Dr. Vincent Matthews was chosen as the new Superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District this past May from a field of 27 candidates. After successful terms leading large urban school districts in Inglewood and San Jose, Matthews has returned to San Francisco, where he grew up, went to school, and started his career as an educator. We sat down with him on June 13th for an interview (edited for clarity).

You grew up in San Francisco, going to San Francisco public schools. When you started your career as an educator, did you think you’d end up running the district you grew up in?

Absolutely not! I thought that I would teach for 30-35 years and then retire. I actually started teaching at a school in Hunter’s Point - George Washington Carver Elementary. That’s when my family’s home was in the Haight-Ashbury, but our church was in Hunter’s Point, so we actually spent more time there than at home. I grew up in Hunter’s Point, went to Grattan Elementary, Herbert Hoover Middle School, then McAteer High.


By then, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher. I had started tutoring friends in school. I ended up going to San Francisco State, getting my credential, then going back to teach in the neighborhood I grew up in. I taught at George Washington Carver for five years, and then I became principal at Alvarado School.


One of the things I really believe is,  “who better to have an impact on a neighborhood than people who grew up and were raised in that neighborhood?’ That’s why I went back to Hunter’s Point to teach.

You went on to be a school district executive outside of San Francisco. What lessons do you think you’ve learned from working in those districts that you could apply here?

What I’ve learned is the importance of the superintendent coming in to listen and learn to start off with; even if I’ve been part of that system before, I still think it’s important to listen and learn what’s going on now - that’s a key component.


It’s also really important to understand your role. You have to create a leadership team, you have to create organizational clarity: to be really clear about who we are, why we exist, where we’re going, and what our core values are.


Third, you have to really communicate that clarity. In many systems, what you see is people not understanding how or why we do things. Once that clarity is established, who you bring on board and making sure that they are aligned to where we’re going, what’s important to us as a system. Communicating that clarity through whom we hire.

On the topic of communication, we recently ran an article about parents whose children were left on the wrong end of a decision by the School Board to suspend the Middle School Feeder Program. One problem we saw was the delay between the decision by the School Board and the official notification to parents by the District. So in terms of outreach to parents, even those who are not necessarily engaged, is that part of what you’re talking about?

Absolutely. If you look at our 90 day plan for listening and learning, one of the statements in there is to reach stakeholders who haven’t traditionally been reached out to; it means reaching out in different ways, and holding public meetings in places where we may not have been before.


We’ve already had four community meetings, so it’s not just about expecting people to come down to 555 Franklin St., but actually holding meetings in the community so that they have much more access.  


Two questions I asked during those meetings are 1) what are we doing that’s working well, and 2) what are the things where we really need to do a much better job. So it’s going out, reaching out, in different ways and asking people what are the best ways to reach them. Also, I want to point out that the Middle School Feeder preference is still in place.

Where have you held meetings so far?

We’ve had meetings at Galileo High School, Burton High School, James Lick, and one other during the month of May. When we return in August, we’ll have three or four more. The goal is to have the 90 days of listening and learning, and then around October, I plan to issue a finding of what I’ve learned. And then in November and December, we’ll have a plan going forward based on that input.

One big issue the District has to deal with, as I’m sure you’re already aware, is teacher turnover. The District already has initiatives in place, but with over 300 teaching positions to fill for next year alone, do you see any new ways to recruit and especially retain teachers, particularly in the needier schools?

Our vacancy rate is actually pretty typical for large urban districts; when I was in Oakland there would be 400 to 500; when I was in San Jose, the number was always around 300, so it’s a national problem.  


We have the residency programs, one of which has brought in quite a few teachers already; second of course is right now, we are in negotiation with our teachers. We recognize the need to increase compensation, that’s one thing we are working on.


When we talk to teachers, the one thing that keeps them in place, and this is true everywhere I’ve been, is support for professional development. So we are actively working with the leadership of the teachers’ union to establish a professional development program that assists teachers in creating high quality lessons that are rigorous for students.  


Another issue that’s been in the news is housing for teachers. We’re continuing to look to see what we can establish, working hand-in-hand with the City. You should expect, over the next month or two, more information to come forward on that.

One of the thornier issues that we hear about is the achievement gap in some of our schools, particularly in the southeast part of the City. Where do you see the District going in terms of combating this?

First and foremost, I tend to frame this more as a “Opportunity Gap” - I believe that we have to look at the actions of the adults in the system, do we support students, or are we putting barriers in place?


I believe the Achievement Gap is a manifestation of this Opportunity Gap. So coming in, we have a strategic plan in place, along with our Vision 2025 document, that look at where we’re being successful, as well as where we’re not. We’re looking at what we can give to the Southeast schools, what additional strategies we can put in place, where we focusing instructionally; as you may know some years back the District established an office specifically for this issue.

Many other urban districts have the same problem; but often they won’t call it out, or put resources behind it. SFUSD on the other hand is tackling the problem head-on. I’m an equity-minded leader. Equity means you’re going to do more when more is needed… doing more in assisting our adults in giving all of our students, but specifically African-American and other students of color, the skills that they need to be successful in life.

And when you’re talking about adults, are you talking about parents as well as District staff and other stakeholders?

I’m talking about everyone in that system - District staff, teachers, administrators, classified staff members, central office staff, as well as our parents. All of us working together, to make the system work for all of our students.

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Photograph by SJUSD.

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