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The real deal: Dr. Michael Matthews pursues excellence at Manhattan Beach Unified

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Manhattan Beach School District Superintendent Michael Matthews

Manhattan Beach Unified School District Superintendent Michael Matthews. Photo by Tom Sanders

A picture of Dr. Michael Matthews has hung in teacher Nicole Lusiani Elliott’s San Lorenzo High School classroom for the past 15 years.

Elliott often points to the portrait and tells her students about the man who changed her life.

“I tell my kids, ‘I’m here because of him,’” Elliott said of Matthews, who in July became Manhattan Beach Unified School District’s Superintendent. “I became a teacher because of him. No doubt.”

Elliott — who teaches the same course that Matthews taught at SLHS — grew up in the mostly blue collar town of San Lorenzo, an unincorporated town on the east side of the San Francisco Bay.

In the late ‘80s, she attended SLHS, from which two percent of students went on to college at the time.

Elliott was the self-dubbed “fun girl, not smart girl” from a single-parent home with no expectation of going to college. Early on, she had vague notions of becoming a teacher, but had no role models she could look up to.

By the time she reached high school, she had lost all expectations of becoming a teacher or going into any profession that required a college degree.

But everything changed when she met Matthews, then a history and government teacher at SLHS who had just created the school’s first-ever advanced placement course because the school’s feeble college attendance rate had become a concern.

“It was a low number and we started looking at what we could do to change that,” Matthews said.

As sophomore class president, Elliott had known Matthews through various school events.

When she headed into her junior year in 1989, Matthews encouraged her to enroll in his very first 11th grade advanced placement history course.

Elliott demurred.

“I didn’t feel I was smart enough for AP,” she recalled. “But he said, ‘I’m not letting you leave here until you try for the AP course.’”

For the first time Elliott found herself surrounded by students who planned to go to college and a teacher who was “exceptionally encouraging,” asking more of her than she had ever dared ask of herself.

Half of the students in Matthews’ first class, including Elliott, passed the AP history exam. Elliott believes it was Matthews’ determination to push students to their limits that allowed them to succeed.

“The first student from our school ever to go to Stanford — which was a first for any school like that — was from that first AP class,” Elliot said. “It was just so exciting to be a part of something like that and knowing that my life would be better than my mom’s.”

The following year, Matthews started the school’s first AP government class, in which Elliott also enrolled. When she was accepted into college, Matthews was the first person she called.

Five years after he started the first AP class, Matthews began mentoring other educators throughout the San Lorenzo Unified School District to teach advanced placement courses. Today, more than 50 percent of San Lorenzo’s students attend colleges and universities after graduation.

Elliott began teaching at SLHS in 1995 and now teaches one of eight advanced placement courses offered at the school, the same AP government class she took from Matthews her senior year.

For the first several years of her career, Elliott taught in the same classroom in which Matthews taught her. She tries to exact the same expectation from her students that Matthews did of her.

“I did it because I liked him,” said Elliott, choking back tears. “It was because of his relentless pursuit of my intelligence that I took that class and ultimately went on to college and became a teacher. He changed my life. I don’t say that lightly. As a teacher, he believed in us. You guys are lucky to have him. He’s the real deal.”

A teacher first

The first thing you notice about Dr. Michael Matthews, 48, is that he’s tall — six-foot-two, to be exact.

The next thing you notice is his big, toothy grin, which seems to make everyone around him smile too.

When he speaks you hear more than a hint of the southern drawl Matthews brought from his hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, where early on he developed a love of water skiing, hiking, biking and camping.

The son of an attorney and the oldest of four children, Matthews had planned on going to law school.

He attended an all-boys Catholic high school in Little Rock. One of his earliest role models was Father George Tribu, the principal and an English teacher.

“He believed in shaping young men to be good citizens and good fathers,” Matthews said.

In 1980, Matthews entered Stanford University, where he majored in international relations. He planned to go to law school.

But a trip to Berlin his junior year made him question his direction.

“It was there I started rethinking everything,” Matthews said. “I was going through what many college students go through. ‘Where do you want to go?’ And I started thinking about teaching.”

When he returned to the States, Matthews became a volunteer reading tutor at Menlo-Atherton High School in Atherton, California.

After getting a taste for teaching, he pursued a Master’s degree in education at Stanford.

“I thought ‘If it turns out it’s not for me, then I won’t do it,’” he said. “And I never looked back.”

The principal’s office

Matthews took his first teaching job at San Lorenzo, where he stayed for five years before becoming an assistant principal at Lodi High School in 1990. Two years later, at the age of 29, Matthews became principal of Delta Serra Middle School in Stockton.

“Even though I was young to be a principal, I wasn’t scared,” Matthews said. “In fact, I was probably more confident that I should have been. I learned quickly that it’s a job of responsibilities that aren’t visible to most people.”

In 1993, he was hired as principal of the new Malibu High School and quickly figured out how to build a high school from scratch, from hiring the staff to developing traditions.

