The school year has just begun and the new superintendent of Tampa Bay's Catholic schools already has a lot of homework.
Leaders of the Diocese of St. Petersburg have high hopes for Alberto Vazquez-Matos. They hope he will boost student enrollment, reach out to Hispanics, improve relations among schools and solidify their Catholic identity as they compete with public schools for students.
"He's very bright, very articulate," Tampa Catholic High School principal Thomas Reidy said. "I'm very impressed. He has a very clear vision with what he wants to do with our schools and our diocese. I think he keeps the tenets of the Catholic faith and the visions of the bishop at the center of everything he does."
Vazquez-Matos was a teacher, principal and associate superintendent in New York for 11 years before he moved to Tampa this year to take the reins of the schools in the Diocese of St. Petersburg — which are in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties and enroll nearly 12,600 students.
"One of the issues that every diocese is tackling across the country is strengthening the Catholic school," he said. "That includes increasing enrollment and creating viable and vital schools for the future."
Between 2000 and 2010, student enrollment in Catholic schools nationwide declined by 20 percent, or more than half a million students, according to the National Catholic Education Association. In the same decade, about 20 percent of Catholic schools in the country were closed or consolidated.
"This is a new opportunity for us. For many years, we've sat on our own laurels of success," said Father Michael Conway, the director of St. Petersburg Catholic High School. "We're facing challenges in the changing demographics, the economic times. … There's now a new influx of Hispanic population, and it's a catalyst to renew and strengthen the Catholic school system itself."
At 35, Vazquez-Matos is the second youngest superintendent of Catholic schools in the nation, according to the National Catholic Education Association. (Cincinnati's Catholic superintendent is a year younger.)
He is the same age as Tampa Catholic's Reidy, who counts their relative youthfulness as a positive when it comes to connecting with students on spiritual matters. Teens also communicate differently today, relying on social networking and texting, which came about when the two school leaders were in their 20s.
"I think what I lack in experience in years hopefully I make up for in energy and the ability to relate to our students," Reidy said. "I say to our students — and Alberto can say the same thing — it wasn't too long when I was in high school."
Local diocese leaders said several factors made Vazquez-Matos an attractive candidate — out of a pool of 75 applicants — to replace John Cummings, who resigned after a long illness.
"He came from a larger school system," said Frank Murphy, the diocese spokesman. "He had a variety of experience, he's young and very energetic, and has a Hispanic background."
In Brooklyn, Vazquez-Matos oversaw 43 of the 109 Catholic elementary schools in that region. He also helped schools transition from being governed by parishes to advisory boards.
"He's a faith-filled person who brings a lot of personality to situations we're in," said Ted Musco, an associate superintendent in the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Conway, who helped pick Vazquez-Matos, said he hopes the new superintendent will use his experience in Brooklyn to encourage more collaboration among local schools.
"The Diocese of St. Petersburg oversees the schools, but not as a school system like the public school system. All schools have been on their own," Conway said. "We're all in same boat together and facing the same issues, so why not put together our resources?"
Vazquez-Matos attributes the declining enrollment in Catholic schools in part to the economy and rising overhead costs, but said that doesn't mean the interest in Catholic schools isn't there.
"We need to start marketing success stories," he said. "The more that we share the success stories in schools, the more people can see investment for their future and child. …"
Vazquez-Matos, who attended Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New York, is convinced of the value of Catholic schools, which he says offer something public schools don't.
"We believe in value-infused curriculum," he said. "(Our) approach is not just to care for the physical, mental and psychological aspect of the student but the spiritual one as well."
Teachers are encouraged. Said Barbara Prendergast, St. Petersburg Catholic High teacher of 28 years: "He is the first superintendent who made himself visible to teachers. He came to our opening day retreat and spoke to us."
Times staff writer Justin George contributed to this report.