Charters Lead Way for Denver School System Turnaround

In spring, 2008, the Rocky Mountain News splashed a full-page photo across its cover of the first graduating class from Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST). Every one of its graduates gained admission to college–the first time that happened in a school with many low-income students.

As reported in David Osborne’s Progressive Policy Report: A 21st Century School System in the Mile High City, DSST’s CEO saw this as a turning point. It changed a mindset, he said, that “not all kids can go to college; your income and race would determine that.” DSST’s accomplishments gave “the leadership of the district an understanding that what was thought impossible was possible,” said Bill Kurtz, DSST’s CEO, who was inducted into the National Charter Schools Hall of Fame just last week.

With charters proving that autonomy worked, and a framework in place to measure school performance, Denver Public Schools (DPS) decided to move more decision-making to the school level as principals proved their schools could perform. They recruited principals steeped in innovation and encouraged DSST and other strong charters to replicate.

While Denver’s charter schools figured out how to educate low-income children, in terms of the whole district of 90,000 students, the overall change was still thought to be incremental. So how do you accelerate progress going forward? Replace failing district schools faster with charters, said Osborne. “Replacement has been far more effective than trying to turn failing schools around, both locally and nationally,” he says.

Currently, charters are carrying the load in educating low-income students in Denver. “Quality new charter schools serve 78% low-income students,” reports Alex Ooms from a 2014 research report. Quality new district schools serve just 18%. So facilities are a part of the challenge of expanding the charter sector.

Chartering is just one way Osborne suggests DPS can maintain and continue its progress toward a 21st century school system. There are other ways to be reported yet this week.