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10 Years, 100% College Acceptance: Inside a Most Remarkable Decade at the Denver School of Science & Technology

By Carolyn Phenicie | September 17, 2017

(Photo courtesy of DSST)

Denver, Colorado

One by one, the seniors jogged up to the microphones at the front of the Denver Coliseum, introducing themselves and sharing which college they’ll be attending in the fall, to the sustained, raucous applause of their 4,000 classmates, teachers, and parents.

Some were nervous in front of the crowd, but most relished their five seconds of celebrity, including a few who took selfies from the stage.

“I just feel really close to these people,” gushed Ebony Bailey, who teared up talking about the “rush” of the event after it ended with a confetti explosion and smoke machines. She’ll attend Colorado State University in Fort Collins to study elementary education this fall.

The mid-May event, which also featured a special choral performances, cheers for every campus and several speeches, was the conclusion of a huge ceremony by the Denver School of Science and Technology — better known by its acronym, DSST — celebrating its 10th year of senior classes where every student has been accepted into a four-year college.

“Oftentimes in our society we spend more time celebrating athletic scholarship signings than we do actually the most important signing, which is where are kids going to college and do they have the opportunity to go,” Bill Kurtz, DSST’s CEO, told The 74 the day before the event. “We just have felt really strongly that the messages we should be sending our students and families is that everybody should have the opportunity to go to college … We want all of our kids to see themselves on that stage one day.”

The top-performing network of charters, serving more than 4,100 middle and high school students on seven campuses, is increasingly being recognized for its success.

Former education secretary Arne Duncan extolled DSST at a 2012 event. Colorado Lieutenant Gov. Donna Lynne and Denver City Council President Albus Brooks spoke at the college signing day, with Brooks saying the DSST graduates will help grow Denver’s native college-educated workforce, urging them to give back to their community.

The Denver school board in 2015 awarded the network a huge contract to expand. By 2025, DSST will have 22 schools on 11 campuses across the city, serving a quarter of Denver’s middle and high school students. Denver Public Schools enroll about 92,000 K-12 students in just shy of 200 schools, including charters.

The network was also, in its first year of eligibility, one of three finalists for the $250,000 Broad prize, a top honor for large charter networks that have done the most to boost student outcomes, close the achievement gap, and increase graduation rates. The award ultimately went to New York City’s Success Academy.

(The 74: Denver, Texas, NYC: Meet the 3 Finalists for This Year’s $250,000 Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools)

(Photo courtesy of DSST)

Like Kobe Bryant

College signing days, not just for athletes but for all students, are becoming an annual event across the country each May, spurred in many ways by former first lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher and Better Make Room initiatives to encourage college attendance among low-income students and those of color. The day after DSST’s event, Obama held her own star-studded event in New York City.

“It was such a powerful thing” to see kids jumping up and down for students attending college “the same as they would for Kobe Bryant slamming a dunk,” said Brad White, the school director at DSST’s Byers campus, which currently has grades 6–9.

Most of DSST’s seniors are attending nearby public universities: the University of Colorado’s campuses in Boulder or Denver, Colorado State in Fort Collins, or Metropolitan State University of Denver, a commuter college.

The crowd cheered just as loudly, if not more so, for those students as they did the smaller number attending some of the most selective schools in the country, including Columbia University, Tufts, MIT, Duke, and Johns Hopkins.

As much as the event was about celebrating the seniors’ successes, it was also about encouraging the younger students.

Afterward, White’s sixth-graders talked for hours about which colleges they’d apply to, and one freshman started strategizing about getting a summer job to save for her future education, he said.

The seniors recognized that, too.

“If we show them the reward, they’ll be motivated to do even better than us,” said Green Valley Ranch senior Oscar Ozeta, who’s off to the University of Denver (one of the top 100 colleges in the country, by U.S. News and World Report’s rankings) to study computer science.

Kevin Manzanares-Cervantes, a Stapleton senior, said it’s important that younger students see that sometimes life takes you by surprise and presents challenges, but goals are still achievable.

Manzanares-Cervantes had received the requisite congressional recommendation to attend one of the elite military service academies, but “family problems” arose and he had to drop the application about two-thirds of the way through the process. He’ll go to Metropolitan State University this year, while continuing to pursue a commission at the Air Force or Naval Academy.

“If you want it, you can make it happen,” he said.

The event was something of a full-circle moment for the seniors.

This year was the first network-wide celebration, but individual campuses have been marking smaller college signing days since the first DSST class hit the 100 percent acceptance mark in 2008.

It’s weird to think that the seniors are inspiring the class of 2022 — this year’s seventh-graders — in the same way the class of 2010 inspired them, said Nakwari Rodgers, a senior at Stapleton who will attend Bowie State, a historically black institution in Maryland, to study education and business.

“I was always waiting for that moment” to run down the aisle, she said.

Rigorous academics and supportive climate

DSST is, without a doubt, successful academically.

ACT and annual math and English test scores are high. It has four of the top five high schools and five of the top eight middle schools in Denver, based on the district’s school performance framework. U.S. News and World Report ranks the flagship Stapleton campus as the No. 2 high school in Colorado and No. 97 in the country.

