Jeff Haanen

Articles Tagged with

Bill Kurtz


Writing About Bill Kurtz, CEO of Denver School of Science and Technology


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.)


Interview with Bill Kurtz


June 18, 2013

What motivated you to serve in public education?

I always liked working with kids and I always liked challenges, and it seemed to me this is one of the biggest challenges our country faces. Also, it didn’t seem to me we were doing very well solving it. It was a great opportunity to serve and tackle something that interested me and work with people at the same time.

Why then public education?

It felt like the right opportunity to have an impact and, again, in a place where very few people were having the kind of success that we needed to have for kids and our communities.  It felt like an opportunity to solve a much bigger problem. Not that private education isn’t good. But this seems to be the core…obviously most kids in this country are educated in a public school.

What is the biggest challenge in public education today?

Ah, the biggest challenge is finding great people. We’re going to hire about 120 people this year. That’s a lot of people. We look for incredibly high quality great people. There’s not enough of those in public education today.

Why not?

I think there’s probably a couple issues. One is people generally think of public education as a place not where you can have success. I think a lot of people are turned off by that. I think people generally people want to work in a vocation where people can be successful, where they can make a difference. I think the general perception is that that’s not possible [in education], particularly in large cities.

So, I think that’s been a challenge. And I think compensation is always an issue. I don’t think our best and brightest  people see teaching as a way to support their family and provide the kind of income they want for their family. So it doesn’t draw the same kind of people that other professions would.

Is it more challenging in a charter school?

Not necessarily. In Denver it is because people don’t get pro comp, which is challenging a bit. But in general I would say no. It’s true in all public schools I think.

So what motivates you? You have six schools and four more planned?

So we have six schools, and one that will open next Monday and three more that will open in the next couple years. And we’re adding four to that. So we have seven open and we’d be adding seven more. We’d have a total of 14.

What drives you? That’s a lot of work.

What drives me is the opportunity to serve. We have something that is by no means perfect. We have plenty of issues and challenges that we have to get better at, but it’s an opportunity to serve and you have an opportunity to impact lots of students in a lot of families and a lot of student’s lives. We could just sit back and do one or two schools, but I think we’re called to do big things and I think we can do big things. I think it will be challenging but I think it’s worth the difference we can make.

Was there a moment you felt called to do this? Did something happen?

No, I don’t think there’s a moment. I think there’s an opportunity that presented itself, that was open for us that we had the opportunity to walk through. We were in a position to make a decision…

You and your wife?

No, we as in the team at DSST public schools. Gretchen is a very supportive partner, but she has her own work, which is probably good.

So, I saw you testified in front of congress in April, right? What was that experience like?

It was interesting. I don’t find it particularly hard; I think the work we do every day is hard. It’s a great privilege and opportunity to share the work we’re doing. Washington is a very interesting place and you can see quickly how challenging it can be. Members of congress go from one hearing to the next with very little information. Maybe a few of them are experts, so you know it’s…they have to know a lot or the conversation is very challenging. It’s a different world…

Have you read D. Michael Lindsay’s book Faith in the Halls of Power? You are in the halls of power. How do you express your faith in the halls of power? Or at least among leaders in [Denver]?

I think in general we express faith through our work …kingdom building work. It’s an opportunity to live in the world and be of the world in ways that can have a big influence on other people. You know, I think we’re called to enter the world and be a part of the world around us. So I think we have a huge opportunity to express that and to serve and to be a part of the larger community and bring that faith perspective to our work.

What’s your perspective of Christians who choose homeschooling or Christian education as opposed to public education?

I think schools are incredibly personal decisions for every family. I think it’s a challenging decision, there’s no perfect educational opportunity. I think every parent needs to make their own decision. It’s hard to judge parents because they know their kids the best. So I don’t think there’s a right or wrong decision.

So how would you answer a Christian who says “Public education is a secularizing influence?”

