honored

Five stories you should read about Denver’s DSST charter network and its CEO, Bill Kurtz

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/Denver Post file
Bill Kurtz, CEO of the DSST charter school network.

Bill Kurtz, CEO of the homegrown and high-performing DSST charter school network, was inducted this week into the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ Hall of Fame.

This is hardly his – or the schools’ – first accolade. Oprah Winfrey gave DSST $1 million and Hillary Clinton’s campaign just lauded the schools for being innovative. The network has been the subject of positive press from The Denver Post to The New York Times. And U.S. News & World Report recently ranked DSST’s flagship school in the Stapleton neighborhood the No. 3 high school in Colorado.

But there’s also plenty of skepticism to go around when it comes to DSST, which runs 12 middle and high schools in Denver and plans to open several more.

Critics say DSST schools take only the most promising students, encourage those who are struggling to move on and benefit from a largesse traditional public schools can only dream about (see: Oprah). In 2015, the Post’s editorial page editor (who is clearly a fan) tackled those criticisms and concluded they were overblown.

In bestowing the recent honor upon Kurtz, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing charters, noted that DSST is expected to educate one in four of Denver’s middle and high school students within the next decade.

Here are highlights from five stories about DSST.

1. The school started with an idea from former Gov. Bill Owens and a $2.5 million pledge from Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, according to a 2002 Denver Post story we’ve excerpted below. (We couldn’t find the story in online archives.)

Gov. Bill Owens had the idea for two years. Now he has the land to create the next generation of high-tech education.

The Denver School of Science and Technology will break ground next year on a weed-infested 10-acre site donated by Forest City, the developer of the future Stapleton community of 12,000 homes.

The charter school, created with $10 million in private donations, will cater specifically to girls and low-income kids. It will enroll 100 students in 2004 and eventually up to 400.

The school aims to bridge the cultural digital divide and encourage kids to pursue careers in science, math, engineering, computers and even biotechnology.

2. The first DSST opened in Stapleton in 2004. By 2012, the network had multiple schools. A report showed that its test scores — and those of other charter networks — were having a significant impact on the district’s growth and achievement scores at grades six and above.

3. In 2013, EdNews Colorado analyzed student retention at Denver’s high schools. Charter schools retained more students than traditional schools, the analysis found — and of the four charter schools that had been open since 2009, DSST in Stapleton had the lowest attrition rate.

4. In June 2015, the Denver school board approved a dramatic expansion of DSST. The charter network plans to have 22 schools by 2024-25, which would make it the largest in Colorado.

5. In July 2015, state science test scores at three DSST middle schools dropped significantly — in one case from 72 percent of students scoring proficient to just 50 percent scoring that way. But even the scores at those schools were above the district average.

real-world experience

Meet the Memphis educator leading the charge to take down her city’s Confederate monuments

PHOTO: Andrea Morales
Tami Sawyer and Earle Fisher lead a rally in response to a white supremacist march in Charlottesville last weekend.

Hours after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Tami Sawyer’s phone was abuzz.

Some Memphis teachers wanted to talk over their plans to discuss the weekend’s violence with their students. She was also fielding questions from local news outlets about efforts to remove Memphis’ own Confederate statues — the issue that drew white supremacists to the Virginia college town.

The first messages were part of Sawyer’s role at Teach for America, where she serves as the local director of diversity and cultural competence. The others came out of her own activism — and her flurry of responses illustrate what life looks like for many educators stepping outside of the classroom to advocate for social justice.

“It’s a constant wheel,” she said. “I will go to bed probably about 1 a.m. because I stay up on social media and firing off emails and I wake up and I do it all over again tomorrow.”

Sawyer, a 35-year-old Memphis native, is the face of #takeemdown901, the newest campaign to remove two Confederate monuments from parks in downtown Memphis.

It’s a messy fight: The city owns the land, but can’t remove the statues on its own. State officials, angered by a 2015 Memphis city council vote to remove one, took control over what the city can do with its monuments.

And though the city has vowed to sue the state if it blocks the removal of the other monument, Sawyer and others aren’t satisfied with that pace.

“Jefferson Davis is known to have said that it is the duty of the white Christian man to own black people because they are unintelligent,” Sawyer said. “So, why is it important for me? It’s because a man that told me that I was dumb and needed to be picking his cotton can’t stand in my city. My nieces can’t come up under that shadow.”

But the fight against the Confederate monuments is just the latest facet of a longer, and personal, campaign for Sawyer.

She grew up in Memphis and went to St. Mary’s Episcopal, a private school. After graduating from the University of Memphis and spending about a year in law school at Howard University, Sawyer worked for U.S. Navy in Washington focusing on diversity hiring practices.

