Will Austin
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Will Austin

Chief Operating Officer, Uncommon Schools | Boston

It's a rare student who stumbles on the realization—while still in college—of where he'd like to spend his career. Will Austin is one of those rare individuals.

A lifelong Bostonian, Will grew up in the city's Dorchester neighborhood and enrolled in Boston Latin School, a prestigious public school for grades 7-12 where admission is by a highly competitive entrance exam. "I was lucky to have grown up in a city with an outstanding public school option for some students in the exam schools," Will says. "Boston Latin is one of the best high schools in the country. It fundamentally changed the trajectory of my life."

It did so by preparing Will and his older sister for college—enabling them to become the first members of his family to do so. The college Will chose was Harvard University, and it was while he was still a student that he became involved in a program that brought middle school students to Harvard for campus tours.

As part of that same program, Will began visiting middle schools himself to do some tutoring. It was that experience that brought him to his epiphany. "I realized middle school is where I wanted to spend my time," he reveals. "A place where I could be of value. Where I could do something meaningful."

Preparing Students for the Future in Roxbury

Upon graduation, Will received a two-year teaching fellowship at The Steppingstone Foundation, a local nonprofit that supports students in middle school as they prepare to apply for competitive high schools. Although he "really loved the work," Will had a yen to spend all his time working directly with kids, in the classroom. So, in 2002, he applied for a teaching position at Roxbury Preparatory Charter School, an inner-city charter public school charged with helping prepare middle and high school students to enter, succeed in, and graduate from college.

"When I first came here, I felt so passionately about the school, I just knew I'd do anything to work here," he says. "I felt it was a place where I could grow and also make a contribution." What he ended up doing was not what he expected. Hoping to teach history, he learned there were no openings, so applied to be a reading teacher instead. He ended up teaching math.

Even though he hadn't envisioned specializing in that subject, Will found that it was a job he loved. It was during his time on the math team that Roxbury Prep students earned the highest test scores in Massachusetts—not once, but twice. "I'm incredibly proud of that," he says. Still, after several years, he began to feel that, as part of the school's mission of helping prepare kids for college, he needed to move into a leadership role. He accepted the position of Co-Director of the school.

The school has shown impressive results under his leadership. Still a young school (it was established in 1999), it has become one of the top public middle schools in Massachusetts, consistently outperforming over 80% of middle schools across the state and ensuring that 99% of its students to date have gone on to graduate from high school.

An Uncommon Notion: Uncommon Schools | Boston

Roxbury Prep is building on this success by expanding. Formerly a standalone middle school serving grades six through eight, the school now has plans to open two new middle schools and a high school within the next six years. The school will serve students in grades five through twelve—in all 1,800 students in Boston by 2018, representing 10% of the city's middle school population.

To help manage its growth, Roxbury Prep has partnered with Uncommon Schools, a nonprofit network of public charter schools in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts whose 28 college prep schools consistently rank among the highest-performing in their home states.

This past year, Will "stepped out of my day-to-day role to help manage our network of schools as we grow," as he puts it. He now serves as chief operating officer of Uncommon Schools | Boston.

When asked why the organization targets charter schools—that is, public schools that have greater freedom in academic programming, organization, and mission—Will is quick to point out that traditional public schools, charter schools, private schools, and Montessori schools alike all can succeed if families, teachers, and school leaders feel passionately about the mission and are aligned behind it. "What charter schools allow is to let it happen freely, without the restriction of traditional settings," he says. "They show what's possible when you give local stakeholders the freedom and accountability to do what's best for their kids."

At Roxbury Prep, that includes kids like Wilson, who moved to Roxbury from the Dominican Republic the summer before sixth grade, never having attended school or learned a word of English. By the end of seventh grade, he had scored an Advanced level on the English Language Arts MCAS exam. Four Roxbury Prep students successfully completed the rigorous national application process for a scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, earning free tuition for life. And there's Titciana Barros, once one of Will's own students at Roxbury Prep and now its 6th-grade math problem-solving teacher.

"These students are not exceptional—they're exemplary," Will is quick to point out. "Ninety-nine percent of our students graduate high school, and two-thirds have graduated or enrolled in college. So these students are not highlights, but rather examples of the excellence their peers have produced."

Outside School Walls

In addition to his accomplishments at Roxbury Prep, Will was involved in the passage of Massachusetts' 2010 Education Reform Act, which effectively doubled the number of charter schools in the state's lowest-performing districts and also gave superintendents greater power to make sweeping changes in their lowest-performing schools. "Being part of a wide coalition of people who were able to advocate effectively to open more great schools for kids in Boston and other low-income communities—that is my proudest accomplishment," he says. "It's really nice to have been a part of systemic change on both ends—playing a role in broader policy forces with the decision makers but at same time, at the school level, changing individuals' lives who then change their communities. I'm proud of that."

Other decision makers Will is delighted to be engaged with in effecting social change are his fellow members of Grand Circle Foundation's Community Advisory Group (CAG). "One of the things that's really challenging around education and social services is that there's often a debate around what outcomes we should have rather than how do we get the outcomes we want for kids," he points out.

The Community Advisory Group, on the other hand, is aligned around a clear goal: to measurably increase high school and college graduation rates among students from Boston's Allston, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury neighborhoods who participate in CAG programs.

"I really appreciate everyone agrees that it matters what kids' SAT scores are, it matters what graduation rates are," says Will. "These things matter, and we're going to commit ourselves to that standard. It's a way for me personally and my organization generally to learn from them in order to make our services better and serve our kids better."

Maury Peterson, Vice President of Grand Circle Foundation, is quick to acknowledge that Will, too, has valuable input to share with the group. "He has a great passion for what he's doing, and he consistently delivers results," says Maury. "As a new member of our group, he has a great deal to share."

While Will loves his work, he also makes sure to find balance by spending time with his family. A passion for public education is a bond he shares with his wife, whom he met in high school. "We've been together longer than we have not been," Will says. "At a young age, that's saying something!"

Will also enjoys spending time with their 19-month-old son. "When I'm not at work, I'm with my family," he says.

Certainly, Will's joy in his work has made a big difference in the lives of students at Roxbury Prep. Still, he remains humble about his accomplishments. "One of the things I say to staff members here is that one of the real privileges I have is to represent the good work they do and their kids do every day," he says. "I'm in a very fortunate position to be associated with these results. I just like to think I'm being helpful."

Featured in our October 2011 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.