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.
Lewis McAll is a biology teacher at Stapleton, but unlike at most high schools, his 11th grade students have already taken physics and chemistry. That turns most curriculums, where physics is saved for 11th or 12th grade, on their head. But McAll explains that physics, taught in the ninth grade at DSST, is the best subject for studying the experimental method, which lays a foundation of knowledge and skills for students to build on.
The Stapleton campus sits about seven miles east of downtown Denver, in a planned community built where the old Denver airport once stood. Other campuses are scattered throughout Denver, most of them closer to downtown. DSST Stapleton is a modern-looking building off a main road; its parking lot is bustling since most students are driven to school—as a charter school, DSST does not offer bus services. Just inside the main doors, students, with faculty permission, blast music and dance—hip-hop, country, the “Electric Slide,” anything—before morning classes begin. The hallway and classroom walls boast posters of former graduating classes and the colleges that accepted them.
DSST may be excelling as a STEM school, but the faculty, students and outside observers make it clear that STEM is not the school's defining characteristic and it is not a golden ticket for success. What they get excited about is the culture the school has built.
McAll doesn't hesitate to answer what makes DSST stand out from his previous teaching experiences. "I don't have any discipline issues at all," he says. Many of the students at Stapleton started in the DSST system in middle school, so they’ve had years of learning under teachers who work hard to instill the DSST “core values” in students—things like respect, responsibility and courage. While it’s likely that most schools have similar values written in a mission statement somewhere, DSST has managed to truly integrate them into student life by encouraging independent learning and a strong mentoring environment at the same time, for instance. One senior said he stays after school to study with his teachers between three and five days a week.
McAll hopes to see an entire generation of biologists come out of DSST. "And that's very possible now because we've taken discipline, and 'Do this because I say so,' off the table," says McAll. "You can start to give kids the idea that teachers, academics, professors and everyone all the way up to [Peter] Higgs [of Higgs-Boson fame] himself, none of them know all the answers and there's still so much more to explore."
"When I think about what college I want to go to, I think about what I like about DSST,” says Juliann Coffey. “I want to make sure I pick a college that has a community feel to it.”
Between her engagement in the school community and her well-rounded academic experience, Coffey embodies the kind of student that Bill Kurtz envisions for the school.
"It's very much a liberal arts school with a STEM focus, not just a STEM school," says Kurtz. "Our goal is not to create every student into someone who's going to become an engineer. Our goal is to expose them, to provide them the opportunity to do that if they like, and understand that it's possible."