I think that there’s tremendous opportunity to experience the world God has created in public education. No schools share all the values of a particular family. Even Christian schools struggle with that. There are different views of the values people have. So I think that families have the opportunity to set the course of their own values and the opportunities to lives those values in lots of different places is really important. Public education is, in many ways, a cross section of society and I think we’re called to be in society and we’re called to be a part of that and influence it. I think there’s lots of challenges and opportunities.

How would you describe the culture of your schools?

The culture of our schools are …we would say we’re a values-based institution. We live a set of values, and we create a culture that is based on a view of the human condition that our organization subscribes to which is that everybody wants to be affirmed for their unique gifts and talents, and everybody wants to make a significant contribution to the human story. We think that…

Do you use that language of the “human story” in your context?

We do.

What does that mean in your context?

It means that there’s’ a larger story that I think is a part of the work that we do and I think people want to connect to that. People want to make a contribution that moves our world forward. Everybody has desire to connect to that in some way.

How have your schools been so successful. What’s your secret?

One, I think it’s the culture we create around a view of the human condition. Also, I think it’s significant that we have a clear goal for each of our kids, and it’s to send them to a four year college, and I think that clarity of goal is really important. I think we hire really great people who both educate students and who live our values outside of the classroom, which give our kids a grounding in what we think are important.

Can you tell a story of a particular student, one student, who was really influence by your school?

Well, we have a number of kids who have actually come back and taught in our schools. Our first graduating class is joining us this year, many of whom would probably have not gone to college if they hadn’t come to DSST. They went to college and were successful and have now come back to help others become successful.

That’s one the best stories we can tell, students who have gone and lived our values and now are back and want to live those values in a whole new way.

What impact have the schools had in the community?

I think we’ve had a pretty big impact. We’ve had an impact first and foremost on what people think is possible in public education. We’ve had the opportunity to change people’s minds around what’s possible, regardless of somebody’s ethnic background, economic background, academic background…that we can create schools that can help all kids succeed. I think that’s been the biggest contribution we’ve had.  I don’t think there was that was that implicit belief in public education in Denver before we came and I think that’s changed a lot.

I think our commitment to a values-driven culture has had a big impact on public education in Denver. People have started to think differently. It’s hard to do as well as people want to do, but I think people are starting to think differently about the kind of schools we can create and how a culture can help young people ideally grow and thrive beyond just the classroom.

What does your average day look like?

My average day is 80% in some sort of meeting. I spend a couple hours in a school every morning and then … well, mostly meetings. With my school leaders, my senior team, board members, external fundraisers, donors, Denver public schools. Most of my job is helping facilitate other people doing their jobs.

Ultimately, my job is to hire great people and to give them the vision and the values and the tools they need to be successful.

What does a great teacher look like?

A great teacher is…very similar to kids…Giving them a vision for their own learning and then giving them the tools to be successful in every endeavor. I see teachers as leaders. They really are leaders.

What’s your leadership style?

My leadership style? I would say, in the best sense, it is creating a vision for people and giving people a context  for their work and helping them think about why we do what we do. And then finding great people who I can them empower to be great. I would say I expect a lot of people. I expect them to be reflective – I’m very reflective. I expect people to be the chief learners in the organization. Things are moving very fast. People need to be learning just as fast.

Do you facilitate that learning?

I think leadership is a personal endeavor. I think you need to want to grow yourself. It’s really hard for somebody else to grow you as a leader if you don’t want to grow yourself. So I think it’s important for you to have ownership over you own desire to grow and learn. If you have somebody who’s eager to learn I think connecting them to that resources

Speaking broadly about education now, what do you think education reform looks like?

Well, I think we need to be clear about our goals. We’re not very clear about what we’re trying to do. We’re not clear about our academic goals and we’re not clear about our social/development goals. When you’re developing anything, if you’re not clear about what you’re trying to develop, it’s hard to do it well. I think it’s important that we be really clear about what we expect kids to be able to do. I would advocate that we give kids the chance to go to a four year college. They may not go, and that’s fine. But I think it’s the chance to go to college… If they choose to do something else, that’s great. But our public education system is not set up to do that today.

