Interview with Executive Director Dr. Jonathan Mathis
Conducted and Transcribed by Natalia Junchaya Diaz, Student
The Next Step PCS
1. What was your motivation for applying for the position of executive director of The Next Step?
I have always loved working in schools, and what is most important to me is creating conditions for the success of other people. I saw that The Next Step was interested in removing any obstacles or barriers to students in pursuit of education. That, to me, was probably one of the most important things that drew me to The Next Step. I learned a lot about the programs, the students, the goals and the accomplishments. All of that proved to me that this was my next step, to think about students’ success and college careers, and again—removing obstacles. The Next Step resembles a family. There is such a commitment to the success of everyone.
2. Tell me a little bit more about your job here. What are your duties?
As the executive director, I report to the board directors of the school. These are individuals who are working to ensure the success of the school, the management of all the financial resources, the success of the staff and what is really described as compliance. To make sure we are doing what we say we do on behalf of students’ education, students’ achievements, students’ safety. On a typical day for me, I may have meetings off-site with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education or the Deputy Mayor for Education on behalf of those issues that are most important for students. Then, I may meet with other adult education charter school leaders to talk about best practices. I may spend time at local colleges or universities trying to figure out how they might support our success. But ultimately, I am happy to be part of the management team here and working closely with the principals, the student support staff, the operations team to make sure that everything that is happening here is conducive to supporting student success. But I also like to stop by the child development center and see the kids who are here, the children of our students. I also meet with funders—people outside of our school who might be interested in supporting us. So not a single day is the same, which is very exciting.
3. What differences have you noticed between The Next Step and other places that you have worked?
The last two jobs that I had required me to travel, maybe three to four times a month. I was never in the office, and I had good relationships with my fellow staff members and colleagues but there was never the sense of family like there is here. So, that would be one of the major differences. In this role, I have such tremendous support and appreciation for every member of the community, whereas in other organizations I felt like there were people who were never really acknowledged for the great things that they did. So coming into a learning environment where people really care about each other and care about students and do whatever is necessary—that, to me, is so exciting. The other big difference is that we operate from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. four days a week. To see two teams of people come together and deliver a great educational experience is so refreshing. People are willing to go the extra mile to make sure the students are successful.
4. What are some of the challenges we as a school are facing right now?
I think across the city and around the country, we have to continuously think about not just the challenges within the building but what is happening outside of the building. So, when it comes to the safety of the school, the political climate around us—all those things are the external factors, the things that happen to the school just because we exist as a school. Any changes in budgets, any changes in funding from the government; we have to be aware of those things. But, challenges as a school, I think that we do a great job in identifying the resources necessary to help ensure that the students are successful. We know the challenges to help students accomplish their goals, that’s the challenge of all schools. But, I think we work towards that in a really intentional way, so I think we respond to the things that impact us outside of the school and how we have to think about all of the unique challenges that students bring with them to school. We are kind of in two worlds all the time.
5. In a perfect world, what changes would you like to see happening at The Next Step over the next five years?
In a perfect world—and this is not really a change, it’s more of an outcome—I would love to see students like yourself come back and encourage other students, and be an example for them. You being an example could mean you went on and got a great job and pursued college or graduate degrees and you created opportunities for students who were here as a pay-it-forward. The more alumni come back and share their success stories, the more it confirms the hard work that we do every day. In addition to that, I would love for The Next Step to be able to continue strengthening college and career opportunities, so that we can help students to accomplish their biggest goals and dreams, and do whatever is necessary to provide exposure to their biggest goals and dreams while they’re with us now.
6. Many of our students face a number of challenges in their personal lives. Have you ever struggled with something in your life? How did you overcome that?
