New superintendent finds Rapp a natural fit

After three months of searching following the early departure in February of former Rappahannock County Public Schools superintendent Aldridge Boone for North Carolina, RCPS found its new superintendent in Donna O. Matthews.

On July 1, first-time superintendent Matthews will replace Kathleen Grove, the former Wakefield Country Day School head of school who agreed to take the job temporarily after Boone resigned preemptively, claiming the school board did not intend to renew a two-year contract that would have expired June 30.

New Rappahannock County Public Schools superintendent Donna Matthews (left) signs her contract May 21 at the school board office, while executive assistant Melbry Paratore and school board chairman John Lesinski beam. Matthews starts work July 1. Photo by Robin Bolt.
New Rappahannock County Public Schools superintendent Donna Matthews (left) signs her contract May 21 at the school board office, while executive assistant Melbry Paratore and school board chairman John Lesinski beam. Matthews starts work July 1. Photo by Robin Bolt.

Matthews has visited Rappahannock and the school system several times since accepting the job at the beginning of the month, in an effort to get to know the staff and programs she’ll soon be working with full time.

“You have to see where you’re at before you can see where you’re going,” Matthews said.

Matthews most recently served as division director of academic services for Buckingham County Public Schools, a school system roughly twice the size of Rappahannock’s 850- to 900-student division. In an interview last week, she said she already feels at home here.

“I’m originally from a small county in North Carolina,” Matthews said, adding that she chose Rappahannock because she wanted a county that felt close to home. “I remember it was a big deal when we got a stoplight!”

Matthews said she will be moving to Sperryville in a few weeks.

She attended East Carolina University and completed her four-year degree in just three years. “I was an education major from the day I stepped on campus,” Matthews said. Though she’s worked in education for 29 years, she started as a guidance counselor before serving 15 years in administration.

Matthews has also served as the division director of state assessments, technology coordination, and gifted and math instruction for Amelia County Public Schools, where she also served as principal of the elementary school. She was previously a principal for middle and primary schools in Nottoway County and a high school instructor in vocational education.

Of her first time as superintendent, Matthews’ admits it’s something “you’re never totally prepared [for],” but said she’s excited to get started.

“I’m very pleased to work so close with the school board . . . they’re a strong board and respectful leaders and you can’t get better than that,” Matthew said. “As long as we keep the kids at the center, the rest will fall into place.”

One of Matthews’ biggest responsibilities come July will be administering the 2013-2014 school budget, which was finalized at $12.47 million last week (see story, page 1) after the school board cut $145,000 from its initial budget at the supervisors’ request.

Matthews said she’s worked with budgets before and intends to work closely with both the elementary and high school principals, as well as the school board members, when deciding how best to distribute the system’s funds “and see where the emphasis goes.”

“Budgets are hard for every county,” Matthews adds.

Though control of this year’s budget is now out of her hands, Matthews said one of her goals for the future is to expand the current dual-enrollment opportunities at the high school, which allows high school students to take college-level courses at Lord Fairfax Community College.

Matthews also intends to focus on keeping up with the revised Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, which were redesigned earlier this year by the Virginia Department of Education in an effort to increase academic rigor. Rappahannock is currently one of 34 school divisions among the state’s 132 that already meets all of the VDOE’s new benchmarks for reading, math and graduation rates.

“This is the first cycle with the new SOLs, and that’s always a little bit of a challenge. But we’ve done very well so far,” Matthews said.

Aside from the “breathtaking views” Rappahannock offers, Matthews said she’s also been impressed with the community’s high level of parental involvement and, most of all, with the respect shown by all the students she’s observed.

“When you’re a stranger, it’s nice to take note of what’s going on,” Matthews said. “I really like to keep things open,” she continued, adding that she’s keen to keep in contact with the community’s parents.

“I’d like to give a big thank you to all the parents,” Matthews said, highlighting the many who chose to spoke at the county’s budget hearings. “It’s a process everyone should be involved in . . . [and] they seem to be very excited and energetic about the school system.”

During her visits, Matthews observed several sports’ practices and took careful note of how respectful the players were, to each other and to their coaches, as well as their strong work ethic. Matthews added that she was greeted by everyone she’s come across.

“I’ve been to a lot of school systems, and you can’t always say that,” Matthews said.