Faces Set Like Flint - An Interview with Matthew Watson
In this episode, Andrew interviews Matthew Watson, deputy superintendent for Aristoi Classical Academy in Katy and Cypress, Texas. Andrew and Matt discuss history and education, and Matt highlights the unique fundraising challenges of charter schools. As seasoned fundraisers, Andrew and Matt also discuss the importance of clear mission and messaging in recruitment of people and funds.
Matt began his career in education right out of college when he taught at a private Christian school in Oregon. After a year of teaching, Matt went back to grad school for history, and also to grad school for education. Upon finishing grad school, Matt went back to teach history and government at St. John XXIII, a private Catholic School in Katy, Texas.
Coming to Aristoi
During his time at St John XXIII, Matt learned about the benefits of a classical education, and his interest led him to Aristoi Classical Academy. Matt’s daughter entered kindergarten at Aristoi, and eventually, Matt joined the staff at Aristoi. Matt tasked with helping to grow the school past 8th grade, allowing students to stay at Aristoi all the way to 12th grade. After five years at Aristoi, Matt and his family moved to San Antonio so Matt could accept a leadership role at Atonement Catholic Academy. Though the Watson family enjoyed San Antonio, they missed their Aristoi community, and last year, Matt moved back to Katy and accepted his new role as deputy superintendent for Aristoi.
A Charter School Education
Andrew and Matt have a long conversation about charter schools, specifically those like Aristoi that offer a classical education. Matt explains the differences in funding and community between public schools and charter schools, and he shares that one of the largest challenges for charter schools is in obtaining and maintaining school facilities. Matt also explains what it means for Aristoi to offer a classical education, and he highlights how Aristoi encourages students to develop a passion for learning while becoming responsible citizens of virtuous character.
Charter School Uniqueness
Matt easily shares the ways that charter schools differ from public schools. Funding sources are different, the composition of the charter school’s student body is more geographically diverse, and charter schools have more freedom with mission and curriculum. Matt and Andrew discuss how these differences affect fundraising for a charter school, and Matt emphasizes the importance of clarity of mission and of relationship building.
- If you could fundraise for any organization or cause at any time in history, what would it be?
- I would raise funds in support of Abraham Lincoln’s second term. He’s one of my favorite figures in American history, and I would love to support him.
- Warren Buffett: I feel he would understand what we’re doing at Aristoi.
- I’ll be honest - I don’t know. I’ve always thought that money follows vision. If you have a clear, compelling vision that speaks to the deep needs of the time, you’ll have what you need to at least get started.
- I’d tell myself to remember that my first ministry is to my family.
- I’ll pick the three principals I’ve worked for: (1) Duane Stutzman at Southwest Christian School in Oregon, (2) Tim Petersen at St. John XXIII, and (3) Brenda Davidson at Aristoi.
- I’m a gardener, and I sometimes take it too far. I turned our suburban lots in Katy and San Antonio into farms.
- I have so many! Moby Dick, The Seven Storey Mountain, Rule of St. Benedict, Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford.
If you would like to connect with Matt, you can find his contact information on the Aristoi Classical Academy website at https://www.aristoiclassical.org/.
My first takeaway from my interview with Matt takes us back to one of my favorite subjects - the importance of a clear mission and messaging. We’ve been over this many times before, but Matt brought it up in conversation yet again when he talks about fundraising for Aristoi. Matt credits Aristoi’s success in fundraising to its strength of vision. As a charter school offering a classical education, Aristoi knows clearly why it exists as an alternative to traditional public education. Knowing the mission, however, is only half the battle. Once you have a clear mission, you have to be able to effectively communicate it. I said it during my interview with Matt, and I’ll say it again now - no good fundraising starts without a compelling vision and a clear message to share that vision. Thus, to all fundraisers who are listening to this podcast, I challenge you once again to review your mission and your message. If you find that you fumble in your messaging of your mission, work to fine tune your communication. The importance of clear and concise mission and messaging cannot be overstated.
During our chat, Matt also describes how he successfully shares Aristoi’s mission, and from this part of our conversation, I share my second takeaway. When Matt describes the challenges Aristoi faces as a charter school, one of the ones he mentions is the lack of a student body zoned to the Aristoi academies. Instead, Aristoi gathers students and funds from the community at-large, not a specific neighborhood. To be successful at recruiting students and funds, Matt and other leaders must rely on their relationship building skills to invite people in. As fundraisers, we know that relationships are key to our success. Donors prefer to give to organizations that care about them and encourage participation and engagement. By and large, we, as humans, are social creatures who are drawn to relationships and find joy in community. By building relationships with our donors, we gain friends AND we increase our fundraising success.
Finally, it’s rare that I find my takeaways in the lightning round, but my lightning round questions with Matt inspired more discussion than usual, and thus, I take my third takeaway from the lightning round. Again, I loved being able to chat with Matt about history and the benefits I’ve seen from my time as a history scholar. Could you tell how excited I was? In discussing history, however, I think we hit on a topic that can be very applicable for fundraisers - timelines. As I mentioned to Matt, I’m fascinated by timelines and the idea that, for every point in time, something has happened that led up to that. Individuals, past events, and cultural circumstances all come together at the table to affect how current events will play out. Everything is intertwined. We need to understand how this plays out in fundraising too - when we approach a donor or sit in on a donor meeting, there are so many more factors at play than just what is happening at that very moment. That donor has preconceived notions about what you do, they have previous positive and negative experiences with your organization and others, they might have relationships with other benefactors or program participants, and they have their own personal circumstances that affect their ability to give. All of that comes together to impact the donor’s response to you. Sometimes those outside forces on a donor’s timeline are more powerful than you realize, and as fundraisers, we really have to take time to pay attention to clues that donors give us about all of the factors affecting their ability to give.
00:58.53 aggierobison: Well, howdy everyone, and welcome back to another episode of the Petrus Development Show. I'm thrilled that you're with us here today. Today, I have Mr. Matthew Watson, Deputy Superintendent for Aristoy Classical Academy in Katy and Cypress, Texas. I've gotten to know Mr. Watson through some projects that we've been working on. We've been doing a feasibility study for them in '22, and it's just been a joy to be able to work with Matt and to work with, of course, the whole team over there at Aristoy—Brenna Davidson, Natalie Dejong, all the folks over there have been fantastic. But I thought I would have Mr. Watson come join us today to talk a little bit about charter schools, talk about classical education, talk about fundraising in general, but really just kind of an opportunity for you, the audience, to learn a little bit more about charter school education and you know some, probably some tidbits of information that you didn't know or you had misunderstandings about. We will hopefully clear up today. So with all that said, Matt, I thank you for joining me and for being part of the call.
