Vincent Matthews: Paying it Forward & Giving it Back as SFUSD’s New Superintendent
"Making things happen for kids I know has the opportunity to change their life outcomes, and the reason I know that is because it happened for me," said SFSU Ed.D. grad Vincent Matthews ('10), who recently took the helm as superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, a district in which he was once a student.
Matthews, who was part of the Ed.D. program's first cohort, has dedicated his life to working to ensure more equitable education for all students. His was a career sparked somewhat by accident when he was a student in SFUSD and started tutoring his friends so that they'd be eligible to play sports.
“I ran track and played football, and a number of friends struggled to keep grades, and so I began to tutor some of them – for selfish reasons. I wish I could say it was all about education, but it was really because I wanted them to be qualified to play on the team. Once I started tutoring, I really found a joy and a love of education,” Matthews said. “When a friend didn’t know something, I tutored them and 15 minutes later they knew it, and I could see the spark in their eyes. That was really exciting for me.”
His focus on teaching quickly pivoted to administration. When he was 27, he says his then boss “tricked” him into applying for an administrative position, which he got. She then told him he had to take it. He found that the same feeling he got educating a student translates to administration. “I love it. It’s such a high for me… of having plans that you know will make a difference for kids, and you try to put them forward.”
Matthews has lead districts in San Jose, Oakland, and Inglewood, and the latter two were under state receivership when he took over. He was able to make a big difference at each district by listening, learning, engaging, and developing and implementing a plan.
“One of the things I quickly realized in Inglewood – one of the key components of recovery for a district – is that there needs to be a recovery plan in place, and there wasn’t one in place” when he took over. Within four months, a plan was in place. “Just that one component was huge for the constituents and stakeholders in the area,” Matthews said. Prior to implementing a plan, Matthews met and talked with everyone he could to discover what was working and what could be improved. “Just asking the question, that built faith in people that at least I was going to listen.”
Even though Mathews found success and satisfaction in his earlier roles, SFUSD is special.
“This was the district that gave me the skills that I had, raised me,” he said. When he saw that the job was open, he thought “at the very least, I’m going to put my name into the hat, and I was blessed enough to have been chosen to be the superintendent.”
Matthews sees SFUSD as a capstone to his rich career. “I believe that who better to come back and raise up an area, change an area--invest in an area--than the kids who grew up in the area. But, [current students] are not going to have the opportunity to do that if we don’t provide them a high quality education.”
As he has done in other districts, Matthews plans to begin his tenure at SFUSD by listening and learning. Then, he plans “to ensure that all students receive 21st century skills. That’s what it’s all about – college and career. And by all, we mean all. Right now, there’s a significant achievement gap – Whites and Asians are achieving at one level, and Latino and African American students are achieving at another level. My goal is to work the plan to make sure that all students receive those skills, so they can go on and live successful lives.”
SFUSD faces a unique challenge given its school choice structure allowing parents to rank preferred schools rather than simply sending their kids to the closest school. The district has seen parental and student preference for a select few campuses. “We need to make sure that all of our schools are producing the kinds of skills and results for students that they need,” Matthews said. “Right now, the perception is that some schools are able to produce at higher levels than others, and people are making choices based on that.”
Matthews is a graduate of SF State’s first Educational Leadership doctoral cohort, and though he was already well established in his career, he credits the Ed.D. program with helping him hone his path.
“The program helped me refine my focus on [marginalized] students and also helped me to continue to be an advocate for social justice, especially for those kids, students and families for whom the system traditionally has not worked,” he said. “I will be always grateful for the program in doing that.”
He also appreciates the connections he made while pursuing his doctorate at SF State, connections with whom he still keeps in touch. It was “great to be in classes with a group of like-minded people. We pushed each other and had conversations about how to make a difference for these kids and make the system work for these kids, too.”
Welcome back home, Dr. Matthews.