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Incoming SF schools superintendent takes measured stance on charters

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New Superintendent Vincent Matthews, seen here during a news conference at a school district building Friday, graduated from an academy that has been criticized for training administrators to treat schools like business. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Before being tapped as the next superintendent of public schools in San Francisco, Vincent Matthews was known locally as the principal of a for-profit charter school that fudged test scores to bolster its reputation.

But since the controversy back in 2001, the San Francisco native has made a name for himself leading three school districts in California.

While he graduated from the pro-charter Broad Academy in 2006, which has been criticized for training administrators to treat schools like businesses, Matthews has taken a measured approach when it comes to charter schools in Inglewood and San Jose.

“I would describe myself as an advocate for high-quality schools,” Matthews said in an interview Friday with the San Francisco Examiner, wearing a bright tie with drawings of apples and books.

Matthews said he recommended that the school boards in Inglewood and San Jose approve just one or two charters each. He has been at Inglewood since October 2015, and spent the five years prior in San Jose.

Charter schools operate with public funding but do not have to subscribe to the same policies as public schools.

“In most cases, I have not seen their ability to either measure up or to outperform what’s happening in the district,” Matthews said. “If me and staff believe that it will make a high-quality difference then we will recommend it, but in most cases that has just not been the case.”

Yet the connections he does have to charter schools have some local educators and advocates wondering whether Matthews will open the door for more of them in the San Francisco Unified School District.

“Any time that we hear about someone who leans toward charter schools, has worked in charter schools, and now they become the leadership of a public school system, we must always be cautious,” said Supervisor Sandra Fewer, a former school board member. “We believe we serve our students in the public school system very well.”

San Francisco is not known for welcoming charter schools with open arms except for ones that serve special populations, like Five Keys Charter for inmates at County Jail.

“Charters can kind of cheat,” said Kevine Boggess, director of policy with Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth. “They pick the best students and throw the rest out.”

When Matthews was principal of Edison Charter Academy in Noe Valley in 2001, the school was in danger of losing its charter because it had been criticized for pushing out black students with low test scores.

“I’m a little surprised to see that on his resume,” said Supervisor Jane Kim. “[But] that doesn’t mean that he’s not going to be a great superintendent that’s going to focus on equity and make a big difference for the district.”

According to reports in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the school reportedly circulated test scores to the national media that were higher than those reported to the school district while Matthews was the principal.

Edison is still a charter school now, but it is no longer associated with the for-profit company that stirred the controversy, and is now known as Thomas Edison Charter Academy.

“Edison was just really kind of off the charts,” said Kim, who served on the Board of Education after the controversy. “There should never be a profit that doesn’t go back into the classroom.”

School board President Shamann Walton said the past is the past.

“He was at a charter school many, many years ago,” Walton said. “People change. Views change. And at the end of the day, the Board of Education makes all the decisions when it comes to charter schools.”

Just last month, Matthews argued against opening a charter school in Inglewood, according to Inglewood school board member D’Artagnan Scorza.

“He said we cannot approve a petition for a new school when you all are not serving all of the students you need to be serving currently,” Scorza said.

As the state-appointed superintendent of the formerly bankrupt school district in Inglewood, Matthews has focused on stabilizing the budget.

“His work and his role have been critical in helping us turn the corner and make progress toward recovery,” Scorza said.

As the superintendent in San Jose beginning in 2010, Matthews tried to roll out new programs with the teachers union and created a strategic plan that the district still uses to this day.

“When he came onboard … within a couple of days one of our schools had an arson fire and was severely damaged,” said Pam Foley, president of the San Jose school board. “He handled that situation with grace.”

His reputation is not as rosy in Oakland, where he started as the state-appointed trustee in 2007.

Matthews was unable to increase teacher salaries during the Great Recession and allowed for the proliferation of charter schools as the state-appointed trustee of the fiscally troubled district, according to the teachers union.

“He was very pro-charter,” said Betty Olson-Jones, past president of the Oakland Education Association. “He had been the head of the Edison one. He had no problem with more charters coming into Oakland.”

Trish Gorham, current president of the Oakland teachers union, said San Francisco educators should keep an eye out for telltale signs that would indicate Matthews is applying the “Broad playbook” from his training at the Broad Academy.

Turning over top administrators. Changing titles. Opening doors to charter schools. Lengthening school days. Dismantling institutional memory.

To Gorham, those changes amount to “disruption and destabilization.”

“What it stems from is a model of operation that is based on a business model, and that is the main problem because schools are not businesses,” Gorham said. “The Broad model wants to identify winners and losers.”

The Broad Center did not respond to a request for comment.

But Matthews said the broad brush with which people paint so-called “Broad Superintendents” is not always spot-on.

“Pick five things and you look at my career, you would see that many of those things just don’t fall into my career,” Matthews said. “Not every person who went through the Broad Academy is robotic and operates under some presumed model.”

Scorza, the board member in Inglewood, said Matthews does not necessarily subscribe to the Broad Center’s stance on charters.

“He was not only upfront but recognized in his sharing with me that Broad offered good training but that does not mean you have to tout some ideological line in terms of charter schools,” Scorza said. “He has worked to ensure that there has been effective oversight of charters in our district.”

As for what to expect in the coming months, Matthews said he will meet with community members over the next 90 days and propose tweaks to the district’s strategic plan.

The board is expected to vote on Matthews’ contract Tuesday,
including his salary, and cement his status as the next superintendent of schools.

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