02:03.48 Matt: Thank you, Andrew. I'm really excited about this.
02:07.50 aggierobison: Great. So, tell us a little bit about your background. How did you come to be the Deputy Superintendent of Aristoy Classical Academy?
02:18.10 Matt: Sure, well, the short version, and then you can ask me about anything that piqued your interest or that you think your audience might want to know more about. Ah, my first year out of college, I taught at the private Christian school that my wife and I graduated from. That's in Portland, Oregon, and just the best year of my life at that point. Um, I taught high school and just really, really found a vocation to teach and to mentor and coach and just that helping along of young people into adult life. Ah, as I was getting to the end of that year, you know, right or wrong, the way we look back on our decisions sometimes. Ah, in my youthful ambition, I thought, well, this is great, and I didn't understand at that point, I think, how great that was and how great it would have been to just camp out at a school long term and just grow with it. But, ah, for better or worse, and it's turned out better, I think. I decided I needed to go to graduate school and study history, which I had majored in as an undergraduate. So I made this decision in the spring and looked around for programs that were still open and.
03:49.28 Matt: Knowing that I wanted to study early American history, I went off to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to do that and had, ah, had a great time there, a real continued intellectual awakening after my undergraduate years. Ah, but as I was contemplating in that graduate program becoming a professor like those professors that I TA'd for, ah, I kept remembering that year teaching high schoolers and the relationship I was able to have with them, the way.
04:19.47 aggierobison: A-a-a.
04:27.66 Matt: I put it is that while you're in high school, you can still say to a young person, "You can do, you can be whatever you want, whatever you can dream up." But you get to college, and in kind of the great sorting begins, and people are kind of sorted into their potential in many ways, and there's more distance. There's less community, even in a vibrant college classroom, than you can have when you're working in a school community K through 12.
04:52.62 aggierobison: Um, yeah.
05:05.87 Matt: So, with that in mind and coming to the end of my master's program at UMass Amherst, instead of pursuing doctorate programs in history, as long as we're in New England, and we had family reasons for wanting to stay in England a little longer, I applied to all the graduate schools of education that were kind of the top names in the education field on the East Coast and on the West Coast as well, and got into Harvard Graduate School of Education. And, you know, couldn't pass up going to the school that so many of my favorite people in American history had passed through in their various educational journeys, and so we went there and pursued a Master of Education. Now, at this time, you know, I was married, I had two young children, so you know, all this 5-year sojourn in New England, there's a lot of scrapping. So, I did things like work in college. Ah, what would you call it? Like, not a snack bar. What's a step up from a snack bar? Get the student union, maybe, kind of thing.
06:32.75 aggierobison: Oh gosh. Um, yeah, yeah, yeah, um, I don't know, gift shop? Not gift shop. What? Oh yeah, a cafe. We'll go with that, yeah.
06:40.90 Matt: Cafe, the student union. I don't think they call it that, but I worked there at Amherst College, you know, with a hairnet and everything. I was on a hardwood floor crew. Hardwood floors are huge in New England, and refinished and reinstalled.
06:46.52 aggierobison: Heh.
06:53.63 aggierobison: Okay.
07:01.65 Matt: Hardwoods in a lot of historic homes and buildings during that time. Probably some other thing. Oh, worked at a hotel and studied at night for a while. So, kind of a great American adventure through there, and then went to Harvard.
07:02.91 aggierobison: Nice.
07:13.38 aggierobison: Eh.
07:19.72 Matt: And I, this was I graduated from Harvard in 2009, and I had it in my mind that I was going to work at a public school in a big ISD, probably in an urban area, because that's kind of the prevailing vision.
07:32.66 aggierobison: A.
07:39.60 Matt: In those elite Eds, ironically perhaps, but the prevailing vision in those elite Ed schools that the real thing to do is to go and work in an urban school district, and there are a lot of noble thoughts behind that.
07:50.57 aggierobison: Interesting.
07:57.64 Matt: And I applied for those, and at a time when a lot of the big districts were laying off teachers in that great recession time frame, and it, and I started as well applying to Catholic schools. Ah, I was Catholic. I'd actually converted while in New England. And so this was something I was just beginning to be open to, and the one job I got, and I can say this now, I don't have to pad this, ah, one job I was offered was here in the Houston area of Texas, St. John the 23rd, although is...
08:32.35 aggierobison: If...
08:34.89 Matt: John, at that time St. John the 23rd in Katy, Texas, to teach history. And so we moved down here, and I taught history, government, and economics. This was a high school. And eventually, I became department chair, Dean of houses. So we started a house system while I was there that is still a part of their student life program. And I think it was really at this time I was in love with teaching.
09:08.91 aggierobison: Yeah.
09:10.77 Matt: And that brought me to graduate school. I was in love with history, with ideas, with literature. Ah, and that got me to graduate school. Ah, but as I was at St. John the 23rd, and under a great principal there, Tim Peterson, he gave me opportunities to lead.
09:30.77 Matt: I don't know how much that was based on potential or just based on, "Oh, this young guy thinks he knows everything, fears what the next step is here or there." Ah, let's give him a chance. So he gave me opportunities, and I'd say it was there at St. John that I really began to think of myself as an educational leader and seek to grow in that. Another thing that happened during that time, there were a number of us who were young men in the same age cohort. We all just...
10:11.36 Matt: Coincidentally had graduated high school in '99, and so there were like five of us, and we were looking at the curriculum of St. John, this Catholic preparatory school, and becoming aware, and most of them were much more aware than I was, of the Catholic intellectual and artistic tradition. Um, the arts tradition and literary tradition of Christendom, and recognizing that that's not what was driving our curriculum.
10:33.56 aggierobison: A.
10:46.64 Matt: It was luminaries like the College Board or Texas Education Agency, and of course, when you're young and you think you've hit on something, and you think God's on your side, you know, look out.
10:49.91 aggierobison Yeah, yeah.
