School & District Management

Assistant Principal Honored for Work at Colorado High School

By Alyssa Morones — March 26, 2013 3 min read
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A Colorado assistant principal who brought a program known as restorative justice to a troubled Colorado high school and helped improve its graduation rate is the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ Assistant Principal of the Year.

Matthew Willis, assistant principal of William C. Hinkley High School in Aurora, Colo., will receive the award in Washington in April.

When Willis arrived, the 90 percent minority, high-poverty school of nearly 2,000 students was underperforming and had a gang presence.

“On my very first day, I saw large groups of kids entering the school with the same color shirts on, students with flags. When the bell rang, kids stayed out in the halls. They hung out and talked with friends for 10 to 15 minutes before going to class. I knew we had our work cut out for us,” said Willis, who was a social studies teacher before he became assistant principal at Hinkley in 2009, in an interview with Education Week.

Willis didn’t just want to change the school’s policies. He wanted to change its culture. “We needed to bring the focus back to education,” he said.

One of the first problems Willis and his staff addressed was getting students to class. He started by monitoring tardiness with an electronic system that makes clear exactly what time each tardy student arrives to class—an idea he borrowed from his daughter’s high school.

“With this system, we know that [tardiness] discipline is equitable in how it’s being done. No teacher is letting one kid go and not another,” said Willis.

Equity is now a running theme in Hinkley High’s policies.

One of Willis’s main focuses was on ending the “school-to-prison pipeline” through what’s known as a restorative justice program.

“In the old system we’d look at discipline on a matrix—what offense equals what punishment?” said Willis. “The traditional system punishes the offender and allows that person to blame the person punishing them for their actions. Putting kids back on the street through suspension or expulsion is a lose-lose proposition.”

Under a restorative justice program, students, teachers, and administrators sit down to discuss a situation and listen to each other’s points of view. Each takes responsibility for his or her role in the situation and, together, they work toward the right solution.

“It creates understanding and builds bridges and repairs relationships,” said Willis.

Willis began by training 30 teachers who were enthusiastic about restorative justice and rolled the system out as a school-wide disciplinary plan for the 2010-2011 school year.

At first, many in the school’s community felt the system was too lax.

“It’s anything but,” said Willis. “This method is about accepting responsibility and developing a clear pathway to moving forward.”

As the first year under the restorative justice system progressed, the school community started to see its effects and to understand how it worked. Now in its second year under this system, school suspensions at Hinkley have declined by 48 percent. The number of referrals for defiance, disobedience, and profanity has also declined.

“Every day that a kid’s in school, gaining more knowledge, increases the potential to break the cycle of poverty in the community and to break the high-school-to-prison pipeline,” said Willis.

Today, Hinkley has the third-highest rate of students graduating with college credit in Colorado. The graduation rate has jumped to 74 percent from 58 percent.

“We see the whole culture of the school and students’ belief in themselves coming together,” Willis said.

“I really am proud of my staff and community and their ability to come together. These changes were bigger than just one person,” said Willis. “Everyone decided to make a difference, our kids included. They realize they’re part of something special.”

Willis was one of three finalists for the NASSP/Virco National Assistant Principal of the Year Award this year. Other finalists were Jada Kidd of Hillcrest High School in Simpsonville, S.C., and Rebecca Roberts of Villa Park High School in Villa Park, Calif.

This year’s Quality Counts, published by Education Week, focused on school climate and culture.

Matthew Willis, assistant principal at Hinkley High School in Aurora, Colo., and winner of the 2013 NASSP/Virco assistant principal of the year award.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.