Almost everything you need to know about Matthew Willis, as a person and as an educator, you could learn from his plans for how to spend the $5,000 award he won as 2013 National Assistant Principal of the Year.
Instead of using the money from the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) for his own professional development, he will put it towards a large community event to register new students to attend his school, William C. Hinkley High School in Aurora, Colo.
“I’m investing it in next year’s freshmen,” said Willis. “The word on the street is that Hinkley is a school for the whole community, and that speaks to the transformation of our school culture.”
Willis came to Hinkley High School four years ago with change on his mind. At the time, the school of 2,000 students—88 percent of whom are students of color—had a reputation for chronic truancy and gang-related conflict. Where some educators might have seen endemic problems, Willis saw potential solutions.
When Willis arrived, the school had a traditional system for handling discipline. A student who did something wrong would end up in a dean’s office and be punished, many times resulting in a suspension.
“Then the kid is out of school, blames the dean and never takes ownership of the incident,” said Willis. “It’s a lose-lose situation. Relationships are broken and never repaired.”
Willis implemented restorative justice, which required all the persons involved in a disruptive incident to sit down and talk about what happened and take responsibility for their actions. His goal is to restore relationships, whether they are between a student and teacher or between two students.
Restorative justice programs have found their way into a variety of public school systems, but Willis says his inspiration for this approach comes, in part, from his 20-year marriage.
“Every fight in my marriage, I would say that both my wife and I are responsible in some way,” Willis said. “We have to sit down and figure things out together so that the relationship is repaired.”
Willis started by training 30 school teachers in restorative practices, and within the first full year, Hinkley had conducted 263 restorative sessions and reduced disciplinary measures for minor offenses by nearly 20 percent.
What is the NASSP?
The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) is the leading organization of and national voice for middle level and high school principals, assistant principals and all school leaders from across the United States and more than 38 countries in the world.
Willis credits the EdS he earned from the CU Denver School of Education & Human Development for his success at Hinkley.
“When I graduated and became an assistant principal, I had an excellent foundational knowledge of cultural change,” Willis said. “This knowledge helped me through the reality of transformation change at the school.”
A former social studies teacher, Willis also overhauled Hinkley’s master schedule, increased common planning time and professional development for teachers, and steered counselors toward a unified focus on college readiness. College acceptance rates have doubled since he arrived.
“Matthew is passionate about instilling a college-bound vision for every student … and tenacious about achieving high academic results,” said Jinger Haberer, principal at Hinkley.
Those results are evident in the statistic that Willis points to with greatest pride: with 409 different students earning more than 3,000 college credits, Hinkley now ranks third in the state of Colorado for students earning college credits before they graduate high school.
“There is no difference academically between a kid here and a kid in Douglas County,” said Willis. “Truly, there is not a kid here who isn’t just as smart. But the real question is ‘What can we do to make the outcomes similar to kids who have more resources?’”
Think about CU Denver
Willis is a master marketer for CU Denver, recommending the school to his students, in part because he had such a good educational experience there.
“I cannot think of any aspect of what I learned [at CU Denver] that has not been critical to my experience as a school leader,” he said. In particular, he refers to the Administrative Leadership and Policy Studies (ALPS) program as “absolutely beneficial.”
“We had 30 people, learning the same thing, doing practical things in schools, sharing our experiences with each other, learning from each other.”
Willis praises all his CU Denver professors as experts with real-world experience. In particular, he remembers the guidance he received from Dorothy Garrison-Wade, ALPS program leader and associate professor. “She was instrumental as a professor and supportive as a professional,” he said.
Next fall, the class of 2017 will arrive at Hinkley High School. Thanks to Willis’ award money, they’ll receive a warm welcome at a community event focused on them. The students may think they are starting high school. But Matthew Willis believes they are starting on a path to a better future for themselves and for their community.