Q&A with Superintendent Finalist Dr. Matthew Janger
March 11, 2021
With Bill Olsen’s Superintendency coming to an end, the school committee recently announced that Principal of Arlington High School Dr. Matthew Janger is one of the four final Superintendent candidates. The Ghostwriter had the opportunity to interview Dr. Janger for a holistic perspective on his goals and solutions to major issues in WPS. The questions asked were given to all the candidates for a fair representation.
The questions asked were given to all the candidates for a fair representation. These answers were cut down to include the highlights of each candidate’s responses.
For more information on the superintendent finalists, please visit the WPS website to check out virtual opportunities for the public to meet with each candidate.
Q: Tell us about yourself. What makes you passionate about education and how did you first get involved in this career path?
A: I’ve been interested in education since I was a Sunday School aide around [the age] 13 or 14 […] and then it’s just kind of been the direction I’ve been headed in. One way or another, I’ve always played a part in an educational role, and I love being part of the educational community. I’ve always loved working with students and [witnessing] the excitement they have for learning […]. [Students] ask much more challenging questions than some of my graduate school colleagues, which is why I love it so much. They were much more excited about learning rather than what the right answer were, so it’s always been my direction.
What I sort of realized fairly early in my career was that I was not only interested in communities, but also in creating a community in the classroom, and being able to create a far larger community in a school and in a town. That was something that really fascinated me and seemed really hard to do, and I’ve been studying and working on [creating a better town]. […] I want to make sure that we’re educating everybody and ensuring that everyone is a well-rounded person and that we can all learn from each other. Westford is the kind of place where you can go to football games, talk to the policemen, get to know other teachers and classmates, and celebrate.
Q: What inspired you to apply for this position?
A: I guess it’s truly the opportunity. Currently, [Arlington High School] is building a $290 million high school, which I played a huge part in designing, but I was really looking around for other opportunities and Westford is the kind of community where I think you can make such a positive difference and create such a great community. I felt that I was ready for the challenge of stepping up to the broader role of [district-wide leadership]. […] As an educator you don’t want people to stop where they are. So many people I’ve worked with have gone on to leadership roles, and I’m so sad that they leave, but really happy that we’re creating people who go on to new things which is what we ask our students to do. I feel like this is what I want to model, and I feel like if I can make that contribution, [then] I should take this step.
Q: What are your goals as superintendent if elected?
A: The first thing you want to do is get to know the community because all the [job] descriptions for superintendents say that they want a visionary leader, but the point is not to bring your own vision from outside but to articulate and embody the vision of that community. So, the first thing you do is spend a lot of time going around asking people, “What’s valuable about this community?”, “What do you care about this community?”, “What really matters to you so that what happens grows out of that view?”. […] In the first year, it’s really getting to know the community and figuring out what the priorities are […]. There are always things that are funny when you come from the outside that are so obviously fixable, and for some reason, it takes someone from the outside to fix, but there are many things that are the way they are for a reason.
Obviously this year, there’s going to be a lot of recovering and healing going on, going into September. We’ve all been isolated in weird ways due to COVID. There’s been a lot of conflict in society around social justice and politics, and I think finding a way that brings people back together to have conversations is key. […] So, I think bringing people back together, bringing people back to their feet, healing after COVID, figuring out what we missed and what we need to focus on, and then just getting to know the community really well are the priorities.
Q: What do you think are WPS’s biggest strengths and weaknesses?
A: First of all, from what I’ve seen and everyone I’ve talked to, everybody speaks very highly of the students. There’s something about a school where the students come and they care about learning and they’re interested in being in school and taking care of each other; that creates an environment [that] teachers want to teach in. So, the next thing people talk about is how great the teachers are. […] Arlington had a similar thing, when I came to hear how great the students and teachers were, I asked the old principal, “What was the key to your success?”, and he said, “Well, when you’ve got really great people, your job is to figure out what needs to get fixed and get out of the way. Let people do the good stuff they do.” That kind of advocacy and relationship is really hard to create and makes the job of the superintendent a lot easier because your job is to work on processes, norms, and technical things that bring everyone together to make it run smoothly and pick the directions […]. But, that’s much more exciting than the alternative where you’ve got good processes but nobody cares. If people are motivated and they care about each other, then you can really help make it better.
Q: How do you plan on making a smooth transition into the position if elected?
A: [I plan to make a smooth transition by] Asking a lot of questions and putting in a lot of hours. I don’t think there’s anything you can do other than that. You do your homework, then put in the time, then you find out who the people are that you can rely on no matter what you do. […] I’ve been a student of education, student of organizations, and I’ve been an educator for years, but this would be my first superintendency. Even if it wasn’t, you’re going to have to lean really hard on a team, the central office people, principals, and teachers to show you the way around. […] All schools look the same from a distance but when you get up close, they all have the things they do and they do it for a reason. So, you have to understand what role everybody’s playing and why they’re playing it […] before you start changing things because the informal networks are really where you get the power from. […] So, [wha ask a lot of questions, get to know the people, do my homework and work hard.
Q: What are your credentials and what makes you qualified for the position?
