Skip to main content
Sign In

CU Denver Alum Wins Best Assistant Principal in Nation

Congratulations to Matthew Willis (EdS, Administrative Leadership & Policy Studies with a Principal License, 2009) who received the 2013 National Assistant Principal of the Year award on March 2, 2013 for his tenacious leadership and uncompromised commitment to student excellence. Willis, a graduate of CU Denver's School of Education & Human Development, is the Assistant Principal at William C. Hinkley High School in Aurora, CO.

In the short time since Willis has been at Hinkley, 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% 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%.

“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.”

NASSP and school furniture manufacturer Virco Inc. annually honor an assistant principal from each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense Education Activity schools. Selection criteria are built around collaborative leadership; curriculum, instruction, and assessment; and school personalization—the core areas of the NASSP Breaking Ranks Framework. The three finalists were selected from the pool of state winners and were interviewed during the NASSP conference, Ignite 2013, in National Harbor, MD. Each finalist received $1,500 and Willis will be awarded $5,000, which may be used for personal professional development or for a school improvement project.

For more information on this award, visit For more information on the University of Colorado's principal licensure and Administrative Leadership and Policy Studies program, visit

CU Denver School of Education &
Human Development

1380 Lawrence St., Denver, CO 80204 | Map It

© The Regents of the University of Colorado, a body corporate. All rights reserved.

Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. All trademarks are registered property of the University. Used by permission only.