Sign up for Chalkbeat Colorado’s free daily newsletter to keep up with education news in Denver and around the state.
Bill Kurtz, the CEO of Denver’s largest charter school network, announced Friday that he will leave DSST after 20 years with the organization.
Kurtz said he plans to step down at the end of this school year.
“It is the right time,” he wrote in a letter addressed to DSST families and friends. “DSST is ready for a new leader to take DSST to greater heights. A new CEO will bring different insights, skills and experiences to lead the organization into our next decade.”
Kurtz was the founding principal of DSST’s first charter school, a diverse high school in Denver’s Central Park neighborhood called the Denver School of Science and Technology that was focused on getting all of its graduates into four-year colleges.
Over the past two decades, DSST has expanded to 14 schools in Denver and two in neighboring Aurora. The network serves a total of 7,200 students in grades 6-12, 80% of whom are Hispanic or Black and 73% of whom come from low-income families, according to DSST.
DSST’s high student test scores, a growing number of school-aged children attending Denver Public Schools, and a school board eager to replicate high-performing charters made DSST’s expansion possible. But while DSST still posts high test scores, enrollment in DPS is now declining and the new school board routinely says no to charters.
In 2020, DSST fought with the school board to open its seventh high school in Denver at the same time the network decided to close one of its middle schools due to declining enrollment.
The changing landscape has made things harder for charter schools in Denver. The second- and third-largest charter networks, STRIVE Prep and Rocky Mountain Prep respectively, recently merged under the Rocky Mountain Prep name. The founding CEOs of both networks are gone; STRIVE’s Chris Gibbons left in 2022 and Rocky Mountain Prep’s James Cryan left in 2021.
Kurtz said neither politics nor enrollment projections factored into his decision to step down from DSST.
“The adult politics around all this is necessary because we live in a democracy,” Kurtz said in an interview. “But ultimately, especially post-COVID, we need to have a laser focus on, ‘How are we serving students and families?’”
The students and their accomplishments are what Kurtz said he’s most proud of. The oldest DSST alumni are now in their 30s, and Kurtz said he routinely hears from graduates who are working as doctors, college professors, and engineers. One alumna of DSST’s first school is now a Spanish teacher at the DSST: College View campus. Kurtz said she took two buses two hours each way to high school because DSST promised her a path to college.
“We created DSST together on the premise that we have amazing young people in our communities in Denver and Aurora that did not have access to the opportunities they deserved and we promised,” Kurtz said. “We believed that once our young people had those opportunities, they would do amazing things.”
Kurtz said that while DSST’s mission has remained the same, the way it achieves that mission has changed. The network has worked to make its teacher training, curriculum, and school culture more inclusive, he said. One example, Kurtz said, is that DSST did not have any programs for students with significant disabilities when it started. It now has several.
“We’ve walked a very deep and meaningful journey around equity and inclusion,” Kurtz said.
Kurtz said he does not have another job lined up for when he steps down. Instead, he said, “I’m pretty focused on having my best year as a leader ever and ensuring DSST has our best year ever.” Kurtz said he announced his departure early to help with a smooth transition.
Gloria Zamora, the chair of DSST’s board of directors, said the board will communicate the next steps in the search for a new CEO in the coming weeks.
“We commend Bill for the high-functioning school system he is leaving to his successor,” Zamora said in a statement. “This solid foundation will enable DSST to continue growing to meet the needs of our students and families in the coming years.”
Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at firstname.lastname@example.org.