A: I attended college at Williams College and got a B.A. [Bachelor of Arts] degree in English. I became a teacher after that and taught at a special education program in Beverly, MA. There, I taught students with dyslexia and other language-based disabilities how to read. Then, I was briefly a dean at a private school in New Hampshire, and then I got my MBA [Master of Business Administration] degree from Yale. Interestingly enough, I was [still] interested in being an educator at that point, but I was really intrigued with what really rigorous organizational leadership education looked like. […] Then, I went and did educational research for both Washington D.C. and Michigan, got my master’s in education and my PhD at the University of Michigan. After that, I’ve been an elementary principal, high school principal, at two different schools, and an English teacher for about nine years.
Well first, I actually would start with my passion for teaching and how much I really care about doing this right. I’ve been in a lot of school districts and realized that the integrity and character of your central office are just as important as their technical capacity. At this point, I think I’ve been doing this long enough with enough passion, that I know I have the strength for what is the end of a pretty challenging job to keep doing the right thing all the time for the right reasons. If you look at my resume, I have diligently studied most quarters of education from special education to reading to different kinds of business degrees and I’m really trying to cover all the skills and build that skill set. So, with the combination of passion, integrity, and then technical skills, I can get the job done.
Q: How do you plan on dealing with Westford’s continued budget crisis?
A: Schools are always in a budget crisis because there’s always more need. This is not dissimilar to the budget crisis I had at my last job. […] I think you have to figure out what your priorities are because the first thing about the budget is always priorities, then it’s all about goals and values, then you have to think about your long-term strategic plan. The more clear you are on your strategic priorities, the more you can figure out where it is you’re going to be able to economize.
The next thing really has to do with looking at long-term trends so that every year, you’re not discovering the same problem. If you’ve got a shrinking budget and shrinking enrollments all the time, you really need to think ahead.
The last [thing], which is not unimportant, is finding ways to create revenues. […] I’ve filled holes using international students, which can really be a huge revenue producer, and there are also a lot of technical things you can do to use your money more effectively. For example, when I was in Maine, we had a $9 million budget for a small school. My first year, after the year had started in October, we were told by the state that they were significantly cutting school funding and so we had a half-million-dollar hole. […] Most importantly, we wanted to keep cuts away from students. We didn’t want to cut classrooms or programs. Also, we wanted to take care of teachers because it’s a real morale killer when everybody’s wondering every spring whether they’re going to lose their jobs. Teachers and educators work pretty hard to not always be wondering whether they’re going to become expended. What we did is we got better control over the spending, made people closer to understanding their budget choice, generated revenues, and were careful and strategic about contingencies. […] Without cutting any programs or teachers, we were able to restore that money and after the four years, we steadily allowed things to function in strategic ways that actually give taxpayers a pay cut a year for it, so I was pretty proud about that. Unfortunately, budgets are kind of a technical answer. The simple answer is to be strategic, keep the cuts away from kids, plan long-term, and find revenues. The complicated answer is [to] watch every nickel.
Q: How do you plan to move forward with the many changes COVID-19 has brought?
A: I think you have to be collaborative and strategic. Every community is different, and one of the challenges COVID-19 has brought is that there are a lot of policy conversations happening with people far away from where you are making pronouncements about what the community should be doing or should want to do. I think you need to look at your own community [and] focus on the actual students in front of you. We have to focus on the resources you have available.
[…] First, we have to focus on getting everybody back in school as quickly as possible. Second, making sure that everybody’s well, because our social and emotional learning is our priority. Nobody learns well if they’re stressed out or worried. More importantly, nobody learns well if they don’t think you care about them. So [I plan on moving forward] by getting back together as a community, then reviewing where there are areas of learning loss, […] and basically designing a core program.
There are a lot of things we’ve realized we really value and a lot of ways we can connect things that we used to think we needed to do that aren’t as important, [which] turned out to be real learning experiences […]. For example, in Arlington, we are likely to keep doing remote classes even if we don’t have to because some students who’d want to take part in internships during the year or have medical or mental health issues would really benefit from remote classes. This would allow them to stay connected to their other colleagues and students, and there’s no reason why we can’t run some of our classes remotely as an alternative. […] I think we need to figure out how to repair and heal, how to come back together again to make sure everybody’s safe, but I also think there are a lot of ways we can grow from this and take innovations from it.
Q: How do you plan to interact with students if granted the role?
A: Ideally, I will interact with students as much as possible. I love going to [sports] games, I expect to walk the halls of the schools as frequently as possible, and I sort of have the vision of driving in my car once a day, and working from my car as an office, so I can visit all the elementary and middle schools. […] I expect to create some sort of student leadership group. I find that having students involved in a lot of key decisions is incredibly powerful, particularly high school students who’ve been through the system […]. Student perspectives have a lot of passion and insight; [in Arlington] we have students who are involved in our Hiring Committees who look at curriculum review, and we’ve got a group of students called the Anti-Racism Group working right now with the administration to do everyday Anti-Racist activities. Right now, we’re working on our incident reporting systems where we’re working on how to ensure that kids can let the administration know when they’ve had really bad or minor bad things happen to them, so that we can build relationships and address things. I would continue to do all of those things.
Q: What’s something fun students should know about you?
A: This week, I built a hockey rink for the first time in my backyard, and ever since, I’ve become an ice gardener. I can also juggle and play the guitar. I’m also a mean skateboarder.