Denver’s DSST charter schools are one of the nation’s premiere secondary school networks. Led by
longtime CEO Bill Kurtz, DSST has expanded steadily in Denver and was recently approved to
open a new campus in neighboring Aurora, Colorado. He talked with us about DSST’s success and took a broader look at the nation’s charter and choice landscape.
Do you drink tea or coffee? How do you take it? Coffee, most definitely. A little half and half and sugar.
DSST was recently named a Broad Prize Finalist and is widely seen as one of the best charter management organizations in the country. What's your secret? I am not a coffee expert in any way, but I understand enough to know that you have to have the right beans, the right roaster, the right grinder and the right barista to make a truly exceptional cup of coffee. It is not just one thing. It all has to work in concert to get that exceptional brew. I feel the same way about our schools. DSST has true alignment to a clear mission, commitment to ambitious, measurable outcomes, a deep dedication to operational excellence, and a willingness to change when something is not working. Underlying this alignment is a belief that all students are extraordinary and capable, and a commitment by our team to ensure our students are learning and growing. Lastly, DSST is guided by a very simple commitment to help our students become the best versions of themselves. Building a community in each of our schools to help them do that is at the core of our work.
The original intent of charter schools was to serve as laboratories of innovation from which traditional schools can learn. What lessons would you share with your counterparts in the district schools? The future of American public education relies on charter schools and district schools embracing two premises: First, that public education is a long way from the promise of providing all children a world class education in this country. And second, that we must embrace an open source environment where the best practices are widely shared with each other—charters and district schools have a lot to learn together. We will only fulfill our responsibility to all children if we understand these two basic premises. At DSST, we don’t have all the answers, and have not “figured it out.” What has worked well are several strategies. First, we create a culture of belonging, centered in values, that celebrates community and instills a commitment in our students to work for the success of all students in our school communities, not just themselves. Second, through a non-tracked approach, we help our students believe that they are capable of being world-class students. Lastly, great teachers, who love their subject, who connect deeply with their students, are the key ingredient to helping students become the best versions of themselves.
Charter schools are increasingly under attack for "draining funds" from traditional public schools, creaming students or under-serving vulnerable populations like students with disabilities. Are any of these critiques legitimate? DSST Public Schools has made a commitment to serve
all students in collaboration with Denver Public Schools. It is important for the charter movement to commit to equity alongside our district partners. DSST has some of the most equitable enrollment practices in the country, holding seats for late-arriving students, accepting mid-year entrants and back-filling grades. We also have committed to run special education centers for children with severe disabilities in all of our schools—serving nearly every disability in Denver Public Schools. Lastly, we serve an equal number of English-language learners, as does the district as a whole. It is important to note that we serve these students with distinction. In 2016, DSST had the highest ACT scores in any Colorado public school district for English-language learners
and for students with special needs. Within the next few years DSST will serve 25 percent of the Denver Public Schools 6-12 student population. We are very excited to be a choice for
all Denver students.
The charter movement is all about autonomy in exchange for accountability, yet we have a quality control problem in the sector. What should the charter sector do about quality control? Let’s be clear—we have a quality control problem in public education in America; this is well documented in the “drop-out factories” that persist across the country, charter and district. We believe districts and authorizers should be shutting down poor-performing charter schools, period. And let’s also be clear on the urgency of this problem. Can we really afford to let another generation of students attend failing schools just because we don’t have the political courage to do the right thing? Is that what our kids deserve?
What do you see ahead for the education reform movement—broadly speaking? Is there a real split in the choice movement over vouchers vs. charters or a tempest in a teapot? We must keep three themes at the center of our work in public education going forward. First, we must commit to equity of outcomes for all students, not just equity of inputs. I fear our country is losing its courage and resolve to ensure that all students from all income-levels, races, and those students with disabilities, can access a world class education. All students deserve to get a great education while also building a strong sense of oneself. Second, we must find ways to re-integrate our schools to ensure that they are intentionally diverse and bringing the rich fabric of backgrounds into our school communities. As our country is becoming more diverse, our schools are becoming alarmingly more segregated. The civic fabric of this country is at stake, and our hyper-segregated schools are contributing to the polarization in our society. Third, we must continue to create schools that build the civic values of our young people. Our democracy depends on a populace that shares common values of respect, integrity, responsibility—values I see are increasingly absent from our adult public discourse in this country.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with