A June study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found DSST schools posted some of the biggest gains in reading and math of all the charters studied, the equivalent of well over 100 additional days of learning in both subjects.

Across the network, about 69 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty, and 56 percent of students are Hispanic, numbers that largely mirror the district writ large. DSST also enrolls more black students than Denver broadly (18 percent versus 13.4 percent) and fewer white students (17 percent versus 23.2 percent).

Alejandra Gutierrez, after hearing about DSST from friends, enrolled her sons, Jonathan and Edwin Serrano, at the school’s College View campus earlier this year. She’s been happy with the way DSST addressed her concerns about middle schooler Edwin’s behavior problems, particularly when compared with his old school.

Gutierrez, who is Mexican, said DSST has also been a safe and welcoming place in light of increasing concerns about immigration.

“I have a lot of friends, right now there’s some schools or places they’re not feeling even good to go and ask about certain things,” because of language barriers or because they’re undocumented, she said. That’s not the case at DSST.

“They really make you feel that they don’t care. What they really care about is the students and their education,” she said.

DSST has a STEM-focused curriculum, with extra time for math and the incorporation of science into other classes across the liberal arts curriculum. (The classes are tough: During a visit earlier this year by The 74, sixth-graders at Byers were taking a social studies test on communism and capitalism, with seemingly college-level questions requiring them to paraphrase landmark texts by China’s Mao Zedong and interpret symbolism in propaganda.)

Each student gets a laptop. Every class begins with a “first three” minutes, when teachers lay out initial tasks for students, from setting up supplies to digging into an introductory assignment.

But it doesn’t have an extra-long day or year. Middle school students wear a uniform, but that’s loosened to a general dress code for high school. Younger students proceed silently from class to class, but by high school, rules are more relaxed and the teenagers pass through the halls at full volume.

Yet for all of the system’s academic success, most students didn’t cite anything academic as their top memory from their years at DSST.

Most, in fact, said the school community is the best part.

“It’s all just about supporting you,” Maya Nair, an eighth-grader at Stapleton, said while waiting for the signing day event to start. She’s been visiting colleges with her older brother and has her eye on Princeton University.

Ben Kitchen, who will attend Williams College to study math, was hoarse from cheering for his classmates after the signing day event.

Though he described math as “the coolest,” his favorite moment came during an arts program — rehearsals for The Wizard of Oz last year. Kitchen, playing the Cowardly Lion, changed the words to “If I Only Had the Nerve” to ask one of his castmates to the prom. (She said yes.)

Other students described teachers who somehow knew they were having a bad day without being told, or sports teams that provided a familial environment and a break from academics.

That supportive environment is perhaps best exemplified by the daily community meeting. At Byers, three days a week the meetings are held by grade. Mondays and Fridays the whole middle school gathers, and a few times a year the entire campus holds a meeting.

On the Friday after the college signing day, seventh-grader Salma Altaaib talked about Africa — her parents are from Sudan. She had students “turn and talk” about three things they know about Africa, then she helped refute common misconceptions, like that everyone who lives there is black and speaks the same language. She also shared a story from last summer break, when she and her family traveled back to Sudan and used the $500 the school had raised to buy supplies and presents for children in refugee camps there.

DSST is so successful, White, the Byers school director, said, because the network has a laser focus on its mission. At the micro level, that might mean offering five outstanding sports, rather than 12 mediocre ones. At the system-wide level, it concentrates on DSST’s six core values (respect, responsibility, integrity, courage, curiosity, and doing your best) backing the STEM-based curriculum and focus on college attendance.

“If you know who you are, and you align your systems and people to that, you can be really successful,” he said.

Natalene Espinoza, whose children will be in the seventh and ninth grades at the Conservatory Green campus this fall, said DSST staff got her son back on track after schools elsewhere in Colorado had failed him throughout middle school.

Espinoza is so committed to DSST that after the family’s living situation changed and they had to move out of Denver, she made the four- to five-hour round trip from Pueblo, Colorado, to the Conservatory Green campus every day for three months, and once a week for another six when they lived in Pueblo on weekends.

“Not too many schools or staff have that patience and love [to help students make gains like they did with her son]…. Their love and understanding is immense. They truly live their core values. They don’t just teach the children that. They live it themselves,” she said.

(Photo courtesy of DSST)

Turning attention to college graduation

Yet as the school focuses on its expansion, it’s taking a hard look at how it can improve. Although leaders have achieved that 100 percent college acceptance benchmark for 10 years, and 96 percent of students enroll, just 43 percent are graduating — a problem high-achieving charter networks across the country are facing.

(Introducing THE ALUMNI: 74 Multimedia Series Profiles a Charter School Revolution in Helping Kids Finish College)

DSST first started monitoring the issue in 2014, when its first graduating class hit the six-year benchmark commonly used to measure college completion, said Jess Palffy, senior manager for college and STEM initiatives. The national college graduation rate that year was 60 percent.