11:06.50 Matt Though we were really advocating for a more liberal arts turn in the education there and accomplishing that individually in our classes in many ways, we were admiring emerging charter classical charter networks like Great Hearts in Arizona. We got a hold of their curriculum synopsis and were just blown away that a publicly funded school was doing this, while a Catholic school was not, at least on a programmatic level. So, becoming aware of that, I also became aware, ah, first as a parent, of Aristoi Classical Academy that's here in Katy. Ah, my daughter ended up going there when we were looking for kindergarten, and she started her schooling there. But it only went through eighth grade, and, um, there I didn't see myself teaching there and their openings to lead. But then...
12:20.17 Matt Somehow, and I forget exactly how I came across it, but I found an ad that they were looking for an assistant headmaster to build their school into the high school years, to take it from K-8 to K-12. So, I saw that and instantly knew that's what I needed to do. It was the next step as a leader in schools, but also this was a movement, and this was a school that was actually even closer to my house than my Catholic school, and I would have the opportunity to immerse in this movement. And going into it, my plan was, "Okay, about 5 years, and I'll take what I learned, and I'll take it back to Catholic schools." So, I went in with that. Ah, Brenda Davidson was the headmaster at that point, and she was kind enough to bring me on, and the years I was there, I learned a lot from her, and we were able to be successful in building a K-12 school, having a couple of graduating classes, and building enrollment year upon year. And in doing that, in the midst of a destination school district, Katy ISD, people moved to this area to send their kids to Katy ISD, and...
13:55.94 Matt We were putting out portable buildings in a field and saying, "No, no, no, this is what you need to do." Ah, meanwhile, there's like a $60,000,000 football stadium going up right down the street, but we're planting our flag for classical liberal arts education.
13:59.66 aggierobison Yeah.
14:14.61 Matt And there was a response, and we also, and this is critical, were able to bring on board some really great teachers, many of whom are still here, who were attracted to the role of the teacher at a classical liberal arts school. Because you're not just following a binder and parroting the truisms of the day, you're really required to be a master of your subject and to draw your students into apprenticeship in that subject. And so, I think we've been able to punch above our weight in the quality of teachers we got over those years. But as my 5 years was coming up, and I was a few semesters into my doctorate in educational leadership, and kind of remembering that commitment to Catholic education, I was open, and I was contacted by a school in San Antonio, the Atonement Catholic Academy. They had been through... They were about to, the next year, celebrate their 25th anniversary, and had been through a number of headmasters over the years, and enrollment was in free fall.
15:48.73 Matt And help them turn that around over the course of 3 years. Ultimately, I don't know how serious the commitment to classical liberal arts was there, and you know, I work with a lot of Catholic schools, so I want to tread lightly. Ultimately, they wanted to go to a president-principal model. The priest, when he asked me to come, wanted nothing to do with the school, and then as it turned around, he lobbied—I mean...
16:09.16 aggierobison A.
16:27.68 Matt From what I understand, behind the scenes, he lobbied the bishop to be in that president role, and I was not as convenient anymore. But you know, it's funny. During our time in San Antonio, which is a beautiful city and right near the hill country, and I know you and I both like to hike and camp, and you know, there are no 14,000-foot peaks in the hill country. You know, we can admit that, but...
16:49.80 aggierobison Hey.
16:58.71 aggierobison Ah, right.
17:02.69 Matt If you're going to live in Texas, it's nice to live near that and be able to just get out there pretty easily, and you can just be out of cell range, have a little elevation to work with, and we really, really like that. But you know, during our years there, we...
17:09.65 aggierobison Nip.
17:20.92 Matt We just kind of chalked it up to one of the sacrifices one makes in following God's leading that we had to give up Aristoi and we had to give up Katy. Again, this is our interpretation. We may all find out someday just how misled the Watsons...
17:31.80 aggierobison Um, yeah.
17:40.92 Matt Have been at various points, and particularly Mr. Watson, but so we're there, and it's just, you know, life starts to seem short once you get about midway through, and it's just like, well... Yeah, we didn't realize what we had, but it's just one of those things that we will... Um, we will get returned to us one way or another as we are faithful to what we need to do right now and when...
18:00.50 aggierobison Yeah, yeah.
18:14.87 Matt So Brenda has stayed in touch over those 3 years, and Brenda, she always has plans. She always has plans, and a lot of them have come to fruition, and some of them, you know, maybe in a year or two, we're gonna see some surprises, but ah...
18:24.27 aggierobison Up. So yep.
18:34.51 Matt She often has plans for the people around her, and so she would say to me that she thinks we have this role or that role at Aristoi, and like, you know, Brenda, that sounds really good, and I would probably be happier.
18:51.76 Matt: Doing that, but I need to be faithful to this for now. If I feel released at some point, you're my first call. Ah, so in the spring of this past year, she started talking seriously about needing a.
18:52.39 aggierobison: Yeah.
19:09.63 Matt: Ah, deputy superintendent. And just as we now have three campuses, we're looking at a fourth potentially this fall or the next. The board is laying out plans for multiple campuses over the next ten years. Ah, you know, there wasn't a need for that, and I love the strategic architectural thinking about waging a campaign that way and finding the people who are gonna love carrying out the different parts of a push.
19:33.61 aggierobison: E.
19:47.18 Matt: Like that strategic push. Unexpectedly, we were able to come back in July and rejoin this movement. And I'll tell you, since being back, I just feel more momentum than ever around here. People are excited about what the future holds.
20:20.86 aggierobison: That's awesome. Well, there are a lot of points in that story. The one point I'll make is in 2009 at, I guess, as Pope John the twenty-third, you must have worked with Keith Myers then as the, yeah, so Keith is a good friend of mine. We still stay in touch, and I took his job. That was my first job at St. Mary's, a Texas A&M. I took his job for him to leave and go to John the twenty-third in Katy, and we've stayed in touch, you know, ah.
20:34.44 Matt: Um, oh yeah.
20:38.10 aggierobison: Good to meet a friend, and it's always good to meet a friend of Keith, so it's good that you guys.
20:57.23 Matt: Yes, and I need to go find him. I emailed him, but I think it was an old email address. I just need to call him at the school or something. But yeah, he was great.
