A decade ago, with a 55 percent dropout rate, Denver Public Schools had become a “dropout epicenter.” But where most saw a hopeless situation, Bill Kurtz saw opportunity. Since founding Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) in 2003, the growing network of schools has produced stunning results: Average ACT scores rose to 24.6 (the DPS average is 17.6), every single senior in DSST's history has been admitted to a four-year college, and its graduates have the fifth lowest college remediation rate in Colorado.
I sat down with DSST founder and 5280 Fellowship presenter Bill Kurtz to discover what has made his schools so successful. In this interview, we explore core values, vocation, high standards, and the biggest challenges facing public education today.
What motivated you to serve in public education?
I always liked working with kids and I always liked challenges. It seemed to me [public education] is one of the biggest challenges our country faces and 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.
What is the biggest challenge in public education today?
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 is education short on high quality people?
I think there’s probably a couple issues. One is people don’t generally think of public education as a place where you can have success. People generally want to work in a vocation where they can be successful, where they can make a difference. I think the general perception is that that’s not possible [in public education], particularly in large cities. 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 families and provide the kind of income they want for their family.
DSST Public Schools have had a tremendous impact on our city — and the city’s leaders. How do you express your faith “in the halls of power,” as Gordon College president Michael Lindsay says?
I think in general we express faith through our work. It’s 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. The work at DSST is about redeeming this world. I think a person from any faith can bring that into their work and see that as an expression of their faith.
How would you describe the culture of your schools?
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 everybody wants to be affirmed for their unique gifts and talents and everybody wants to make a significant contribution to the human story.
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. 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 is important.
What impact have the schools had in the community?
I think we’ve had a pretty big impact. First and foremost, we’ve had an impact 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 a student’s ethnic, economic, or academic background — that we can create schools that can help all kids succeed.
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.
What does your average day look like?
My average day is 80 percent 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 to do 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.
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.
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, again, we create a values-driven culture. Embedded in everything we do. We’re not big on creating a character education class. Rather, we believe living in our culture is character education every day. So we expect our kids and ourselves to live our values — 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 is tied to one of our values.
What are those 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, the work that I do every day is 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 think this is an opportunity for me to live out my own vocation.
Bill Kurtz is a Senior Leader in Denver Institute's 5280 Fellowship.
Jeff Haanen is a writer and entrepreneur. He founded Denver Institute for Faith & Work, a community of conveners, teachers and learners offering experiences and educational resources on the gospel, work, and community renewal. He is the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life and an upcoming two-book series on spiritual formation, vocation, and the working class for Intervarsity Press. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver and attends Wellspring Church in Englewood, Colorado.