To close the academic achievement gap D.C. charters should follow example of the Denver School of Science and Technology

I cannot believe it has already been three years since I attended the Amplify School Choice conference sponsored by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, now the Franklin News Foundation. There, I joined 50 education bloggers as we studied the charter school movement in Denver, Colorado. I came away from the two days of sessions pondering whether Washington D.C. should adopt a charter and traditional school compact like the one in the city I was visiting.

However, a conversation over breakfast last week with a couple of local charter school supporters clarified for me how much my focus has now changed. After years of charters being treated like second-class citizens in the nation’s capital, as demonstrated, for example, by the lack of access to closed DCPS facilities and inequitable funding compared to the regular schools, my interest in the development of a compact has waned. The main takeaway now from my trip was the visit the writers made to one campus of the high-performing charter network of middle and high schools called The Denver School of Science and Technology. At our meal my friends reminded me of a book they had previously provided to me for information on charter schools entitled Reinventing America’s Schools by David Osborne. Therefore, when I returned home, I immediately turned to the index and found the pages about DSST.

My memory of this trip was of being thoroughly impressed with the charter’s chief executive officer Bill Kurtz. The way I recalled it, Mr. Kurtz showed Powerpoint slides that demonstrated his charter school’s narrowing of the academic achievement gap to 12 points when the difference between standardized test scores for affluent children and at-risk pupils for reading and math in the traditional schools was 45 percent. In my mind, I remembered Mr. Kurtz attributing his success to the values his staff instills in his students. Was I correct in my recollection or had time altered my impression of the information that had been shared on that day?

Here’s what Mr. Osborne writes about DSST:

“Bill Kurtz says it all begins with the core values. DSST builds them into everything it does. Staff evaluations focus on how people are living the values. Student report cards give grades on values, triggering conversations with students and parents. Jeff Desserich, then director of Stapleton High School, told me, ‘I had a kid who had all A’s and B’s, and I’m having a conference with his dad, and all the A’s and B’s is good, but we can see that courage is pretty low, like two out of five. So that can really frame our conversation around what should the student’s development plan be – to speak up in class more, or taken on a leadership role or something.’

New students get a home visit, where deans and teachers talk about the values and attend summer school, which is part culture and academics. Every year all students go through a ceremony at which they sign their allegiance to the core values” (pages 172 to 173).

The author quotes Mr. Kurtz as commenting on this subject:

“We’re not just about compliance. We’re actually about building a values-driven culture with all of our students, so that they all understand what it means to live a set of values. They may not choose our values over time, but hopefully they will learn to choose a set of values that will guide them in the way that David Brooks would say are the eulogy values, the values that really mater in how you live your file – what you care about when you look back on your life” (page 173).

The academic results at DSST, in response to this emphasis on values, are simply astounding. According to Mr. Osborne,

“DSST excels even when one only measures proficiency, despite the fact that 69 percent of its students come from poor families. Among students eligible for subsidized meals, DSST had two of the three highest-scoring schools in the state on the ACT test in 2016. In 2014 its low-income tenth-graders had higher proficiency rates in math, reading, and writing than middle-income students in DPS-operated schools (italics in original text). In 2015, with a third high school open, DSST schools outperformed 87, 90, and 96 percent of Colorado’s public high schools, measured by the percentage of students at or above proficiency on the new PARCC tests. These are numbers an expensive private school would be proud to have, yet in the three DSST schools, respectively, 72, 69, and 53 percent of the students were low income” (page 175).

The values that DSST promotes are respect, responsibility, integrity, courage, curiosity, and doing your best. Perhaps D.C.’s charters should follow DSST’s example.

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