21:05.28 aggierobison: Yeah, yeah. So now you're back at Aristoi Classical Academy, and you're talking about growth, talking about visioning. As part of that, there will be fundraising, right? But in most people's minds that are listening, fundraising for a private school or a Catholic school makes sense, right? Because they're tuition-funded and sponsor and donation-funded. Public schools, on the other hand, are state-funded and then receive federal funding as well. But charter schools are a unique blend somewhere in the middle. So can you explain to our audience what a charter school means and then what the financial model of a charter school is?
21:59.45 Matt: Sure. Ah, most simply, a charter school is an entity that acts as its own district. So it may have one school, it may have ten. Those schools may be in one zip code.
22:16.89 Matt Schools may be across the state. But as an organization, it gets its permission or charter to operate schools with public monies directly from the state. So in Texas, that program has been around via legislation since the 1990s. In fact, Aristoi was one of the first charter schools founded. Now, the financial model has become more complex over the years, and charter schools have made gains.
22:39.88 aggierobison Well...
22:49.87 aggierobison Gosh.
22:54.30 Matt Public schools get their funds in a couple of ways, the primary way being for every student enrolled and every day that student attends, they receive money from the state. In each legislative session, the amount per year that a student would receive for attending all days of the year is revisited by the legislature. Now, charter schools receive that money, as do public ISD schools. What's different about the charters? Lots of things. But when it comes to finances, the main difference is that we receive very little in the way of facilities funding. We end up getting, I think it's down to like a hundred something dollars per student for facilities. And if you can imagine how expensive it's becoming to even hire and compensate teachers, that ends up being very little. The difference when it comes to public ISD schools is that they have the ability to raise additional funds through property taxes and other initiatives. They can put initiatives on the ballot and secure tens or hundreds of millions of dollars for building new schools or improving facilities. I don't resent or begrudge them for that, as they have a significant number of students and it's a challenging task.
24:50.70 aggierobison Right.
24:57.12 aggierobison Begrudge them.
25:01.85 aggierobison Um, yeah.
25:02.20 Matt Charter schools, on the other hand, have more flexibility and freedom in terms of curriculum and mission. However, we are largely on our own when it comes to facilities with the per pupil funding we receive. We often have to find leasing possibilities, but that's not a long-term solution. It's like renting a house instead of owning it. Charter schools need an influx of capital to own their own facilities, which would be more than just portable buildings.
25:53.93 aggierobison Right.
25:57.84 Matt That's the challenge we face in charter schools. We need capital to overcome that hurdle and have ownership of our own facilities, which would be more suitable for our needs.
26:17.64 Matt Very basic metal buildings. So that's where we begin to turn to fundraising and advancement activities.
26:26.21 aggierobison That's really helpful because I've actually never thought about it in that way. The way that you said that charter schools operate as their own district, right? So that gives them the flexibility, like you're saying, the ability to be nimble and to really zero in on, this is our... I want to say style of education because that sounds a little bit too simplistic, but this is how we are going to educate the students that are within our district, and this is... you exactly?
26:56.55 Matt Yeah, like a charism for a Catholic school that it's actually meaningful to what we do because we don't have, you know, 100,000 students.
27:06.28 aggierobison Right. So as a sort of proof of that, aristoy teaches a classical style of education. Just to explain to our listeners, what that means, what is classical education?
27:18.57 Matt Okay, so I'll try to keep it simple. The most basic way that I could say it is we try to step in as participants into Western civilization's tradition of education. So any time for the last 2 or 3,000 years if you were a person of means, how would you educate children in Western civilization? How would you arrange for them to be educated, whether it was hiring Aristotle or sending them to a cathedral school or a British prep school or an American prep school? It would be in that tradition of the classical liberal arts, which we're trying to live out as a community and draw students into as well, that way of life.
28:20.58 aggierobison Yeah, I think that's really great. I saw something on a blog or on Twitter, but they were talking about how a lot of public education today is really about teaching students a skill or a trade that they can then be successful in life. Whereas classical education is a finer, dialed-in approach to teaching them how to be full of wonder and how to be more exploratory in their education and how they learn, so that wherever direction they feel called to go, they have the ability to not even just critically think, but to wonder and to be open to possibilities that they can develop skills in later in life.
29:15.28 Matt Yeah, that's a great way to put it. So many modern approaches to education, it's a scripted life that they're envisioning, whereas a liberal arts education, "liberal" meaning free, the education worthy of a free man. Historically, that meant an aristocratic man, a man who would rule, a man who had the means not to have to labor for his daily bread, but to pursue questions of truth and justice and have the means not to be easily swayed by whether the outcome of a given question would affect him one way or another.
29:32.71 aggierobison Wow, that was a loud blast of thunder. You okay there?
30:12.48 Matt Yes, yes, yes, it's probably already hit you. Yeah.
30:22.58 aggierobison And then just kind of one final example is that um, aristoy in your mission. Your mission is to develop a passion for learning that gives them the means to become responsible citizens of virtuous character, right? Which is, as you're saying, a smaller school district that can select and define your mission as you see it without the constraints or restraints of, you know, 50 years or 75 years of history and this is how we've always done it, and we have, you know, thousands of schools, students, and thousands of teachers. You can really kind of zero in on that as your mission, and what a successful outcome of a student that goes through your school is, that they are responsible citizens of virtuous character, which I think is fantastic.
31:07.87 Matt Right? We make that character issue front and center. We are not only training the mind, but we're also attempting to win the heart for these things.
31:26.36 aggierobison Yeah, so when you were with John the twenty-third prep and then with atonement. Um, I imagine with John the twenty-third your exposure to fundraising may have been a little bit more limited just because you were more involved in the teaching. But you said your principal was engaging you in some roles potentially at atonement as head of school you had more exposure to fundraising. Now at aristoy, especially with some of the plans from the school and from the board of growth and knowing now that facilities are not something that the state or the educational system will help to fund. How do you see fundraising as being both, I guess, similar to what you were part of at these other Catholic schools and then also uniquely different as a public charter school in the Houston area, I guess.
32:23.56 Matt Wow. Okay, that's a great question. I think often, you and I as practicing Catholics, we know there's a Catholic world and ah, I think sometimes when there's a Catholic school, that's enough for many people, their parents, their grandparents supported the Catholic school, and when I get to a place of adulthood and financial stability, my kids are gone and I'm supporting it, and it's not only a good thing and something I'm in favor of, but there's, in those circles, there's a social currency to it. We all understand what we're doing and why we're doing it. Um, and often, you know, unlike the early days of the...
33:09.37 aggierobison Right.