Staff began implementing specific interventions this year.

The network is focusing primarily on sending graduates to “match schools” — those that graduate at least 65 percent of students and have accessible financial aid and strong supports for students from low-income families. Eventually, the network hopes to collect enough data to narrow down which schools graduate 65 percent of DSST students specifically, she said.

The goal is to get 60 percent of next year’s senior class enrolled at schools that meet that benchmark.

The University of Denver, a selective private school, does a particularly good job with DSST students at all levels of academic achievement, she said. High graduation rates at Colorado State’s campus at Fort Collins and Colorado University in Boulder also fit the bill.

Leaders are also optimistic that a new partnership with Colorado University at Denver, including internships and summer programs that help high schoolers make stronger ties to the campus community, will spur long-term success there, Palffy said.

“The better job we do of connecting students with those institutions, I think will be a huge lever for us,” Palffy said.

They’re also adding new programs for parents, encouraging families to start thinking about college in freshman and sophomore year of high school, rather than later, and to focus more on those match schools specifically rather than just any school.

And given the relatively limited number of local options that meet that “match school” designation, particularly as compared with, say, a region like New England, they’re also encouraging students to think out of state.

“We’re not a Massachusetts or New Hampshire where in the next state there’s that many more opportunities as well,” Palffy said.

A member of the board has started funding “fly-ins” for students and families to visit schools out of state that might be a better fit, and another has started a partnership for DSST students to attend Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, which shares the charter network’s focus on science and technology.

“Where we ultimately enroll students matters,” she said.

A special relationship with Denver Public Schools

District-charter relations in Denver have always been lauded for the way the district, as both an authorizer of charter schools and operator of its own competitors to charters, has worked with charters and encouraged their growth there. It has stood out from other big cities, where charters and school districts don’t get along, and rivalry and hostility over rules, students, and funding are the norm.

“We’ve had a great partnership with Denver Public Schools and we’re deeply appreciative for the work that we have done together to better serve students across Denver,” Kurtz said. “That’s really exciting when systems can put aside differences to work together to deeply serve the families and students in the communities that you’re charged to serve.”

Denver Public Schools is a “local and national leader in innovative school reform,” and a key strategy to help provide great schools in every neighborhood is to provide as much flexibility to schools as possible, district spokeswoman Jessie Smiley said in an email.

“DPS values its collaborative relationship with its charter and innovation school partners and has worked diligently to separate its dual roles as school authorizer and operator,” she added.

But after years of harmony, there are signs of dissonance in that much-lauded partnership.

“If you’re in this space, there are lots of similar fights,” said Van Schoales, CEO of the education reform group A Plus Colorado, who was involved in the founding of DSST.

The district functioning as both an authorizer and operator of a wide variety of schools across its portfolio means “things get confusing,” he said. “I think this is a problem for the district … who’s the master under what conditions.”

Since 2012, enrollment in all Denver schools has risen about 9 percent, which means about an additional 7,900 students, according to district data. In that same time, enrollment at charters grew 54 percent, or about 6,500 students. Enrollment at district-run schools rose 1 percent over the same time, though it has dropped in the past two years.

Kurtz, along with leaders of three other top-performing charters, wrote a letter Feb. 10 asking to open more schools to help the district meets its goal of having 80 percent of Denver students in high-quality schools by 2020, from the current 50 percent.

Despite their request, the district asked for proposals for just two schools this year, restarts of failing elementary schools.

Charter operators charged district-led applications for those elementary turnarounds had unfair help, including accessing families, whose support is key to successful applications, Chalkbeat Colorado reported. The school board eventually voted 6–1 in favor of the district-led effort.

“The district has developed policies to bring more clarity to decision-making in the authorization of new schools, laying out specific criteria for closing schools and for awarding district buildings to schools,” Smiley said.

She cited the use of community review boards of parents, community members, professional reviewers, and facilitators for the restarts of the elementary schools “to weigh applicants against the district’s building allocation criteria and make recommendations, helping to ensure no applicant had an unfair advantage.”

(The 74 Interview: Denver Public Schools Chief Tom Boasberg)

The school board in late May approved another 20 schools, including 11 elementary charters and three charter high schools, but those schools still must find real estate, either in an existing Denver Public School or on their own. Finding physical space for new schools has become a problem in recent years as Denver’s population has grown and gentrified and real estate prices have skyrocketed.

Any relationship between two organizations will be dynamic and changing, Kurtz said.

“We have to continue to work hard at managing the tensions that come with an authorizer and operator, and we have to work hard to continue to create positive strategy and visions going forward on how we can do that to continue to serve all kids well,” he said. “We want to continue to work hard with Denver Public Schools to cultivate that relationship so that it is leading to deep opportunity for students and that we can work through challenges so we can do this together.”

For now, DSST has set its sights outside Denver. The school board in nearby Aurora voted 5–2 in late June to open four DSST campuses there, with the first campus opening in fall 2019 with 175 sixth-graders.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Walton Family Foundation have provided funding to both DSST and The 74. The 74 also receives funding from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which funds the Broad prize.

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