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Anaheim Union superintendent aims to serve all students

Anaheim Union superintendent aims to serve all students
Anaheim high school student Abby Carreon, 17, meets with Supt. Michael Matsuda. Matsuda, whose mother was taken to an internment camp during WWII, is particularly concerned with the issue of homeless students. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

When community leaders gathered to welcome Michael Matsuda, the new superintendent decided to share the moment — and the limelight — with one of his students.

Abby Carreon, a 17-year-old homeless student who was beginning her senior year at Magnolia High School in Anaheim, shyly made her way to the microphone after Matsuda explained that the girl religiously made a 90-minute bus ride to get to class each day.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Anaheim superintendent: An article in the Sept. 15 LATExtra section about new Anaheim school Supt. Michael Matsuda misspelled the last name of former Anaheim High School Principal Paul Demaree, who was principal when Matsuda's mother attended the school, as Demaret.

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Matsuda, who took over as the Anaheim Union High School District's top educator last spring and began his first full year on the job this fall, had made sure the girl's father, mother and older sister were in the audience.

"We cannot forget that for everyone who's visible in our classes, there are those who may be invisible," he said.

Matsuda was an unexpected pick to lead a sprawling district of 31,000 students in central Orange County. He'd never served as a superintendent, never been a school principal, not even an assistant principal.

Most of his 21 years in Anaheim had been spent as a teacher, including stints in junior high school and as an honors English teacher at Oxford Academy, the district's prestigious college prep school. Several school trustees openly expressed concern about his lack of administrative experience when he was hired on a 3-2 vote.

But Matsuda did arrive with a special connection.

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As a high school freshman, Ruth Akiko Matsuda was forced out of the Anaheim school district after the attack on Pearl Harbor and ordered to report with her family to the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona, the largest of the U.S. internment camps.

The 14-year-old student was "shocked and embarrassed" by the abruptness of it all, too young to understand the full weight of what was happening but old enough to see that her life would be forever altered.

Years later, when Michael Matsuda was in charge of developing programs for beginning teachers in Anaheim, he tried to persuade his mother, who had raised five children, to return to school and earn her high school diploma.

"I'm an employee here," he told her. "I just don't feel right about you not having graduated. We need to make things right."

She finally relented, but with the condition that the district honor her former principal at Anaheim High School. Paul Demaret, she explained, had shown the courage to stand up at a school assembly and announce that he would not put up with any intolerance toward the district's Japanese American students.

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He also apologized on behalf of the country, writing letters to students at internment camps, encouraging them to continue their education.

"I am sorry this happened to you," Demaret wrote in a note to Ruth.

"'He showed us a lesson in unity,' " Matsuda said his now late-mother told him.

After the district held a ceremony for the former principal, Ruth Matsuda — at the age of 68 — went back to school.

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When Matsuda took over as superintendent, one of the first things he did was to arrange to have dinner with one of the district's homeless students.

There are 4,200 students in Anaheim Unified identified as being homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act, which ensures that students who don't have permanent addresses may continue to attend the same school — regardless of where their family lives.

The district, which fans across the county, includes boulevards filled with cheap motels that provide temporary shelter for families drifting in and out of homelessness.

Adela Cruz, who handles the district's outreach to homeless families, set up a dinner for her boss and Abby Carreon. Matsuda took the student and her family to a Pizza Hut in Anaheim, and then escorted them to the homeless shelter in downtown Santa Ana where they were staying.

"He's very comfortable around anyone," Cruz said.

Jan Billings, the district's former superintendent, said she wasn't surprised to see Matsuda reach out to youngsters on the edge.

"Mike is brilliant at bringing causes together," Billings said. "You'd be surprised at how many people he knows. And he knows what makes them tick. That's what it takes in this job — connecting."

Abby said she was shocked that the district's superintendent would take an interest in her. She said she told Matsuda how she would go to a library after school and work on a computer, and then take a bus to meet up with her family, wherever they were staying.

"He's a careful listener," she said.

Faith Takahashi, Abby's mother, said she never expected to have the opportunity to meet and talk with the superintendent.

"He was very direct. He's not offering sympathy," she said. "He's interested in how learning can improve."

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