33:17.59 Matt Parochial schools when to be Catholic was probably to be impoverished. Catholics are more mainstream now, and they've reaped the benefits of their education system, and those who are continuing to send their kids are often people of means. Because it's not a light commitment. Um, and of course, especially knowing your work, I'm not saying this makes it easy and takes care of itself. But just from sitting over in this vantage, that's something I see.
33:47.35 aggierobison Right.
33:56.70 Matt Whereas you come in and you're a charter school and you're classical, and no one is zoned to you, and there are all these things that kind of make you this interloper. And so what I find is, it's really about building relationships and being very clear about what you're doing because when you are a publicly funded school, every week it seems like there's a grant or an initiative.
34:19.99 aggierobison Yeah.
34:35.42 Matt Or there's some kind of pull from state or federal education agencies that we're beholden to, that is trying to draw us in a direction that they see as good and probably is good. But all these things taken in aggregate just start to really dilute the mission. So I see our challenge really as relationships and being faces set like flint on our mission, without the thing becoming stale. As far as our constituency, one of the things that drew me, I think I emphasized the thinking of that educational purist when I told it before, but one of the things that drew me to Aristoy as well was I could tell anyone I ran into at the grocery store or walking in my modest, you know, teacher salary neighborhood, I could say, "Hey, you should consider sending your kids to Aristoy." And they could be in the next day and not a single dollar traded hands, and I wouldn't have invited them because I knew the education they'd be getting would be superior to anything around and would, as I said before, be seeking to win the heart for truth, goodness, and beauty.
36:09.15 Matt Ah, of that child, and I loved being able to offer that to my community that I loved. What that means is there's a beautiful and I think true diversity at charter schools. So since there's not this really pigeonhole zoning, not everyone's coming from the same neighborhood, people are drawn by the mission, and you will see that most clearly in like morning carpool because we don't have a bus system. Parents have to make a commitment and a sacrifice to go out of their way, drive their kids on the way to work before their day starts and get them here. It's a choice and a sacrifice, but they drive through, and you see all manner of cars, some that are barely running, some that are $200,000 cars, but it's because they're all drawn to this mission. And so you have a true diversity that I think is probably what people are talking about at its best when they're looking for diversity because we all come together not around celebrating each other's differences, but around celebrating what draws us together.
37:29.14 aggierobison Yeah, I think that's um, you know, so we started asking about how fundraising is different and similar, but those are true aspects that are both challenges for a charter school and opportunities as well.
37:45.17 Matt Hmm.
37:47.15 aggierobison Um, and we didn't talk about it yet, but you mentioned one out in, I believe, Arizona from a curriculum standpoint. But I'm curious. Maybe you could share with our listeners, what are some of the charter school districts or networks that have managed to figure out fundraising really well and have been successful? Maybe they would say, "I didn't even realize that was a charter school" or "I didn't realize that was a free school" just because of the success that they've seen. That someday we are hoping Aristoy would be part of that list.
38:18.99 Matt Hmm.
38:26.51 aggierobison But who is on that list right now?
38:29.31 Matt So, I mean, there are a lot of national groups, and I am going to just distinguish between two groups. We've all heard of like KIPP Academies, YES Prep, IDEA Schools, Harmony Schools, and what these schools will often do is they'll go into a failing district, near failing schools, and they'll provide those parents, those families with that... And failing could mean everything from "Oh, the state doesn't like their test scores" to "It is literally not safe and it's degrading to be in those schools." And they'll go into those spaces and they will offer an alternative that is disciplined, that is focused.
39:04.26 aggierobison Yeah.
39:22.63 Matt And well run to those parents, and where there's a name brand, so they know what they're getting, and there's success that can be pointed to. You know, in the case of like KIPP all over the country.
39:34.19 aggierobison Um, and they're free to the end user as long as there is a slot available, right?
39:41.60 Matt Exactly. So, charter schools, what has tended to be a little different about charter schools, and I think the gold standard to date is Great Hearts. I was just talking to someone there. I think they're up to 40 schools across several states. They started in Arizona, they're in Texas, they're in Florida, so quite a network. But classical charter schools will often not shy away from middle-class areas.
40:19.38 Matt Whereas you come in, and you're a charter school, and you're classical, and, you know, no one is zoned to you, and there are all these things that kind of make you this interloper. And so what I find is it's really about building relationships and being very clear about what you're doing because when you are a publicly funded school, every week it seems like there's a grant or there's an initiative.
40:36.76 aggierobison I.e., meaning not a failing school district, right?
40:55.49 Matt Or there's going to be actual education going on. It's the kind of education and it's what the child is being educated for, and it's the vision of what it means to be human that is explicit rather than, you know, tacitly dictated by the quote-unquote twenty-first-century economy or whatever other catchphrase drifts through in a given decade. So it's a different model, but those schools have been incredibly successful because many parents realize they're not just sending their kids to school to be safe, to pass certain tests, and to get a college acceptance. But that those formative years are years of forming the soul so that their child is becoming the 40-year-old who will visit them at Christmas or not and who will raise their grandchildren. That person is being formed in those years, those years of K through 12 school. And so I think savvy parents want to be very clear and want to be very transparent: Well, what is the angle? What does it mean to be human in your school system, and how do you get there, and what traditions are you drawn on, and who are the authorities? Who are the lights that are guiding you? And that's, I think, the space that classical charter schools come into. That's a little bit different than these other successful and laudatory charter networks that have come into.
42:29.41 Matt Yeah, and I think, especially, you know, in kind of the years, you know, it seems like it's been, you know, the focus on it has been magnified. You know, no pun intended. But, you know, 2020 to 2022, just with parents being made aware of some of what is being taught in public schools, right? And feeling like there's more of a chance and an opportunity to stand up and to challenge those teachings and not always having those challenges being responded to with any sort of fundamental or institutional changes, right? And so then, to your point, well, if I'm not happy with the public school system, even though it's a great system, it's safe for my kids there, you know, I don't have to have the worries that I would have in another school district, I'm still not thrilled with the education and the style, so that's where I'm going to make a change for the benefit of my family, my kids, and then, you know, their generations ahead. And that's where a charter school would become much more appealing as an option. And now, as more have grown and these networks are growing, and, you know, like you said, Aristoi has three campuses now with plans to add many more, there's just more options out there, right?
