Presidents, such as John F. Kennedy, referred to America as “a city upon a hill”. President Reagan called it a “shining city on a hill.” The famed phrase derives from the Sermon on the Mount and was reiterated by newcomers to the New World as far back as 1630 when John Winthrop uttered the phrase to the New England colonists. Even our current president has referred to our country as a beacon of freedom. But upon examination of the failures of our public education system, one finds little freedom in school assignments that are carried out according to zip code mandates with no actual school choice for individual families and student needs. America has struggled in recent decades to educate its own citizens- so is there any hope of success for educating recent immigrants and First Generation families?
After Denver Public Schools (DPS) struggled for too many decades with schools that were failing to educate kids, new solutions were established. Charter schools in Denver have flourished due to a stunning amount of collaboration between the local school districts and the charter schools those districts have authorized, even including sharing of local funding. These schools enjoy tremendous support from the surrounding communities, as well as from many community leaders, such as Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.
Charter schools are public schools and serve all children, but schools that thrive like DSST, a group of STEM-focused charter schools with seven campuses, and STRIVE Preparatory Schools, are pioneering a new model of education. DSST and STRIVE have produced amazing successes for students in Denver focusing primarily on providing college preparatory schools, attaining 100% acceptance into 4-year colleges for DSST graduates and 92% acceptance for new graduates of STRIVE.
The numbers at both of these Denver-based charter school networks illustrate achievements that far surpass those of traditional public school students of DPS. STRIVE began ten years ago and is currently comprised of 87% students from low-income homes, 97% students of color, and 42% English Learners. STRIVE students experienced an average of 1.5 years of growth in achievement, and 97% of elementary students met or exceeded academic growth on STEP performance standards. Similarly, DSST charter network schools are closing the achievement gap at a far more successful rate than results achieved by traditional schools in DPS, as well as achieving far greater AP college readiness in courses across the board. DSST is also made up of students who primarily come from low-income homes with two-thirds of students enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program.
In fact, according to the Colorado Department of Education 2016 triennial report on the state of charter schools, Colorado’s charter public schools are enrolling students of color and English Language Learners at higher rates than traditional public schools in the state. These charter school students are continuing to outperform their counterparts in traditional public schools according to current state measurements of achievement.
What are some of the differences in teaching methods and expectations in a DSST classroom as opposed to a traditional DPS classroom? For one thing, there are more students who are from low-income homes and who are far more racially diverse. DSST as well as STRIVE maintain a laser-like focus on preparation for college for all students. One reason for this decision to prepare students from every background for college is due to the outlook for future jobs in places like Denver, Colorado which indicates that a college education will be required for careers in the fastest growing job fields. Findings published in the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce indicate that of 11.6 million jobs available since the economic recovery, 11.5 million were filled by adults who had attended college. In other words, merely 100, 000 jobs went to those who were high school graduates only.
Three young women who were recent graduates of DSST in Denver explained some of the differences they had noticed while attending the school, as well as reflecting back on, their time in high school. Two of the graduates were from families that were First Generation Americans. They described the special attention from their teachers at DSST who spent time with them as they chose the colleges to which they would apply. The teachers were more like mentors to them and really cared about them. They also remembered that their workload was much greater than the study load expected from friends who attended other high schools in the area and always seemed to have more free time, but they acknowledged that this disciplined work ethic paid off for them, giving them the edge needed to succeed in college. DSST is a STEM school that requires students to complete an internship related to future career choices. All these factors together produced graduates who were full of confidence and were excellent communicators.
It’s easy to look at the incredible results achieved by Strive & DSST and to take their success for granted. It’s also easy to imagine that these amazing results could have occurred through some other means, educational methods or philosophy, or legislative action. But as skeptical as some onlookers may be, no one can deny the achievements of these students in Denver. Denver embodies the tradition of a city on a hill, in fact it is the Mile-High City that is rising to new heights.
Rhonda is a mom of two, and she was a secondary teacher for ten years. She is passionate about the need to improve, as well as to expand, the educational opportunities available to families. Rhonda is co-founder and CEO of the organization, Moms for School Choice, and resides in the Atlanta area.