So it’s structural?

Well, it’s a set of expectations. The expectations of society and what we expect of our education system is the first problem. I think schools by no means are the ultimate formers of character, but they should certainly play a significant role in that. And I don’t think our schools do that today.

What does DSST do to shape student character?

Well, we create a values-driven culture. Embedded in everything we do. We’re not big on creating a character education class. We believe you walk in the doors and living in our culture is character education every day. So we expect our kids and ourselves to live our values and those values are going to trump our own self-interest at times. And that by creating a community that lives a set of values deeply, that is the best character development you can have.

I think schools in general are really hesitant to put forth a set of values they think are important and live them. I think, generally speaking, schools put forth rules that they expect kids to follow, and usually don’t even do a great job enforcing those. I hope every expectation we have are tied to one of our values.

What are your core values?

Respect, responsibility, doing your best, integrity, courage and curiosity.

How does the gospel influence your view of education in general?

I think in general it’s a great opportunity for me to live out my faith and build the kingdom. Obviously public education is a secular space, but everybody brings their own faith perspective to it and I think this is an opportunity for me to live out my own vocation and my own calling to build that kingdom.

What counsel to you give to Christian teachers? How should they express their faith in public education?

I think everybody chooses to do that differently. I think everybody has to come to their own understanding of what that means to them. But I think in general there are opportunities to share that when appropriate and I think there are opportunities to conduct themselves and show that by action. I think the strongest witness in many ways is to live your faith and to demonstrate the love of God through you own work. That’s a place to begin with.

So why STEM education? Why not art or literature?

Because I think it’s the greatest need we have today in our country and it’s the greatest opportunity we have to build opportunities for young people to both make a difference in our society and to earn a living wage and to connect them to future opportunities. So I think there’s an incredibly robust need for STEM education and to connect them with opportunities in the marketplace.

They still take language and history?

Yes, it’s still a liberal arts program. They get 6 years of science in high school – so they take more science, for example, and each student has to finish with at least pre-calculus. So it provides an opportunity for them to explore those more, but we have great history, great English, great arts.

What was it like meeting Oprah?

It was a really fun experience. I think it wasn’t the fact that we met Oprah as the fact that people knew that we met Oprah. It was all people wanted to talk about. So, Oprah has a reach that is way beyond anything I’ve ever experienced in my life, in terms of being a pop icon. Much more than the President – I’ve met the President.

Oprah has more influence than the President?

I didn’t talk to somebody probably a year or two after where that was not one of the first questions I got. … It was remarkable. And of course all the women on my team knew it happened before it happened. But this was not just another TV show. It was Oprah.

So what would you say to the evangelical community? What is the Christian’s responsibility to engage public education? Is education just a personal choice – along with homeschool or Christian education – or is it the “next moral issue” as the Teach for America people will say? Is it particularly important? What should the CT community do?

Yes, it’s an important issue for me. I think it’s one of the greatest issues that our society faces. I think that we ought to be engaged in that public marketplace. It’s very important. I mean, just from a civic perspective, in the last 10 years we’ve gone from 1 in 8 schools being high poverty school, high concentration of poverty kids in a school, to 1 in 5. In the United States – a 60% increase in high poverty schools in the last 10 years.

There’s a problem with the civic fabric of our country. We’re going to be a majority-minority country in 2040. Our schools are becoming more segregated, and literally the civic fabric of our country is being torn apart…unless people engage these kinds of issues. And public education is one of the most significant institutions of formation in our country. It probably impacts the most people in this country as it relates to the formation of young people. If they go to schools that are not educating them, that do not provide the kind of values that I think are important to a civic society, are going to schools with kids that look just like them, with no experience of the diversity of the human family – we’re in serious trouble. We’re going to have very little in common despite the fact that we’re an incredibly diverse society.

So yes, I think we all need to be called to this issue – it’s an incredibly important issue. And anybody hunkering down and hoping it’s going to go away – I can’t see it going away, short of people getting engaged and getting their hands dirty and becoming part of a much larger solution.

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