Decision Making: Aligning with Core Values

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Core values, beliefs and themes drive success at Connecticut magnet school 

University High School of Science and Engineering (UHSSE) - Hartford, CT

“All our decision-making aligns with who we are and what we want from our learners,” says Matt Folan, principal of the University High School of Science and Engineering (UHSSE), a magnet high school located in Hartford, CT. Founded in 2004, UHSSE is one of the first magnet schools created in response to the Connecticut Supreme Court ruling in the case of Sheff vs. O’Neill. Obligated by the ruling to remedy educational inequities caused by racial segregation, the state has largely addressed this issue by creating magnet schools – or Sheff schools – that attract a mix of suburban and city students to a specialized education.  

UHSSE’s learning focus, or school “theme,” is science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in an early college model. There are no criteria for admission to UHSSE; the school is open to all who apply and enrolls through a blind lottery. “We are diverse by design,” says Folan, “with students of various academic, socio-economic, and ethnic backgrounds.”  The school serves 440 students in grades 9-12, with a 50/50 split of students from urban and suburban Hartford areas. 

Located on the campus of the University of Hartford, UHSSE partners with the university to provide students access to college courses, and also offers Early College Experience (ECE) and Advanced Placement coursework within the high school. More than 80% of students in the USSHE graduating class of 2015 earned college credit, and since its founding in 2004, 100% of USSHE graduates have been accepted into two- and four-year colleges. 

When asked about the drivers of this success, Folan points to many factors. But most essential, he notes, is fidelity to the core values, beliefs and themes of the school. “Any time we’re making a decision, we ask ourselves: ‘Is this in alignment with our core values, beliefs and themes?’ It is the focus for all decision making so everyone in our school is on the same page and speaking the same language.” 

Folan says that this practice of aligning all decision-making with school core values, beliefs and themes cultivates a positive school culture and climate. The commitment to core values, beliefs and themes in all settings, he says, empowers all school stakeholders – including faculty, parents, students and school partners – to take ownership of upholding them as well. With low faculty turnover and zero administrative turnover in the last seven years, consistency of UHSSE staff has also helped to institutionalize school practices and culture.  

Folan notes that the school’s core values, beliefs and themes also play a central role in all hiring. “Our hiring practice is to ensure that we have faculty who believe all students can learn,” he says. Beyond this overarching value, Folan emphasizes that UHSSE hires faculty whose qualifications and certifications align with the school theme of STEM and early college. “All our elective courses are in STEM fields, so it is critical that our staff is appropriately qualified to teach these courses,” he says. Folan adds that UHSSE also partners with the University of Connecticut to ensure that UHSSE teachers get – and renew – certification for ECE courses. “We’re putting our money where our mouth is around students having access to early college courses,” he says. “All faculty who are teaching ECE courses are required to have the UConn certification.”  

Folan adds that the school celebrates the diversity of its population and uses a variety of strategies to foster academic achievement. “We have great support staff and ELL specialists, and we offer remediation and tutoring,” he notes, adding that UHSSE teachers are trained in intervention strategies and that they differentiate extremely well for middle, high and low learners in each classroom. Beyond differentiation, UHSSE faculty and staff strive to know every student’s academic and social emotional needs so that they can create a tailored experience and safe learning environment. 

Even with so much to offer students, Folan says recruiting new students can still be a challenge in an area that has become oversaturated with magnet schools. “At first there were only a select few magnet schools and now there is an abundance of schools of all grades with various themes and different designs,” he says. “There are so many options for families that we’re now at a tipping point of sustainability in terms of enrollment.” 

Folan says that being accredited helps recruitment and serves as an important reflective practice for the school. “The NEASC accreditation process strengthens us,” he says. Though he acknowledges that having a small staff means that the work of accreditation falls on fewer shoulders, Folan says, “It has brought us together, strengthened our culture, and highlighted our growth areas.”  In addition, Folan emphasized that being the only accredited 9-12 grade magnet high school in Hartford helps the recruiting process. “We can say that we meet the high standards of NEASC and are holding ourselves to this level of excellence.”  

This level of excellence has not gone unnoticed. University High School of Science and Engineering was recognized as top magnet high school by Magnet Schools of America in 2012. In 2014, Magnet Schools of America named Folan the Magnet Principal of the Year for a region that includes the New England states, New York and New Jersey. In addition, UHSSE was one of five Hartford public schools to be named a Magnet School of Distinction by the same organization. Folan deflects the praise, saying, simply: “When we stick to our core values, beliefs and themes, everything takes care of itself.”

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NEASC 2016-11