Radically Different Approach Results in Radically Different Results at DSST: Green Valley Ranch

By Sean VanBerschot

Despite featuring all the usual trappings of a typical high school – hallways lined with lockers, periodic tables posted on the walls – you get a sense very quickly that there’s something different going on at the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) in Green Valley Ranch, where I serve on the Board of Directors.

Much of that stems from the celebration of and dedication to a school culture that is like no other.

In business, we talk about the connection between a strong culture and organizational success, and from a recent tour of DSST: Green Valley Ranch with my fellow Colorado Succeeds members, it is evident that there is a similar linkage between school culture and academic success for students.

A Culture of Excellence

Since 2004 DSST has built a network of 12 high performing public charter schools that are dedicated to ending educational inequity across Denver. To do this, DSST devotes itself to instilling a values-based culture into its schools, deliberately integrating six core values into everything it does. These values guide the decisions both big and small that the schools’ leaders, teachers, and students make every day: Respect, Responsibility, Integrity, Courage, Curiosity, and Doing Your Best.

Thanks, in part, to constant devotion to its core values as well as an unwavering commitment to excellence, the DSST network has far exceeded everyone’s expectations, becoming a model for schools nationwide and one of just six public schools in Colorado to be awarded the National Blue Ribbon Award from the U.S. Department of Education. Serving 5,000 Denver Public School students, DSST epitomizes the reverse achievement gap. On Colorado’s most recent state tests, DSST’s high school students who receive free and reduced price lunch (FRL), a federal measure of poverty, had the same percent proficiency (52%) as Denver Public Schools’ non-FRL high school students.

As Luke Ragland, Vice President of Policy at Colorado Succeeds, noted during our Board of Advisors tour, “Schools like DSST show that income does not have to translate into school achievement.”

Holding Out for Higher Expectations

Throughout my time on DSST’s Board of Directors, I have seen just how much the school network’s culture of excellence is breaking down the barriers to academic achievement that all too often fall on economic and racial lines. During the Morning Meeting, which is a daily opportunity for students and staff to come together to celebrate community, share information, and refocus efforts in a positive direction, those of us on the tour were able to see the diversity of the student body. Yet this school is not defined only by the color of its students’ skin or the income of its families.

Rather, DSST is defined by a deep belief that by holding students to a higher standard, they will demonstrate that they can rise to the challenge and succeed in college and in life. DSST regularly monitors student progress to drive continuous improvement among its students. The evidence of these improvements and high expectations is clear – a good portion of the meeting was spent celebrating the many early college acceptances being handed out to DSST: Green Valley Ranch students. The DSST network boasts an astonishing 100% acceptance rate of its graduates into 4-year colleges and universities.

Creating Relevance, Delivering Real-World Experience

DSST isn’t just focused on getting students into college. A three-month-long internship during junior year is a graduation requirement for all students. This leads to an amazing amount of soft skills development at an early age, from understanding business expectations to knowing how to communicate in a professional manner.

Another way DSST is preparing students for life after high school is the new Entrepreneurial Studies program, or E-Ship. As the Director of DSST E-Ship, Jeremy Wickenheiser explained during our tour, the program poses two questions of students: Who am I and how will I impact the world?

Through a number of different program models ranging from weekend events to intensive school courses to a summer experience abroad, the E-Ship program provides relevance to students – a key factor in student engagement – by giving them the opportunity to work on meaningful, real-world problems that matter to them. At the end of each session, students actually pitch their ideas to audiences that include CEOs and business founders around the world.

At its core, E-Ship focuses on building empathy among students, requiring them to think through how their actions and solutions could affect others. In one E-Ship classroom I visited during the tour, 8th graders were using an innovative design tool to develop creative engineering solutions to address specific needs in their assigned superhero’s life, from determining what they would wear to what type of house they would live in. Ultimately, this level of understanding of and empathy for others will help students understand diverse perspectives as they enter into group projects or business settings.

I overheard the enthusiastic conversations taking place throughout the class. As one student explained, “We don’t limit ourselves to just three ideas. We are using our minds to come up with tons of new ideas to solve the problem!”

Hearing such exclamations from students not only gives me an incredible sense of pride but also hope in our schools and our students.

Replicating Success

The amazing results at DSST: Green Valley Ranch and throughout the DSST network make it clear what is possible when we raise the bar for academic standards and achievement – students absolutely will rise to meet them. And, these schools underscore the importance of providing students and parents with quality choices when it comes to their public school selection, no matter where they live. By consistently raising the expectations for what we all can and should expect from our public schools, DSST is setting a new standard both within Denver and beyond. I look forward to working with my fellow Colorado Succeeds coalition members to ensure that the success achieved at DSST can be replicated in schools throughout our state.

Sean Berschot is a former Colorado Succeeds member, Board of Trustees.