43:55.50 Matt Yes, and I mean, I just realized I didn't answer your question because you asked about how does that affect or how they've been successful fundraising. So exactly, and I'm not an expert on Great Heart, but I know that they've had corporate partners and individual individuals of means who from the beginning wanted a project like that to be successful, and success has begot success. So I think...
44:17.98 aggierobison A.
44:31.21 aggierobison And just like you said, the charter schools are not afraid to say this is the line in the sand that we're drawing, and we're going to teach those donors, the companies, or the individuals, who have said, "I'm not afraid either." But that's a kind of a bold move for.
44:33.98 Matt We, we.
44:49.81 aggierobison You have to really make, as a fundraiser, you have to really develop those relationships, cultivate that, and then give them the space to be able to make a gift like that and feel honored that they are contributing to the work that they feel called to.
44:55.60 Matt Um, yeah.
45:04.00 Matt Well, exactly, and I think I can't speak from experience about that, as is, I think Aristoy did not begin that way. It was more grassroots, and so it's pushed along through passion and the generosity of many, but we, to date, have not had those partners that have allowed us to say, you know what, we're gonna go into this area and, ah, to help us make the case.
45:40.24 aggierobison Um, yeah.
45:43.26 Matt Help us communicate what it is we're up to. We are going to build a school that reflects those values, and when you walk in, you see classic art, you see simplicity. You see classrooms that are not huddled around stacks of iPads but are oriented either toward the teacher or in a Socratic circle. You know, it'd be really nice to be able to go into communities and be able to signal through architecture how we're doing something different. So that's one of my hopes as we embark on the next level of seeking that support.
46:32.37 aggierobison Yeah, well, I think that, you know, nothing, no good fundraising starts without a compelling vision and then a clear message that is sharing that vision with the people that need to hear it and that will ultimately be the supporters. So I think that as you and the rest of the Aristoy team continue to develop that clear vision and the messaging around it, I think that donors will be very interested and very keen to support it just because, right, there are so many things in the world that are much less clear and there's much less clear benefit to society and to the end user, you know, to some extent, and beyond them than what you're doing there with charter classical education. And I think that I'm excited to see where it goes and how people come on board to join a mission with you.
47:42.97 Matt Yeah, but it sounds like we're going to see that together.
47:48.31 aggierobison Great, good. Well, um, Mr. Watson, I appreciate your taking the time and shining some light on what charter schools are and what some of the fundraising challenges and opportunities are around it. I think this has been a really interesting conversation for a lot of our listeners who probably have very little understanding of charter schools and how that works, and it has been very helpful. I think we'll put a pin in Episode 2 for down the road when we can come back and talk about how some of these ideas that we're discussing now have come to fruition through your work and the work of the team. So I'm excited about that. Great! Now, what do you say we answer our lightning round questions? Okay, this is where the questioning gets really difficult. Trust me.
48:32.60 Matt Ready to go.
48:37.57 Matt Sounds good.
48:46.20 aggierobison And especially for a history major like yourself, you could go a million different directions here, as I know. All right, question number 1 in the lightning round: If you could fundraise for any organization or cause at any point in history, what would it be?
48:48.23 Matt Hmm, let me think. Yes.
49:00.87 Matt How about Abraham Lincoln's second term?
49:07.40 aggierobison Oh wow, yeah, there you go, because at that point was he a shoo-in for that second term or was there still some work that had to be done?
49:18.64 Matt He, you know, if you look at the broad sweeps, he had to have been a shoo-in, but the more you look at it, he just had opposition all the way through. You know, a battle would go one way, okay, it's looking good, a battle goes another way, ah. And I just, he's probably my favorite figure in American history. So I would love to support him. Or, if we were operating a little before the Civil War, I'd be interested in what kind of projects Henry David Thoreau had or maybe helping John Henry Newman found his university that he didn't get to see through.
50:04.66 aggierobison That's awesome. You've got a great list there. One of my favorite books is "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I love that book and just ah, love how he—
50:10.99 Matt Entered later.
50:20.26 aggierobison You know, kind of going back to this you know conviction of mission. Um, how Lincoln never and never let the threat of getting in this case, you know his rivals and people that were equipped to advance the mission of the country in the usa at that time. Um, never well. He probably did feel threatened and yet powered through it and um, you know was able to assemble a team of rivals that ah really was what the country needed at the time and he as the leader was able to manage them so I've always loved that book.
50:54.87 Matt Well in in the thing that the amazing and and daunting humbling thing is not only were they rivals who in many cases wanted his job and in 1 way or another had not gotten it. But that over their time of working with him almost to a man. They came to the conclusion that he was the greatest man they'd ever know you know this person who on a personal ambition level. They wanted to destroy. You know they came around and they just had to they had to recognize like he he is on another level and I was lucky to serve him.
51:37.78 aggierobison Have you listened to the podcast series eighteen sixty five but it's part of the wondery series. So it's it's amazing. It's a scripted show and it's around I don't know 10 episodes but it picks up the the whole show starts the night of his assassination and it really follows.
51:43.15 Matt Now.
51:56.10 Matt Um, so um.
51:57.90 aggierobison Ah, Edward Stanton and Seward and Stanton is kind of the key character but it follows kind of his his challenge of keeping the country directed toward the goal and the direction that Lincoln had laid out without Lincoln there and.
52:14.61 Matt Wow.
52:17.36 aggierobison It was really it's it's really well done I'd certainly recommend it for anybody that loves Abraham Lincoln 1965 yeah all right great as two history majors we could answer this we could go on around and around on this question. So yeah, yeah, yeah.
52:19.71 Matt Okay, eighteen sixty five okay
52:31.71 Matt Ah, but your history at Dana. Oh awesome. Did you focus on any particular area.
52:37.50 aggierobison No I as an undergrad. Um, we just had to have classes at all the different levels advanced levels. My closest thing I had to any sort of focus was I took 2 classes on soviet history. Um I am far from a so history expert but it was interesting at that time just to.
52:40.63 Matt Um, yeah.
52:46.94 Matt Okay.
52:55.60 aggierobison What really fascinated me was to learn. Um, I became fascinated with timelines at that time, and I never thought of it in that way. But you know, at every point in time, something has happened before that has led up to that, right? And the individuals, their personal feelings.
53:09.62 Matt Yeah.