I think we all have had struggles all throughout life. Part of my personal story, I come from a single-parent household where education was always very important and it was never a question about whether I was going to college. My mom always said, “Where are you going?” and “When are you leaving?” So, the day after I graduated from high school my mom was expecting me to go to college, to leave right then and there. So I went to college and I never could afford it so I had to figure out a way to pay for college and to do well. I worked two to three jobs while I was in college. It was just my mom who was able to support me but she couldn’t. We did not have money like that. There was a time when I almost got kicked out of school because I could not pay and I refused to give up. I refused to leave without my degree in hand. I understood that I had to advocate for myself, which is advice I would give to students. Find someone who is willing to be a champion for you, and share your story. I had to work hard to prove people wrong because there were some people who felt that I didn’t deserve the opportunities that I had because I couldn’t afford it, and that’s not a position that anybody should ever have to experience. I had great teachers and leaders who fought for me and now I am doing the same for others. I ended up graduating from college with a huge balance due on top of loans and they allowed me to finish my degree and now I give back to them. Now that I made it through school and I got two other degrees, I give back. So to me, the strategies would be: advocate for your needs, find good teachers and leaders who will help you to understand what to do, always give your best so that people will see that your work is excellent, because then they’ll fight for you too. And believe in yourself! Believe that you’re capable of doing anything. Sometimes, you just need to find the right person to be in your corner. Be willing to ask for help—that’s a hard thing.
7. Who or what inspired you to achieve your educational goals?
My mother always said to me, “I want more for you than I had for myself.” When it comes from a mom, a dad, an uncle, a grandparent, whoever, it just pushes you in a way that nothing else can. So, when I graduated from high school, my mom was crying. And then, when I graduated from my Master’s, I did not go to graduation. My mom was so mad at me. When I graduated from my Ph.D. my mom and I were both crying. My shoulder was wet! She was fine until she saw me in the graduation regalia, the cap and gown. She said, “I am so proud of you, you always said that this is something you wanted to do and you did it.” My mom graduated from college but she went through a program for first generation college students. My great-grandfather was an immigrant. My grandmother ended up having twelve kids, and she was a housekeeper for a funeral home. Of my aunts and uncles, only a few went to college. So, when my mom got her bachelor’s degree, that for her was enough because she was first in the family to go. It was hard and she always told me “I want more for you. I want you to do more. I want you to be more.” Because of her sacrifice I am who I am today and that’s why I push so hard for other people.
8. What are you passionate about?
Education! I have a goddaughter who is four years old. I look at her and I think about the next generation. In my office I have pictures of children at various points in their life. It just reminds me that I have to think about the next generation in everything that I do. So, education of the next generation. I am passionate about—outside of work—travel. I love arts and cultural events. This past fall, I went on a trip for about two weeks that left from California and went through Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, then back to Florida. Because I had not just given myself a chance to see the world in that way. I had traveled for work but not traveled to learn. I love time with my family, hosting brunch. I have a bunch of my friends over and then they won’t want to leave my place, stay all day, and so that family time is important, to have friends time is important. And I love New York City. I am passionate about going to see plays on Broadway, musicals, the arts as a whole.
9. What are two fun facts about yourself?
I love cologne. I have probably about forty bottles of cologne at home, which is crazy because there are not even that many days in a week (laughs). So how do I get to wear all that cologne? I just collect cologne. I’ve been wearing cologne since I was in the fourth grade. Another fun fact that a lot of people don’t know about me is that I love couture fashion and I actually learned how to sew from a private sewing instructor. I just wanted to do something different because learning is important. So when you think red carpet events, how some people wear the craziest outfits? That kind of fashion.
10. Finally, is there any advice you would like to give our Next Step students? Or an inspirational quote?
Some words of advice: Believe in yourself. Find a mentor. Write down your goals and work towards them every day. Don’t give up. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. And remember, I want more for you than I had for myself!
One of my favorite inspirational quotes: "Education is the only solid bridge you can rely on to transport you over your troubled waters. So, on that premise, I'll say to you: Use that bridge to get on the other side where you can stand up and be counted, thereby leaving your footsteps in the sand of time