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."