Recently Christianity Today published my essay on Bill Kurtz, CEO of Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST). (Read the complete essay here.) Having learned about Kurtz only this last Fall, his work was relatively new to me. As a charter school leader, and one who had spoken at both Q Cities Denver and at the Center for Faith & Work, I thought I should investigate his story to see if I couldn’t learn something about how he integrates his faith and work.
As we sat down at Udi’s in Stapleton on June 18 for a brief lunch interview, Bill was kind, humble, and self-effacing, not exactly what I expected from a successful charter school executive. We spoke for about 45 minutes on the challenges of public school education, his motivation & leadership style, and the secret to DSST’s success. I went home, typed up the interview, and got working on the article.
Little did I understand sheer magnitude and far-reaching impact of his work.
As I began to research DSST in local media, I discovered DSST is consistently recognized as one the nation’s top charter schools. Students are 75% from minority groups and 45% low income – and DSST ranks consistently as one of the top 5 schools state-wide on student academic growth. Average ACT scores are 24.6 (Denver Public Schools are 17.6), and 100% of seniors in school history have been admitted to a 4-year college.
Ed News Colorado has called DSST “the crown jewel of Denver’s high school reform efforts.” Another organization, A+ Denver, cites 10 years of failed school reform in DPS, with a single exception – DSST. Kurtz has even been to the House of Representatives in Washington to share about STEM schools in the US. He even got a $1 million donation from Oprah for his school – a pop icon with more power than the president, according to Kurtz.
As I was writing the article, I puzzled over the question: how did he do it? How did he produce not just one, but now seven schools with such stunning academic results?
Bill consistently attributed DSST’s success to their school culture. He says they have built a “values-based institution,” one that lives DSST’s ethics – respect, responsibility, doing your best, integrity, courage and curiosity – on a daily basis. In the article, I wrote about their morning meeting, a 4-times-per-week gathering of students and staff to “recognize student achievement, acknowledge the school’s values, praise service to others, own up to mistakes, and pledge to put forth their best effort each day.” In contrast to free-floating relativism or legalistic rule keeping, DSST lives a set of ideals – and these ideals shape DSST culture.
What interested me was how his understanding of the gospel shaped his engagement as a public school leader. Not only did he build his schools on concrete moral ideals, but he encourages staff and students to live out their part of “the human story.” Kurtz says, “Everybody wants to be affirmed for their unique gifts and talents, and everybody wants to make a significant contribution to the human story.” Underlying his desire to serve is this aggressive hopefulness that comes from understanding that human history in a story – with a divine story-teller – that has a good ending. Hope permeates his schools. And it drives him to do great things as an educator how has found an “opportunity for me to live out my vocation, serving the needs of others and building strong communities.”
Here’s how the article begins:
Ten years ago, a subtle desperation filled the aging halls of Denver Public Schools. In 2003, only 55 percent of Denver high school students graduated on time; that number dropped to 46 percent in 2008. As minority and low-income populations rose, achievement tumbled. Denver, along with cities like Detroit, Chicago, New York, and Oakland, became a “dropout epicenter.”
Despite noble efforts from teachers, issues like drug abuse, gang activity, and pregnancy fostered a “what’s the point?” attitude among students. Even many of those who did graduate wouldn’t go to college or be prepared to compete in a global workforce that was rapidly outperforming American students, especially in science and math. America’s high school students were falling behind, and Denver was near the back of the line.
But ten years ago, when most saw hopelessness, Bill Kurtz saw opportunity. (Read the rest of the article.)