Matthews represents Malibu in school district’s top circle

Mike Matthews has accepted the position of assistant superintendent of Human Resources and chief of staff for the SMMUSD.

Mike Matthews, former Malibu High principal, is bringing a rare Malibu voice to the superintendent’s office.

By Susan Reines/Special to The Malibu Times

A wave of shock rippled through Malibu when Mike Matthews, 11-year principal of Malibu High, announced last spring that he would be accepting the position of assistant superintendent of Human Resources and chief of staff for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. Some lamented, many congratulated, and a group of parents gave a rousing standing ovation when the Board of Education confirmed Matthews’ appointment in June.

Matthews is, after all, the man credited with developing Malibu High.

“Whatever Malibu High is today, it became that under his leadership. And what it is, is one of the outstanding high schools in the United States,” said Phil Cott, principal of Webster Elementary and a close friend of Matthews’.

“He created a high school. And I think in creating a high school he was able to turn a community completely around,” said Pat Cairns, recently retired principal of Juan Cabrillo Elementary and also a friend of Matthews. “He enabled kids to stay in our community and go to school.”

Matthews became Malibu High Principal in 1993, just as the school, which had formerly been only a junior high, was adding tenth grade.

Of all his accomplishments over the 11 years, Matthews said, “I think that one of the most exciting was just building the high school.”

He worked on hiring teachers and creating curriculums, and he watched as the first 96 graduates received diplomas in 1996.

Years earlier, in his first teaching position, Matthews had started the first Advanced Placement class at San Lorenzo High near East Bay, so he had experience fostering superior education programs. He made sure AP courses were a priority at Malibu High.

“We made that a cornerstone of the school,” he said.

Matthews taught Malibu High’s AP history course himself, and last year Newsweek Magazine ranked the school the 117th most challenging high school in the nation because more than 40 percent of juniors and seniors now participate in AP courses.

Matthews also oversaw implementation of Malibu High’s sports program, including constructing the track and pool, and was involved in forming the relationship with the Malibu Boys and Girls Club, which is now on Malibu High’s campus.

Like all administrators, Matthews faced challenges. This spring, the issues of drugs and alcohol exploded when students were caught intoxicated on a trip to New York and at the prom. Matthews found himself in the middle of a debate over whether students caught with drugs or alcohol should have to temporarily transfer to another high school, as has been the district’s policy, or if principals should determine each student’s punishment.

Though there was not time to address the issues of controlled substances and punishments before the school year, and his tenure as principal ended, Cott said Matthews’ career was characterized by willingness to take problems head on. “He always was just willing to say, ‘We’re going to do something. We’re not just going to sit back and be passive. We’re going to do our best,'” Cott said.

Drugs and alcohol will be lingering issues at Malibu High, of course, and Matthews said, “I think the school should do as much as they can to help out. I don’t think the school is the only answer. It’s about being vigilant.” But, he added, “The school needs to make it as easy as possible for kids to say no.”

This will be Matthews’ first superintendent position, although he has extensive administrative experience.

He grew up outside Little Rock, Ark. where he was student body president of his high school. After graduation, he attended Stanford University, planning to become a lawyer like his father until he “just fell in love with” teaching while volunteering for a tutoring program.

He earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in international education from Stanford, then taught for five years at San Lorenzo High near East Bay. During his last year at San Lorenzo he earned an administration credential from U.C. Berkley.

In 1990, Matthews took his first administrative position as assistant principal of Lodi High near Sacramento, then after a year and a half became assistant principal of Delta Sierra Middle School, also near Sacramento. In 1993 he took the job as Malibu High principal.

This summer, Matthews moved into his new office at the district headquarters, where he is giving Malibu rare representation in SMMUSD’s top echelon.

“I came into the district in 1974 and I can’t remember anyone from Malibu being in the superintendent’s office,” Cairns said. She said Matthews is “an exceptionally fair man and he would never put one group ahead of another. But he will bring in that Malibu perspective.”

Matthews said his new job is “basically everything related to employees in the district and supporting the superintendent to make the district function effectively.”

Dr. Mark Kelly, former associate principal of Santa Monica High, will take over as Malibu High principal.

Cott said he believed Kelly has the skills and experience to be an effective, successful leader at Malibu High.

“But,” he added, “Mike is an icon.”