School districts around the country are grasping for ways to make science and math education work and inspire a new generation of biologists, astrophysicists, mathematicians and engineers. In Colorado, the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) appears to have mastered the formula. This network of STEM schools—with emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math—consists of five campuses that operate as charter schools under the Denver Public Schools (DPS) system. The schools outperform their neighbors in testing, but it’s not just the STEM curriculum that makes DSST stand out.
"What DSST does well is the harder and more abstract work of setting the right culture," says Yian Shen, a fellow at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to education reform and improving public schools in Colorado. "Their test scores are really good, they have low remediation rates—but you can also feel it when you walk in the school. You hear it in the way the kids talk.”
Juliann Coffey, 17, who is a couple months from graduating from DSST, is a walking example of the culture Shen describes. She speaks with confidence about her years at the school and about her aspirations for the future. She thinks she wants to become an engineer—she’s taking her second AP-level calculus class this year—and she’s working on a senior project centered on a music video and a written thesis on storytelling. Through her school’s mandatory junior-year school internship, she worked in the University of Denver's physics and astronomy department. The goal of the internship is to learn by doing, and Coffey did exactly that.
"It was really cool. I got to look at infrared images of planetary nebulae, which are like dying stars," says Coffey.
If Coffey does pursue engineering, she'll be among the estimated 45 percent of DSST graduates going into STEM fields of study—about three times the national average, according to Bill Kurtz, the CEO of DSST and founding principal of DSST’s first high school, Stapleton.
DSST exemplifies one of the primary goals of STEM initiatives—to broaden the student base that pursues math and science. The network of schools has more girls enrolled than boys, a majority of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and a minority majority within its population. According to a 2012 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, women and minority groups represent about 70 percent of college students in the U.S., but receive only 45 percent of the undergraduate degrees awarded in STEM fields of study.
"Unfortunately, there is a longstanding tradition in our country of saying that science education is only for the gifted and talented," says Kurtz. "We've always tried to change that notion. Kids of all backgrounds can participate in STEM, and I think that's really important."
DSST is less than 10 years old, but its schools are among Denver's best. They outperform other local schools in state testing; the Stapleton high school, for example, scored 78 percent proficiency on state math tests last year, compared with a district performance of 35 percent and state performance of 46 percent, and achieved similar results in science. Five DSST schools ranked among the top 25 in Denver’s 2012 School Performance Framework, an evaluation system that looks at variables from academic growth to parent satisfaction. And every graduating class has earned a 100 percent acceptance rate to a four-year college.
Enrollment is a function of the DPS lottery system, which is open to anyone, and the demand for a seat in a DSST school is high. For the upcoming school year, nearly one-fifth of the students that entered the lottery system for sixth grade requested a DSST school as their first choice, according to a DPS spokesperson.
In Kurtz's view, open enrollment—in which the school has no ability to select which students get admitted—is one thing that sets DSST apart from other STEM schools. Another is the variety of learning opportunities that the school provides, such as the 11th-grade internship like Coffey's or an advanced science class for seniors that ventures into the fields of biochemistry and biotechnology.