Meet Petaluma City Schools’ new superintendent: Matthew Harris
Matthew Harris said he never wanted a career in education, not with an elementary school principal as a mother, not with a career in business beckoning.
But he’s sure you’ve heard this story before. So we’ll skip to the part where he came around – in his first year of business school at the University of Michigan.
“I was there less than a year, and I looked around me and thought, ‘There’s no way I’m going to do this the rest of my life,’” Harris said.
So he flew around the world to South Korea, where he taught English and did the impossible – he “fell in love with teaching.”
As the new superintendent for Petaluma City Schools, Harris, who officially took the reins Thursday, will bring a lifelong love of learning — and teaching — to a district working to find itself in the wake of pandemic-induced upheaval. And he said he wants to build a community where others are excited to find their voice as well.
“It all goes down to students. I want them to feel empowered, invested, that we trust them to do the right thing,” Harris said during a recent phone interview. “I want to build that culture here in our district. There’s more work to do. I want it to be a place where teachers, staff and administrators feel empowered and driven.”
It’s little surprise that when he came back from Daegu, South Korea, Harris kept teaching. Teach for America placed him in Los Angeles – first at Lawndale Elementary School District and then at Lynwood Unified School District. He kept learning, too.
He earned a master’s degree in education from Loyola Marymount and a master’s in education administration from California State University Northridge.
But even while earning his Juris Doctorate from the UCLA School of Law, Harris taught writing to law school students.
That drive translated well for Harris in Petaluma, where he has served since 2018 as the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources and where he is credited for revitalizing McKinley Elementary School as principal from 2012-18. He also nurtured Petaluma Accelerated Charter School from 2015-18, a seventh- and eighth-grade program at McKinley that just saw its first cohort of students graduate from high school this year.
In an email to the Argus-Courier, parent Rebekah Kreutz praised Harris’s leadership of the program.
“Both my daughters went through the amazing PACS program, and my oldest is graduating high school this year, and attributes a lot of her high school success to her PACS foundation,” Kreutz said.
Joanna Paun, Petaluma City Schools Board of Education president, said no such turnaround is needed for the district as a whole, which she said is largely on the right track. Harris takes over for former Superintendent Gary Callahan, who retired after six years in the top role.
Paun said Harris is the right person at the right time.
“I’m looking forward to him helping us continue to push our board goals forward,” Paun said.
Among those goals is establishing a dual language immersion school in the coming years, and pushing forward with district diversity goals.
Harris, 44, has said he’s committed to making Petaluma City Schools a destination district, and a big part of that, he said, is offering choices.
He has also already started to build an administrative team with diverse experience and backgrounds, including hiring Tony Hua, of Gateway International Schools in Vietnam, as assistant superintendent of educational services and former Sonoma principal Esmerelda Sanchez Mosely as the district’s director of educational services.
But there’s more work to be done, Harris said.
“How do we ensure our workforce is representative of the student body – really make sure our staff are representative?” Harris said.
Harris and his team inherit a district still grappling with its response to the pandemic, including an unprecedented summer school effort ahead of what’s expected to be a full return to in-person learning in the fall.
Paun praised Harris’s recent hires, while also touting his strengths as an educator and a person.
“He’s just a really special person, a really special educator,” Paun said. “Heart of gold, cares about family, cares about people — I just cannot say enough good things about him.”
When he was first selected in early March, Harris said it was an honor to have this opportunity, at this moment. Now, Harris is thinking about the future.
“We need to all come together. We need to recover from this difficult year and a half – on many different levels,” he said. “It’s not about returning to the status quo. I’m excited about taking this as an opportunity – that we can reinvent ourselves as a school district to be better, more responsive and stronger. Here’s a moment. Let’s reimagine what is possible for our school, for our community.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story misspelled Superintendent Matthew Harris’ name.
Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.