Matthew Willis

William C. Hinkley High School
Aurora, CO

In the short time since Matthew Willis has been at William C. Hinkley High School, the diverse, high-poverty school of nearly 2,000 students has experienced a dramatic shift in culture. When he started in 2009, gang activity was prevalent and the student population—90 percent of which are minority—frequently clashed. Willis immediately increased staff presence in the hallways and implemented academic and behavioral interventions. To address the school’s chronic absenteeism, he developed and applied a stricter attendance policy and enlisted a truancy expert to take students to court when necessary.

However, unwilling to contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, he turned to restorative justice to keep students in school and empower them to take ownership of their success. Willis trained staff in restorative practices and helped secure funding from the Denver Foundation for ongoing professional development. Within the first year, the school conducted 263 restorative sessions and reduced minor offense referrals by 18 percent.

“Under Matthew’s leadership, we have trained over 30 teachers in the practice of RJ [restorative justice], and this focus on restoring adult-to-student relationships when discipline issues arise is drastically changing our schoolwide culture,” said Jinger Haberer, principal of Hinkley.

A former social studies teacher, Willis also increased common planning time and professional development for teachers, strengthened professional learning teams, overhauled the master schedule, and helped create a freshman academy. He raised student participation in a dual-credit program and steered counselors toward a unified focus on college readiness, doubling college acceptance rates.

“Matthew is passionate about instilling a college-bound vision for every student…and tenacious about achieving high academic results,” Haberer added.

“Research shows that principals and assistant principals create the conditions for schools to be successful and for students to achieve,” said JoAnn Bartoletti, NASSP executive director. “Matthew is a model of the quality school leader who focuses on what really matters in student success and makes no excuses in working to realize it. He has been an instrumental force in Hinkley’s turnaround.”

“Virco is proud to recognize Matthew for his remarkable success as an assistant principal,” said Brian True, Virco’s director of sales. “We’re honored to sponsor the NASSP/Virco National Assistant Principal of the Year Program and contribute to assistant principals’ professional development.”