She returned to Memphis in 2013, as the uproar surrounding the merger and subsequent de-merger of its suburban and city schools was at its height. But local activism, she thought, seemed to be too much talk and too little action.

When 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, she decided to organize a local protest.

“Next thing I knew, I had a lot to say and people listened,” she said. “And I didn’t know what to do with that except to keep talking and keep organizing.”

PHOTO: Andrea Morales
Memphis reacts to the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville and the violence against counter protestors by gathering at the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue.

In 2015, Sawyer organized a vigil for a black Memphis teen, Darrius Stewart, who was killed by a white police officer. About 200 people gathered, including a large contingent of Teach for America teachers.

TFA teachers “came of their own accord,” Sawyer recalled, “and that was just impressive to me.”

Earle Fisher, a Memphis pastor and activist who is always within arm’s length of Sawyer at rallies or press conferences, noted that day was when the two “met on the battlefield.”

“As has been the case ever since, she was directing me on how things were meant to go at the rally she had organized,” he said. “There’s a reason we call her Tami Lou Hamer.”

Soon after that vigil, Sawyer joined TFA, overhauling the local chapter’s curriculum to help teachers understand how racism and poverty affect their students and their community.

Teach For America is not affiliated with Sawyer’s activism, but her work to remove statues of Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest is in keeping with organization’s recent efforts to connect more with the black and Hispanic communities they serve in.

Athena Turner, the group’s executive director in Memphis, came to the city 11 years ago when 85 percent of the city’s public school students were black and 88 percent of the TFA teachers working in the city were white. Now, about half of TFA teachers are people of color.

“From when I was a corps member to now, the organization has gotten a lot more explicit about the ways in which our commitments and values of diversity and equity and inclusion play out in all aspects of our work,” Turner said. Sawyer’s work, she said, “demonstrates those values pretty explicitly.”

TFA, like many other education organizations, has also grappled with how to help teachers address racism in the classroom in the years following the death of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager killed in 2012. The organization has deep ties to the Black Lives Matter movement that has emerged since: Prominent activists, including DeRay Mckesson and Brittany Packnett, were TFA teachers and later worked for the teacher training organization.

Sawyer herself sees helping teachers understand students’ culture and the broader fight for equity in Memphis as deeply connected. That desire fueled her decision to run, unsuccessfully, for state representative last year.

More recently, just after Sawyer launched an online petition to remove the Confederate statue — a petition that came out of a goal-setting exercise at a TFA summer staff retreat — Sawyer spoke to a group of students at GRAD Academy, a local charter school.

The conversation quickly turned from issues in the classroom to problems in their city.

“I told them you have to self-advocate,” Sawyer recalled. “And then someone said, ‘Is that what you’re doing with these statues?’ And I said yes. We have to advocate for ourselves. No one is going to take these statues down for us, right?”

The next week, several teens from that program showed up at a community meeting she organized.

“I don’t understand why we still have statues of people who didn’t want us to be anything,” 15-year-old Beyonce Cox said. “They didn’t want us African-Americans to have power, they wanted us to stay down.”

Helping students gain that sense of citizenship and agency — for Sawyer, that’s the point of her work.

“You raise an engineer in South Memphis who can figure out how to run a metro through Memphis because he’s going to remember how his mom and grandma couldn’t get around and carrying groceries in the rain,” she said.

“In the grand scheme of things, taking down the statues won’t change transportation. It won’t change access to fresh foods or economic justice. But it will teach us how to advocate for ourselves.”

Movers & shakers

Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes joins education advocacy group Chiefs for Change

Katy Anthes (photo by Nicholas Garcia).

Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes has joined Chiefs for Change, a group of state- and district-level school chiefs advocating for reforms they believe will boost achievement for all students, the group announced Wednesday.

“I’m excited to continue working with fellow state and district Chiefs from around the country,” Anthes said in a statement. “Chiefs for Change members are courageous, effective, and laser-focused on students. It is a privilege to join their ranks and come together as a community to advocate for excellence and equity for all of our students.”

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush launched the organization in 2008 to promote his education agenda nationally, and it broke away from Bush’s Foundation for Educational Excellence in 2015 to become an independent nonprofit.

It has championed charter schools, the Common Core State Standards and other reforms. Over the last two years, Chiefs for Change has produced position papers on building a more diverse teacher workforce, expanding instructional choices, and school improvement strategies in the era of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal education law.

The group began as a coalition of state education leaders, then expanded its scope to include heads of school districts. Among its two-dozen members are Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg and Antwan Wilson, a former DPS hand who now leads the Washington, D.C., school district. Both men sit on the board of directors.

According to its most recent tax forms, Chiefs for Changes’ largest funders are Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Walton Family Foundation. The Walton Family Foundation also provides funding to Chalkbeat.