Just moments after Ben Cairns dismissed his teachers and freshman from their morning meeting, he huddled with DSST Public Schools’ head of schools Rochelle Van Dijk.

Cairns, a former Denver Public Schools employee, is founding school director of  the charter network’s newest high school at the Cole campus in northeast Denver. Monday was the first day of school for most of Denver Public Schools including freshman at DSST Cole High.

“Going to college starts today,” Cairns told his students during their morning check-in. “Everything you do matters … Your grades matter.”

Students at DSST schools are expected to move quickly in the halls and between tasks, be respectful, continually push themselves toward higher academic goals. So are the adults.

Setting the school’s high expectation and culture immediately was job number 1 for today.

Van Dijk, who previously opened DSST Green Valley Ranch, pointed out what Cairns did right and what he needed to work on. Cairns could of have had a little more fun with the freshman and built excitement about it being the first day of school, Van Dijk said.

Then it was off to check-in on classrooms with the associate school director Becca Bloch.

“If you don’t practice it right on day one, you’re not going to get it right on day two,” Cairns said.

Freshmen at DSST Cole High School in Dexter Korto's morning advisory class look to the back of the class where English standards are posted. Korto, standing, taught at DSST Cole Middle School before following the freshman to open the new high school in northeast Denver.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Freshmen at DSST Cole High School in Dexter Korto’s morning advisory class look to the back of the class where English standards are posted. Korto, standing, taught at DSST Cole Middle School before following the freshman to open the new high school in northeast Denver.

Getting it right from day one and continually improving systems and instruction within the network are in part what several DSST leaders believe have led to the charter networks most recent and unusual accomplishment.

For the first time in DSST history, tenth graders who qualify for free- or reduced-lunch prices at both DSST high schools outperformed their more affluent peers in some subject areas on state tests last spring.

“One paradigm we haven’t been able to shift is the income achievement gap,” said DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg at a recent meeting with the staff at Green Valley Ranch High. “What’s so shocking about the results here is that you’ve turned the gaps upside down.”

At DSST Stapleton, 92 percent of low-income 10th graders scored proficient or advanced on the state’s reading test, compared to 89 percent of their middle-income peers. Eighty-five percent of low-income 10th graders scored proficient or advanced on the state’s writing test compared to 81 percent of their middle-income peers.

At DSST Green Valley Ranch, 63 percent of low-income 10th graders scored proficient or advanced on the state’s math test, compared to 58 percent of their middle-income classmates.

At both campuses and in all subject areas, DSST’s 10th graders who qualify for free- or reduced-lunch, a proxy of poverty, either met or beat the district’s middle-income students proficiency rates.

While Stapleton’s low-income student population is below 50 percent, Green Valley Ranch’s rivals the districts at 71 percent.

Results like DSST’s inverted achievement gap are rare but not unprecedented, said Daria Hall, K-12 policy director at The Educational Trust, an education advocacy group that focuses on income and racial disparities in public education.

“To be clear, there are not nearly enough of these schools that points to a real change in high schools,” Hall said. “You see across the board high school’s aren’t doing as well, that’s why success at the high school level is that more important to celebrate and understand.”

DSST Cole High School Director Ben Cairns and DSST Director of Schools Rochelle Van Dijk discuss Cairns' first morning meeting.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
DSST Cole High School Director Ben Cairns and DSST Director of Schools Rochelle Van Dijk discuss Cairns’ first morning meeting.

Hall said her organization has identified four traits most schools that serve mostly low-income or large populations of African American and Latino students and that post high results on standardized tests share. Those are a belief that all students of all backgrounds can achieve at high levels; a commitment to developing leadership; a tight correlation between instruction and assessment; and quality teacher requirement, retainment, and development. 

Leaders at both high schools echoed Hall when asked what led to the surprising results.

Further, specific instructional changes last year at the charter’s high schools could have also contributed to DSST’s 10th graders beating the gap. At Green Valley ranch there was an emphasis on more complex problem solving and written statements in math. And at Stapleton there was a shift to more nonfiction texts, deeper readings, and evidence-based writing.

“It’s not about softening it for them,” said Jeff Desserich, school director at DSST Stapleton High.

Cairns has no plans on softening the DSST model at the Cole campus. After all, he was one of dozens of parents who lobbied for a high performing program to come to the northeast corner of the city.

“We didn’t want a pathways school,” he said, recalling the community’s feelings in 2007 when DPS was considering options for the campus. “We had enough of those in northeast Denver.”

This morning Cairns led the first morning meeting with the first class of freshman of DSST Cole High.

“We’re creating a school together,” he told the class of 2018 sitting in front of them.