When we are reflective and self-reflective about who we are and what’s going on with us, then we can bring the best self to the space to support and educate our students,” Shelton said.

The self-reflection applies to not just the staff and their respective journeys, but to the curriculum moving forward. While Shelton emphasizes that SMMUSD is “not a broken school district,” the new leader is asking teachers to “continue to dig deeper” and to turn their self-reflections into tangible results.

“If we don’t … see how the individual impacts the department, then [how] the department impacts the system, it’s going to be very difficult for us to move forward. So this year starts off with self-reflection in order to move our system in the direction that it needs to go.”

That direction begins with a return to normalcy for a district, like so many others, impacted mightily by the COVID-19 pandemic. Shelton says that the district is “back fully” after years of COVID protocols. Staff will continue to reference local public health officials to receive information and “make [the] community aware” of any potential threats. “But right now, we are going to school,” Shelton added.

Regarding curriculum, Shelton wants to continue the push toward project-based learning, more hands-on classes, highlighting 2022-23 as the first Samohi graduating class from a project-based learning pathway. This year, Samohi will be adding a health and wellness-based learning academy to its repertoire, including instructors for anatomy, physiology and athletic training.

Shelton also recognizes the need to infuse all levels of education with project-based courses, driving elementary school teachers to be trained in that style of educating through professional development. “We want more of our kids to use the curiosity that they have, and not squash it,” Shelton said. “The hope is that we encourage it even more than we believe we already have.”

The new pushes in curriculum echo Shelton’s sentiment towards building a new culture at SMMUSD, one built on empowering teachers and unlocking new connections between staff and students.

“I’m asking our staff [to] dig deeper into who they are, what they’re bringing to the space … because then we build a culture,” Shelton said. “And how do you build a culture? You build a culture through who you are as the individual and how you work and operate within the team.”


Thomas Leffler has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Broadcast Journalism from Penn State University and has been in the industry since 2015. Prior to working at SMDP, he was a writer for AccuWeather and managed...