Vázquez Matos in stride as new Holyoke schools chief

  • ALBERTO VÁZQUEZ MATOS

  • Alberto Vázquez Matos, seen in his office Thursday, is the new receiver/superintendent for Holyoke Public Schools. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 7/25/2020 8:00:15 AM

HOLYOKE — New schools receiver/superintendent Alberto Vázquez Matos looked prepared and energetic earlier this month as he sat in front of his computer screen, communicating with Holyoke families over Facebook Live about the new school year.

One parent in the comment section, however, seemed frustrated.

“Porq siempre dan estas meeting en inglés?” the parent asked: “Why do they always do these meetings in English?” Vázquez Matos was prepared for that, too, as another audience member noted in the comments.

“Después el superintendente habla en español 5:45 p.m.,” the comment read. “Afterward the superintendent will speak in Spanish at 5:45 p.m.”

Vázquez Matos, who often refers to himself as “Dr. V.,” took over this month as the second state-appointed receiver/superintendent to lead Holyoke Public Schools after the state took over the district in 2015. And as a bilingual Latino administrator who was born in Puerto Rico and grew up attending an urban school district, he said he feels like the right person to lead a district where 80% of students identify as Hispanic, according to state education department figures.

“Latino superintendents are a very, very small percentage — they’re hard to find,” he said in a phone interview last week. “I’m excited to actually get to know the community more, and support them, and empower them to really understand that a public school system belongs to the community.”

Vázquez Matos, 45, was born in the town of Naranjito, located in Puerto Rico’s interior. His mother relocated the family — he is one of four children — to the Bronx in New York City when he was young, and it was there that he grew up and began his career in education.

“Mom was a big influencer in our lives, in the sense of knowing that education was a way to break the cycle of poverty for us growing up,” he said.

That personal background will inform his work in Holyoke, he said. As an English language learner in school, Vázquez Matos said that in graduate school he was always a minority in the classroom. He said he is proud to challenge people’s negative assumptions about English language learners and will continue to do so in Holyoke, where state data shows that English is not the first language of 40% of students.

“If anything, students who are biliterate, research has shown, actually can excel at a greater rate,” he said. “I built upon that and try to educate the community that this is not about assimilation, it’s about how do we enculturate and celebrate the diversity of our community.”

In 1998, Vázquez Matos started his first job as a Spanish teacher at a Catholic high school in Hicksville, New York. He quickly rose up the ranks in the world of Catholic education in New York before accepting the job of superintendent of schools for the Diocese of St. Petersburg in Florida in 2010, where he stayed until 2015.

Vázquez Matos made his mark in the diocese by introducing methods typical of public schools, such as centralized administration, strategic planning, professional development and benchmarks, according to reporting in the Tampa Bay Times. It was that work that landed Vázquez Matos his next job as chief of staff to the superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Florida — the eighth largest school district in the country.

During his three years as chief of staff, Vázquez Matos oversaw “dramatic spending cuts,” according to the Tampa Bay Times, as the new superintendent’s “point person” during a budget crisis that the new administration inherited. The Times reported that Vázquez Matos applied for the Hillsborough County superintendent position late last year, around the same time that he would have been applying for the Holyoke position.

After Florida, the next career stop for Vázquez Matos was in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was named deputy superintendent. There, he was again tasked with implementing budget cuts, including closing a $12.3 million deficit for next year’s budget amid uncertainty over the fiscal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Hartford Courant.

Vázquez Matos told the Gazette that the pandemic obviously poses difficulties in Holyoke, too.

“Do we need additional funding for students? Absolutely,” he said. ¨Because there are going to be challenges as it relates to programs and so forth if there is a pot reduction in revenue in the coming months. Hopefully there isn’t with the next wave of COVID stimulus dollars.”

If cuts were necessary, Vázquez Matos said he would draw on his previous experience dealing with school budgets.

“My approach has always been the most minimal disruption to schools and students, and that will continue to be my approach,” he said.

Vázquez Matos said that Hartford Public Schools Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez recommended that he apply for the job in Holyoke. The work he did in Hartford — advocating for equitable funding for a high-needs, urban district, for example — is similar to what he expects to face in Holyoke, he said.

“Looking at the demographics, they’re very similar — majority minority, a large Spanish-speaking community,” he said. “All of the lived experiences outside of school that I had, that I also observed in Hartford, that can influence positively or negatively the experience a student should have in their home city.”

As to whether Vázquez Matos will live in Holyoke, that’s still a question, he said.

“That’s a conversation right now with my other half,” he said, noting that such a move would be more difficult amid the pandemic. “It’s still up in the air, but it’s not ruled out.”

The new receiver/superintendent has already toured Holyoke’s neighborhoods, stopping into bodegas to introduce himself, and said he’s noticed a feeling of excitement around his appointment.

And school governance continues apace, though often digitally. On Monday evening, Vázquez Matos was already in the thick of a contentious issue at the city’s School Committee meeting, where many high school seniors and families voiced frustration over the decision, recently announced over social media, to hold a drive-thru graduation instead of the in-person celebration families had expected.

“I find it absolutely unprofessional that you constantly promised us so much,” one senior said in written comments to the School Committee. “The staff and administration got all of our hopes up of having graduation in August, and we have been looking forward to this just to find out, through an Instagram post, that it won’t even be held at our high school,” another student said.

Responding decisively to a crisis that fell into his lap, Vázquez Matos said he reached out to neighboring districts to talk about how they implemented their graduations. And by Wednesday, he had officially scrapped the drive-thru graduation, informing families in a letter that an in-person ceremony — with only students allowed on the high school athletic field, to follow Board of Health guidelines — would take place instead.

“We are proud and grateful to be the leaders of a school, a district, and a city, where our graduates and families are prepared to advocate for themselves and their community,” read the letter from Vázquez Matos, Morse and high school principal Stephen Mahoney.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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