53:15.22 aggierobison The um, you know, the societal or cultural effects that led up to it. So even studying Soviet History, you know, the Bolshevik revolution and then the Vietnam War, followed by the war in Afghanistan, all of those different moments that the Soviets were involved with were not just isolated events, but they were influenced by generations and centuries of history that led to those decisions. So, anyway, that was the closest thing that I came to it, but I really loved my classes.
53:51.52 Matt Yeah, history is one of the liberal arts. Not one of the traditional ones, but it has become a part of that whole set of tools and understandings for interpreting the world wisely. And I've definitely found that.
53:52.76 aggierobison That's good.
54:11.33 Matt Well, you should probably ask other people. I think that's been the case for me as a student of history. It's been a formation that has allowed me to operate in the world in a way that is not just looking at what's right in front of me.
54:30.12 aggierobison I think it also allows you to build empathy in your life, right? Because when you think about someone like Abe Lincoln or the people around him.
54:35.51 Matt Um.
54:45.80 aggierobison If you take them at face value, you know, this is the act that they had that left a legacy on history, and that's what we know about. But when you go in and study about them, you learn about their lives. You can't help but become empathetic to where they were, what the effects were on their lives, the people around them, and the circumstances that led them to make those decisions. It gives you a better understanding of them, and I think that empathy then applies to today, right? When I'm meeting with donors or in my old job waiting tables, or when you were laying wood and different things like that. I don't know, I love it, and I hope that more people appreciate the role that studying history can play in their lives.
55:36.14 Matt Yeah, agreed. And I wonder, as you've gotten older like me, if you've gravitated towards biography as your primary way of consuming history.
55:48.62 aggierobison I love biographies. Yeah.
55:55.89 Matt And in large part, for the reasons you just described, I love getting into that complexity because, you know, we have our day jobs and what we may or may not be remembered for, ah, 40 years from now, 100 years from now. But our lives are so much more than that, and it's so fascinating to see how, you know, quote-unquote great men, they lived and breathed in their times, made mistakes, and made the most of things. And then here we are reading about them.
56:33.36 aggierobison Ah, just a quick plug for our other podcast. Me and three other guys host a podcast called Holy Donors, where we do biographical digs into people throughout history and, um, specifically, you know, kind of telling the story of their philanthropy. But, ah, that's been, I mean, that project, you know, kind of started off as a "this would be fun to do" and it's become just tremendously, um, close to my heart, just because I'm learning about so... I mean, we've studied or we've highlighted, you know, some of the classic philanthropists: Catherine Drexel, um, ah, Danny Thomas who founded St. Jude's. We've done Babe Ruth as an example, but then we have also done sort of lesser-known characters like Tim Scanlan, who was a city builder for the city of Houston. We've done Pierre Tasant, who was a... a Haitian slave who earned his freedom and started Catholic Charities in New York. We've talked about ah... we did Katherine Doherty, who was a minor nobility, a woman of minor nobility who lost everything and became basically a peasant and then, you know, sort of built it all back up and gave it away again. So, anyways, just...
57:43.90 Matt Me.
57:45.89 aggierobison Fascinating stories that it's just you learn so much about today's world by going back and studying the people that came before us, and I think it's really fascinating, right? Okay, well, if that's what question one was, we could be looking for a long lightning round here. Ah...
57:54.24 Matt That's awesome.
58:03.34 Matt Um, oh yes, it's the lightning round.
58:03.49 aggierobison Question 2, if you could get a donor meeting with anyone in the world, living or dead, who would it be with?
58:10.95 Matt Um, oh, where I'd be asking them to donate. Okay.
58:12.89 aggierobison He clicked.
58:18.33 Matt Wow, I feel like Warren Buffett would understand what we're doing and appreciate it.
58:27.18 aggierobison There you go. Yeah, I think that's ah, I think that's a solid answer. Question number 3 is: Is there enough money out there for every organization that's doing good work?
58:38.71 Matt Wow, I don't know, and I feel like that calculation would involve some like Nobel-level curve on a graph. Ah, but I've always thought...
58:56.54 Matt ...that money follows vision. So, whether you want to look at it through the lens of faith, you know, "Seek first the kingdom and then the rest will fall into place," or you want to just look at it as, "Hey, if you have a good idea, the money will find you." I just have to believe that if you have a clear, compelling vision that speaks to the deep needs of your time, you'll have what you need. At least to get started. And then, as you take steps...
59:36.73 aggierobison I love it. Question number 4: If you could go back in time and offer yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
59:46.41 Matt Um, ah, ah, probably to remember that my first ministry is to my family, which I don't do horribly at enough. I mean, ah, I'd have to ask my wife, but I think it's particularly... I never wanted, well, except for very brief times, I don't want to do a job where I just go, "I have the skill, you know, it could be the next guy, but it's me. I'm going to use this skill, and there's my paycheck." And, you know, this is not who I am, this is not close to my heart. Although the older I get, I recognize that you can bring your heart to all sorts of things, just things I would never want to bring my heart to. Um, so that's maybe a little simplistic in my thinking now. But, um, I think I would remind myself, just like we were saying, I was talking with my brother about this last week, we're like...
01:00:40.72 aggierobison He?
01:00:59.93 Matt You know, we can... I think we know one of our great-grandparents' names, and that's our family, and there's gosh, we have four grandparents, so there's eight of those. It's not like this is not a lot of people, and they didn't live so long ago.
01:01:04.79 aggierobison A.
01:01:18.86 Matt And I don't know but one of their names. I don't know what their neighbors thought of them. I don't know if the people at their places of work were impressed. I don't know what their ending bank account was, and it's just like, "Oh my, oh my goodness." It's been so easy at times because I'm doing good work to forget the great work that is teaching and leading and serving my family. So, that's always something that I need to remember, if only because of...
01:01:39.37 aggierobison Yeah.
01:01:54.89 Matt: My limited capacity to do only one thing at a time to get on track, and then I need to remember to shift tracks better.
01:01:56.56 aggierobison: Yeah.
01:02:05.14 aggierobison: I think that's really powerful, and that's a very keen insight that I would say I'm guilty of. Knowing the great grandparents and just the heritage and where we come from. Here we are talking about biographies and studying really important men and women throughout history. And yeah, there are very important men and women in our own past and our own family that sometimes it's important to spend time learning about. Oh, sorry? Yes, okay, great.
