If you’re a public school parent in San Francisco or Oakland, your child’s education is now in the hands of a new leader.
Kyla Johnson-Trammell is the new schools chief in the Oakland Unified School District.
Vincent Matthews now heads up San Francisco Unified.
While their districts are very different, these leaders have one thing in common: They attended and worked in the schools they now lead.
They also join a growing list of “homegrown superintendents” in California. The trend comes after years of large urban school districts bringing in outsiders who often divided school communities with their ambitious agendas and short tenures.
In Oakland and San Francisco, the hope is that Johnson-Trammell and Mathews will stay longer, easily win trust among families and community members, and stabilize their districts.
Vincent Matthews: ‘This Is My Home’
A prominent African-American school administrator, Matthews led San Jose Unified for more than five years. Before that, he was the state-appointed administrator for Oakland Unified, helping the district get out of its financial mess in 2007.
Until recently, he was overseeing the troubled Inglewood Unified School District near Los Angeles, also as a state-appointed administrator.
“I’ve loved every place that I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of. But San Francisco is where I was raised. This is my home,” Matthews said.
He grew up in the Haight-Ashbury District in the 1970s. His mom and siblings lived in a Victorian with two other families. He attended public schools in the neighborhood, went to San Francisco State University and returned to the district as a teacher and then a principal.
His deep connection to San Francisco — combined with his 30 years of experience as a successful school leader — helped him land his new job.
“My job is to be the chief collaborator around getting students in this city a high-quality education,” he said. “I will scream that from the mountaintops, and I will talk to each and every person who wants to hear it. Even people who don’t want to hear it. They will hear it from me.”
Matthews demonstrated his unique ability to connect with local educators at a recent meet-and-greet at one of Google’s downtown offices.
Teachers from the city’s Bayview District were invited to attend, and Matthews told the crowd it felt like a reunion. He said that even though he went to school in the Haight, he spent a lot of time in the Bayview, where many African-American families lived. He has fond memories of attending church in the neighborhood, going to choir practice and hanging out with friends.
However, Matthews said that even as a kid he noticed the educational inequities within district schools, which he believes remain today.
“That is key for me. Your ZIP code should not determine the quality of the education you receive,” he told the roomful of teachers.
Matthews said to expect an even greater emphasis on making sure all schools are offering a high-quality education – especially at schools that he believes have not gotten the attention they deserve.
Above all, when it comes to learning in a city that’s the epicenter of all things tech, Matthews said he wants district students to master the skill of creativity.
“It assists them in becoming much more flexible. Being able not to just see two years down the road, but to begin to see five years, 10 years, 20 years down the road.”
Matthews’ flexibility will be tested on Day One – jumping into district contract negotiations with teachers and figuring out affordable housing solutions for all its educators.
He’s also expected to face some skepticism around his stance on charter schools. Matthews spent five years promoting and running charter schools during this career and he believes they play a role in offering families more options.
Kyla Johnson-Trammell: The Insider
Kyla Johnson-Trammell has spent her entire professional career — more than 18 years — in the Oakland Unified School District. The 41-year-old mother of two has been an elementary school teacher and principal and has held administrative positions.
On a recent morning, Johnson-Trammell introduced her leadership style to a crowded gym of Oakland principals and educators, most of whom she knew, saying she wants to be less of a “hero” who would offer silver-bullet solutions to solve the district’s problems and more of a “host,” who creates a culture of innovation and collaboration.
“I believe from my gut that it is not about one individual to help us become the organization we want to be,” she said. “It’s about the collective.”
Oakland Unified’s turmoil over recent years has, in large part, been caused by leadership turnover, Johnson-Trammell told KQED. OUSD has had four superintendents in the last five years.
Before Antwan Wilson departed earlier this year to lead the Washington, D.C., school district, he announced Oakland Unified would be forced to make millions of dollars in cuts, while ultimately impacted the central office that Johnson-Trammell would soon inherit.
The East Oakland native knows the task of improving the district is “daunting.” OUSD has a graduation rate that has increased slowly over the last few years, but remains low at 66 percent. Charter school enrollment continues to climb, while district school enrollment is expected to remain around 37,000.
Johnson-Trammell expects more budget cuts in the future caused, in part, by cost-of-living increases, pensions and more students with special needs.
“We’re going to have to think very conservatively,” she said.
Johnson-Trammell wants to remain superintendent as long as she can create a culture that allows teachers, principals, families and schools to find creative solutions to problems they face, she said. As to whether she’ll stay for the long run, she says she’d like to, but “I can’t make that promise.”