“Starting that school was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” said Matthews, who, similarly to his role model Father Tribu, continued to teach a daily AP history class while he was the principal. Last year, Matthews officiated at the marriage of two of his former Malibu AP history students.

After 11 years at Malibu High, Matthews was recruited by former superintendent of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) John Deasey — now a Los Angeles Unified School District Deputy Superintendent — to become the assistant superintendent of Human Resources of the high-performing district.

In 2004, Matthews started at SMMUSD, where he supervised 1,400 employees and seven principals, acted as chief negotiator with the teacher’s union and oversaw personnel-related matters, the student services department, counseling, enrollment and the technology department.

In 2006, a long-time friend of Matthews, David Payne, asked him to help start a private company that offered after-school learning programs to California schools that didn’t meet state academic standards. Having never worked in the private sector, Matthews accepted the offer and left SMMUSD. In a year, he and Payne built up Extreme Learning to serve more than 4,000 students, many of whom were living at the poverty level.

Payne recalled a school in Anaheim to which Matthews gave special attention.

“They weren’t meeting the standards and had a long way to go,” Payne said. “Mike configured a program for them, visited them and had 100 kids tutored daily after school.”

The next year the school met the standards requirements.

“It was very different from anything I had ever done before,” said Matthews, who put 60,000 miles on his car that year. “At the same time, I was learning how a business model works.”

But being on the road began to wear on Matthews, who was often away from his two children and his wife, Jill — a teacher for SMMUSD.

In 2007, he resumed his former position at SMMUSD.

Earlier this year, he learned about the opening for a superintendent with Manhattan Beach’s eight-school district. The community’s beloved superintendent Beverly Rohrer was retiring.

Manhattan Beach’s new School District Superintendent Dr. Michael Matthews and Mira Costa High School principal Ben Dale were welcomed to town by school board trustees and Manhattan Beach Education and Athletic foundation members during a reception on the lawn of Brian and Gail Currey on Monday, September 27. Photo by Andrea Ruse

He was hired because he focused on what the MBUSD Board of Trustees wanted to hear about the most.

“What stood out about him was that he really talked about the students,” said MBUSD Board president Ida VanderPoorte. “A lot of other candidates talked mostly about administrative and operational issues. He really focused on the students and had researched a lot about the district.”

In April, the board announced that Matthews would succeed Rohrer. He took over on July 1.

The day before he started, VanderPoorte received a letter signed by the principals of SMMUSD.

“Your gain is truly our loss,” it read, and went on to describe Matthews as “a compassionate man whom you can trust,” “an individual who knows how to handle difficult situations and problems,” “an educator who will support you in your battles for excellence” and “a man who can play as hard as he works, bike for 100 miles, swim faster than high school kids, beat you in a game of any kind, cook like you can’t believe, and entertain you as Elvis Presley…We are also quite sure that as you look on your years with Mike Matthews that you will feel as we do, the years spent working with him are truly ‘The Golden Years.’

From Malibu to Manhattan

Since July, Matthews has woke up every day at 4 a.m. to commute 40 minutes down the 405 freeway to the Rosecrans Avenue exit from his Malibu home, where he lives with  his wife and their second-grader, Dawson. His son, Ryan, is a sophomore at UCLA.

Once in the South Bay, Matthews spends an hour or so swimming or spinning at the Equinox gym in Hawthorne, before eating breakfast and heading off to the district office.

Right now, he’s focused on finding out what’s working well in the district and what needs improvement.

“My main goal right now is to learn,” he said. “This isn’t a place that needs to be fixed.”

Over the past seven months, Matthews has replaced a high school principal, started a MBUSD Twitter page, dealt with a campus-wide lockdown at Mira Costa High School due to potential explosives and overseen plans for Costa’s campus-wide reconstruction.

Dealing with the high expectations of a high-performing district is nothing new to him, coming from SMMUSD, but is nonetheless challenging. Last year, MBUSD ranked third highest in the state on Academic Performance Index scores.

“There’s a certain pressure on me,” Matthews said. “My responsibility is to keep our success going and to make it even greater.”

Matthews hopes to update the district’s data systems to enable him to better identify possible areas of improvement on the standardized tests.

He also wants to explore new educational technologies, such as virtual classrooms where a teacher in China can teach Chinese to a class of high schoolers in Manhattan Beach.

“I hope the community will recognize the fact that whatever we do is a clear effort to improve education for everybody,” Matthews said. “If we try something that doesn’t work, we will celebrate the failure and learn from it.”

By 6:30 p.m. most days, Matthews is back on the road for a commute that gets him back to Malibu by 8:30 p.m., in time to say “goodnight” to his family and catch some sleep before another day of meeting teachers and administrators, hearing the concerns of the community and getting to know parents and students.

For now, he plans to keep learning.

“The level of excellence rises when he’s in charge,” said Elliot, his former San Lorenzo High student. “School districts are facing so many challenges right now. He is able to lead people through and beyond that downtrodden-ness. I have a sense he’ll make people be better. We’re all better when he’s there.”

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