01:02:32.26 Matt: Well, let me nuance that because that's not what I meant, even though that's true. But we'll call that Lesson B. Lesson A is, I don't care and it doesn't affect me day to day that one of my great-grandfathers was highly respected in his community. You know, that phrase. What does affect me is the father he was to my grandfather, who was the father of my, you know, that. And so just kind of re...
01:02:59.52 aggierobison: Yep, got it.
01:03:07.26 Matt: Saying like I don't have to accomplish or it's secondary to accomplish other things if I'm not leading in my own family. But then B would be like, oh gosh, I'm so suburban and disconnected from my roots.
01:03:12.28 aggierobison: Yeah.
01:03:25.36 aggierobison: Yeah, yeah, that's great. I love it. Hey, I'm gonna hit the pause button for 1 minute, is that okay? Okay, 1 minute.
01:03:26.13 Matt: Yes, definitely part B.
01:03:32.42 Matt: Sure.
01:05:10.12 aggierobison: All right, thank you for that. All right, question number 5: Who are three people who have most influenced your professional development?
01:05:12.50 Matt No problem.
01:05:22.84 Matt Ah, wow. I would say the three principals I worked for, that's probably a good way to frame it. Duane Statzman was the principal at the school I graduated from and then worked at for a year after college in Oregon. Tim Peterson at John the Twenty-Third, and then Brenda Davidson here in Aristoi. I learned a lot from all of them.
01:05:52.13 aggierobison Awesome. Question number 6: What is something interesting about you that people may not know?
01:06:02.65 Matt Oh, wow. Well, I'm a gardener, and I have a tendency to take it probably too far. Like, I'm always trying to turn our houses into farms. I literally did that with our house in Katy and then in San Antonio. You know, just typical suburban lots. In San Antonio, I think we had 18 fruit trees strategically placed. It was actually fairly tastefully done, you know, how I had the landscaping laid out.
01:06:29.69 aggierobison Wow.
01:06:38.50 Matt And then, like I was telling you before we started, we just moved into a house we bought here in Katy in October, and I'm walking it, I'm observing how the sun hits at different seasons, how the water flows with the soil. So I'm gonna try to do the same thing but satisfy my kids and my wife by not just making it crazy, but leaving some lawn and tastefully landscaping it. I'm not just experimenting with farming. Now I think it's the same tendency that serves me in leading schools, just seeing the big picture and...
01:07:17.38 aggierobison Where did you get this from? Are your parents gardeners or...
01:07:36.00 Matt Complementary systems. There's a philosophy of gardening and farming called permaculture, where you try to lightly alter the landscape and plant things in such a way that they are, as much as possible, nearly symbiotic and self-perpetuating systems. So that has fascinated me as an adult. When I was young, I liked plants, but it has kind of grown into that.
01:08:10.77 aggierobison That's awesome. Um, cool. We'll have to talk about that. I am not a gardener. My one attempt at making a raised bed at my house went very poorly, but maybe there are some lessons that I can learn to make it go a little bit better. It's funny, though.
01:08:28.54 Matt What? Well, there's that saying, you know, "How do you become a great gardener? Kill a lot of plants." You know, that's the journey. Yeah.
01:08:32.64 aggierobison Oh, okay.
01:08:38.45 aggierobison Ah, ah, I'm well on my way. That gives me hope. Ah, talking about fruit trees, one story real quick. When I was at the Newman Center at Ohio State, we had a couple and got to know them pretty well. They hosted an event at their house, and they had an Apple tree in the front yard, kind of on the side yard. I said, "Oh, Apple trees!" and he said, "Yeah, you don't want to eat those. They're terrible." I said, "They're terrible?" and he said, "Yeah, he said years ago we planted that Apple tree, and it was still very young and growing. And my daughter lived on the second floor, and her room faced that tree. So some silly boy came over and was trying to get her attention, and he kept breaking off pieces of the top of the tree and throwing them at the window to get her attention. And somehow, and you may know this, but somehow that like what he did to the tree affected its ability to produce sweet fruit for the rest of its life. So it still made fruit, but the fruit was, you know, I don't know if it was sour or bitter or disgusting, but it...
01:09:41.87 Matt Ah.
01:09:44.85 Matt I want to, no, I have never heard of that, actually.
01:09:47.56 aggierobison Whatever it ruined the tree forever. Yeah, so they go. That's my Apple Tree story. Um, great. And lastly, question number 7, what is one book you think everyone should read?
01:10:02.41 Matt Okay, so I saw this on your list, and I'm like, that's gonna kill me. Um, so I mean, I can't do that, and I'm just gonna say...
01:10:07.95 aggierobison The anxiety kicks in, right?
01:10:19.84 aggierobison That's fine.
01:10:21.20 Matt I would point people toward Moby Dick. I'd point people toward The Seven-Storey Mountain, Rule of Benedict. Um, there's a book that I reread every couple of years, Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford, by Kim Stafford, the great American poet, better known in the western United States, but just a great and beautiful book. Um, this question is tough, but those are some. I'm a Cormac McCarthy fan, and he just, at age 89, published what will probably be his last two novels. Um, yeah, anything on the Aristoi reading list.
01:11:11.82 aggierobison Awesome! Great! Well, Mr. Watson, this has been fantastic. I have certainly enjoyed our conversation, and hopefully, it's been enlightening for our listeners to learn about charter schools, classical education, and how to weave a journey in life throughout multiple different pathways. I think it's been really enjoyable. If people want to get in touch with you or learn more about the work that you're doing in Aristoi, how can they track you down?
01:11:43.71 Matt So you can just go to the Aristoi website, and you can email or find a phone number there. I would love to talk with anyone who's interested.
01:11:56.60 aggierobison Great, and we'll put that link in the show notes to Aristoi Classical Academy. But it has been a pleasure. I have certainly enjoyed it. Thank you very much for being a guest on the show and for sharing your insights and thoughts. Like I said, we'll have to have you back on down the road when there is some success to share with our listeners.
01:12:00.48 Matt Prayer.
01:12:15.97 aggierobison And when we have some success to share with our listeners.
01:12:19.85 Matt Great. Well, thank you. I've really enjoyed it and appreciated the opportunity.
01:12:26.89 aggierobison Great, and for all those listening, thank you for joining me. If you have any questions, you can email us at [email protected]. Otherwise, thank you for joining. God bless you, God bless your work, and we'll see you next time. Great.
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