Matthew Willoughby: Using ‘Design Thinking’ to Ensure College Readiness

Email a Friend

In Principal’s Office, a regular feature of SchoolBook, a city school principal is interviewed for insights into school management and the life of a school leader. What do you think makes a good principal? Join the conversation below.

The Urban Assembly School of Design and Construction is a school which emphasizes training in architecture, engineering, design and construction management. Located in Hell’s Kitchen, the school serves 458 students. Eighty percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch and 15 percent of students are designated English Language Learners. The school earned a B from the city on its latest progress report.

Matthew Willoughby, who took the helm in 2008, is a Teach for America alumnus who previously also worked as a paraprofessional. Under his leadership, Urban Assembly School of Design and Construction has moved to boost female enrolment and incorporate a process known as design thinking. Mr. Willoughby has an annual salary of $140,074. This interview was edited and condensed.

Q: Only a fourth of your students are female. Why is that?

A: It may be more a comment on society than our school itself. Maybe it's because of the word "construction" in our title or the emphasis we place on technical subjects, but we consistently get far more male than female applicants. Conversely, the High School of Hospitality Management, which is right next door in this building, has 75 percent females.

We're interested in a more female demographic and are trying to target them. The females here might be outnumbered three to one. But when it comes to school culture and community, they definitely hold their own.

Q: Your college acceptance rates are consistently over 95 percent. That’s an impressive number.

A: Stats, when they support your cause, are always great. But true college readiness is so much more than academic context. Only a small percentage of those things make their way to progress reports, etc.

Since schools are getting more selective, the quality of school that our students are getting into has decreased. Less of our students are getting into the higher tier schools, and more of them are heading into a two year program.

Our challenge now is really about looking beyond acceptance and into matriculation. The students who’ve worked out best are the ones we’ve stayed in touch with. We want to do an even better job of knowing a student’s skills when they leave here and track them through the process. We’ve also got involved in programs such as Bridge to College.

Q: What unique classroom experiences can students benefit from at Urban Assembly?

A: For every student that starts here they’ll be in art or design class. Five days a week, they’re in our design seminar taught by our resident architect. They get involved in small projects and then eventually semester-long projects that end with a critique by a panel of professionals.

We just began offering a three-day-a-week studio arts class. One of our theories is that we wanted to offer more in the arts even at a time when people are offering less, because we think it’ll keep the students engaged longer.

At the end of the sophomore year, a lot of the students choose to specialize in art and design, and some choose not to. One of our challenges is to create other options for them to specialize in so they remain engaged.

Q: And outside school grounds?

There’s a range of things. We have a diverse range of internships. One of our students is currently interning at a bake shop, and one at a law firm. We also place students in job shadowing programs, so they can see what it's really like in the workplace.

Last year, our Earth Science teacher took our students to see the different layers of a huge natural outcropping of earth. Our ninth graders have gone to the Cloisters, visited mosques and temples, visited every kind of museum. But I think our most impactful trip is when we take small groups of students into our city. They go to the Lower East Side, go to Wall Street, see the burial grounds.

We also allow juniors to go on overnight trips, and place seniors in college classrooms so that they can have an immersion experience.

Q: Your curriculum emphasizes design, architecture and engineering skills, but how does it approach more traditional subjects such as math and social studies?

A: One of the bigger challenges is how we incorporate our theme into all our courses. How do we integrate it within each class? There are some natural connections, like looking at architecture in different time periods as part of a social studies class.

We’re one of the 40 schools who received grants (Urban Assembly received $250,000) under the city's Expanded Success Initiative to work with young black and Latino males for better outcomes. We’re pouring a lot of money to get our theme into our curriculum more deeply.

Q: Your mantra here is a school of thought known as "design thinking." What’s it all about?

A: It’s a messy process for how to come up with creative solutions to everyday problems. It can be for specific problems, like “I want to create a machine that does this,” or to social problems.

It’s a process that I can use as a leader to come up with ideas for our kids and it’s also something that can permeate every class. You could have students putting post-it notes on a whiteboard with their ideas to solve a problem. And then you narrow these ideas down to develop a prototype, which could be the draft of a paper, or an actual product.

Q: How do you reconcile Urban Assembly’s innovative curriculum with the demands of standardized testing?

A: We have smart teachers who know how to map those two things together. Our curriculum creates critical thinkers. There’s always some test prep that has proved useful for small, incremental change, but when we have our kids thinking, reading and writing in other content areas, they do well on these tests. The key is not setting the tests as your goal.

Q: Tell me about your background and how it has shaped your approach to running Urban Assembly.

A: I was an economics major who didn't want to go into economics. I began taking education courses in junior year with the intent of going back to school for an education degree.

I then became a paraprofessional at a school for students who were emotionally disturbed. I followed that with a master's in social work and did four years in the Columbus public school system. I then joined Teach for America and worked at M.S. 584 in Brooklyn. In 2008, I entered the New York Leadership Academy and took over here in the fall.

I had to be upfront with my staff about the fact that I hadn't taught a lot. But I had experience in other fields, such as mental health, which would be useful. It was tough; public school work, particularly in an unscreened environment, is one of the toughest things to do. It takes technical skills, budget skills, personal leadership as well as relentless pursuit.

You need a balance of confidence and humility in whatever role you're in. Especially teaching. You could teach 20 years and never be done with your craft.

Q: Tell me about your process for selecting new teachers.

We’re at an interesting phase. We have eight new teachers (out of 28 overall) for the coming school year. The experienced ones are coming from various schools (including former transformation/turnaround schools). The newer teachers just graduated from four-year programs, we have one teaching fellow, and one Teach for America graduate. I think the influx of energy is going to be good for us.

The demo lesson is an essential part of our hiring process. We need to see them in front of our students. It’s that rapport with students that really makes the difference.

One of our first-year science teachers, brand new out of college, did a demo lesson on the same day as a 16-year veteran. But in a very short time, she excited the students and got to know them. She made some rookie mistakes but she showed real concern for them. That’s what we’re looking for.