Rockford — Steven Matthews isn’t a big suit guy, other than at board meetings. The new superintendent for Rockford Public Schools would rather pay monthly visits to the 13 schools in his district wearing a Rockford Rams polo, a respectable pair of slacks and his new orange-striped Adidas sneakers.
When Matthews visits classrooms and meets students and teachers, he also brings his soon-to-be famous home-baked chocolate chip cookies made with a few special ingredients and double the chocolate. He’s been baking his cookies throughout his tenure as a superintendent in Novi Public Schools and Grand Ledge Public Schools and finds that it helps break down barriers.
“Sometimes when the superintendent walks into a (school) building people get nervous,” he says. “I want them to know that I’m there to support them and encourage them and help them be successful.”
Superintendent Steven Matthews
• Superintendent, Novi Public Schools (2011-2022) and Grand Ledge Public Schools (2008-2011)
• Director of curriculum and assessment, Troy Public Schools
• Instructor of teacher education, Wayne State University and the University of Michigan
• Doctorate of education, Wayne State University
• Master’s of education, Texas Tech University
• Bachelor of arts in comparative religion from the University of Washington
Family: wife, Janice, and three sons
Hired in March, Matthews is stepping into his new role in Rockford following the decades-long tenure of Michael Shibler. He admits he didn’t know much about the town, but he knew the district because of the work of Shibler, who retired Dec. 31.
“I knew the district because Dr. Shibler was a legendary figure having been here 32 1/2 years,” Matthews says. “That’s unusual in superintendent circles, so I knew him and had interacted with him on numerous occasions.”
Following in the footsteps of such a storied superintendent isn’t something that intimidates Matthews as much as it inspires him to steward his predecessor’s work well.
“One of my hopes is that I can honor his legacy and continue to help people remember that he did a tremendous job here in the Rockford Public Schools,” he says.
Bringing Deep Experience
Matthews comes to Rockford with a legacy of his own, one of nearly 40 years spent in education. His experience is what made him stand out in the applicant pool, says Rockford Board of Education President Nick Reichenbach.
“RPS is blessed that someone with Dr. Matthews’ experience, reputation and service to students is leading us,” Reichenbach says. “Welcoming Dr. Matthews to an already high performing administrative team will propel Rockford on our path of continuous improvement.”
‘He’s relational and team-oriented and that helps us know that he’s going to honor the good work that we’ve already done.’– Lakes Elementary Principal Mindy McGinn
Before serving as superintendent for Novi and Grand Ledge, Matthews was the director of curriculum and assessment for Troy Public Schools for 10 years. He’s also taught in teacher education programs at Wayne State University and the University of Michigan. Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, he grew up as the child of two longtime public school teachers and started his own career in education as a sixth-grade teacher in Texas.
“I grew up with the sense that school was a really good place to be,” he says.
Still, he initially resisted the pull to the classroom and spent his early 20s “living an adventurous life” with his wife, Janice, in the Western U.S.
“In the end, I came back around and saw the power of public schools and the power of classrooms and decided that that’s where I wanted to be,” he says.
Valuing Student Sense of Belonging
Even as Matthews has taken on leadership roles, the student experience remains paramount in his mind. The sense of belonging in the school environment, he says, carries just as much weight as test scores when it comes to student success.
“Sitting down at lunch tables with students to see how they’re doing is data that’s just as important as hard data,” he says, “because if a student doesn’t feel like they belong, if they don’t feel like there’s someone in the building who cares for them, then they’re not going to invest. And if they’re not going to invest, they’re not going to do well academically.”
There’s evidence that his holistic approach to student success is working. During his 11 years at the helm of Novi Public Schools, the district’s statewide ranking hit number one on the niche.com school ratings website (he adds that in the past few years Novi has been edged out by Northville Public Schools).
‘Sometimes when the superintendent walks into a (school) building people get nervous. I want them to know that I’m there to support them and encourage them and help them be successful.’– Steven Matthews, Rockford’s new superintendent
When Matthews met with a group of Rockford parents this summer, students’ sense of belonging was one of their top concerns. Their other priority was ensuring that Rockford students have access to a widening variety of opportunities both academically and in extracurriculars. Matthews concurs.
“We want them to be successful, we want them to have opportunities and we want them to leave Rockford being able to make good decisions about what their life’s going to look like.”
He hopes that his work in Novi developing an innovative K-12 science curriculum will be useful as Rockford continues to enhance its academic opportunities. And as new things develop, he says he’ll keep his eye on the data that emerges.
“My experience both as a curriculum director and as a superintendent helps me focus on making sure that what we say we’re doing is what we’re actually doing.”
Tweets and Personal Visits
Just two months into his job in Rockford, Matthews’ presence in the district is being felt, says Rockford High School Principal Thomas Hosford.
“He’s already made a great impression. He’s very visible in a physical sense — attending meetings and events — but visible on social media as well,” Hosford says.
Posting on Twitter as @docsmatthews, Matthews has chronicled his journey in Rockford so far with pictures of school visits, football games, and even a water polo game. He tweets, “It’s Rockford Water Polo! I have no idea what’s going on! I need lessons.”
Matthews has set a goal to visit every school in Rockford at least once each month. He connects with school administrators to make sure they feel supported and visits several classrooms during each visit to see the student experience unfolding. Knowing his love for reading, teachers often ask him to read to their students during his visits. During an August visit to Lakes Elementary, he read the first chapter of “Ms. Bixby’s Last Day,” one of his “all-time favorite books.”
Lakes Elementary Principal Mindy McGinn says she’s thrilled by the approach he is taking.
“He’s relational and team-oriented and that helps us know that he’s going to honor the good work that we’ve already done,” McGinn says, adding she greatly appreciates his strong support of her as a principal.
“As an admin, I haven’t had to worry or wonder what that means for me or my future, because from the very beginning he has been very pointed about the relational capacity of his leadership. He wants to partner with us, he wants to know what our goals are, what our hopes and dreams are, and how he can help us realize those.”
McGinn’s only complaint? She hasn’t had one of his chocolate-chip cookies yet. Her visit doesn’t come until the end of September, so she’s hopeful.
“I’ve been waiting,” she says.