Denver’s largest charter school network wants to open a new high school that would serve as a complement to its best-performing middle school, DSST Middle School at Noel Campus.
But first, DSST must convince the Denver school board that the low performance of some of its other schools shouldn’t be a barrier to opening a new one. That may be challenging given that several board members ran for election on a platform of stopping charter expansion.
At a meeting this week, board members asked pointed questions about DSST schools that have struggled with low test scores, and inquired about how opening a DSST Noel high school would affect plans to reconfigure the mix of school types in the far northeast part of the city.
“The opening of the Noel high school might be the 10th DSST in northeast Denver and Aurora,” said board Vice President Jennifer Bacon, who represents northeast Denver. “When I think about their success stories, I also want to start thinking about the success stories of all the students who don’t go to DSST, who want an option that is a good fit for them.”
DSST has 14 middle and high schools in Denver and one middle school in the neighboring suburb of Aurora. DSST is a homegrown network that started in 2004 with a single high school. Its schools serve a diverse student population, and most post high test scores. The schools emphasize academic rigor, push for acceptance to college, and follow a dress code.
As charter schools, the DSST schools are publicly funded but independently run. To operate within the Denver school district, they must be approved by the Denver school board.
In 2015, a prior Denver school board approved a dramatic expansion of DSST. But the network never intended to open all its new schools at once. Rather, the network has waited until it determined there was a demand to open a new school.
But there’s a catch written into DSST’s agreement with the district: To open a new school at a certain grade level — middle or high school — all of DSST’s existing schools at that grade level must meet the district’s academic expectations, based largely on state test scores.
DSST Cole High School, in the near northeast part of the city, fell short in 2019. So did two DSST middle schools, Cole and Henry. The school district declined last year to make a building available for a DSST Henry high school. It was the first time DSST did not immediately open a high school to complement one of its middle schools.
DSST hopes to avoid that with Noel. The network’s hurdle is to show that its Cole high school improved enough last year to justify opening the new Noel high school — a feat made trickier by the cancelation of state standardized tests last spring due to COVID-19.
To do that, DSST used other data. For example, DSST staff emphasized that students learning English as a second language had shown strong progress last year on a test measuring English proficiency. Nearly 70% of Cole students last year were learning English, and the district had previously flagged that Cole needed to better serve them.
In addition, more Cole students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses than in years prior, and the percentage of students passing AP classes rose from 49% to 59%.
Still, some school board members expressed concerns.
“It’s troubling to say let’s start another DSST when we haven’t even met the needs of the students we serve at the Cole campus,” said board member Tay Anderson.
Parents of students at DSST’s Noel middle school implored the board to grant DSST permission to open a high school. The Noel middle school, which opened in 2018, had stellar test scores in 2019. Parent Zoraida Juarez said her family chose it for her son because they liked the academic challenge and small-school feel. The school had about 300 students last year.
Now that her son is in eighth grade, Juarez said she worries about where he will attend high school next year if the board turns down DSST’s request. The closest DSST high school, DSST Green Valley Ranch High School, has few open spots and a long waiting list.
“Our growing community is crying out to you for more quality schools,” Juarez told the board.
Parent Danielle Rash referenced the controversial closing 10 years ago of Montbello High School, located just two miles from DSST Noel middle school. The district didn’t listen to the community back then, she said — and it has an opportunity to do so now.
But the fate of Montbello High School may actually be giving some board members pause on a DSST Noel high school. Community members have also been calling for the district to reopen a traditional high school in the neighborhood. Denver Public Schools has pledged to do so and will ask Denver voters in November to approve the funding.
District officials haven’t yet said whether some existing high schools would have to close to make way for a new traditional one. Board Vice President Bacon has repeatedly said the district needs to develop a comprehensive vision for high schools in Montbello and other neighborhoods in the far northeast part of the city. She said the same to DSST.
“Whatever it is we decide for DSST will impact other schools,” Bacon said.
Board member Barbara O’Brien was the most supportive of opening a new DSST high school. While she said she understands the need for a neighborhood plan, “I also believe we have an opportunity in front of us to take action to deliver another high-quality option.”
Scott Baldermann, one of the board members who campaigned on halting the approval of new charter schools, asked whether opening a DSST Noel high school would set a precedent that would allow other charter networks to expand, too.
“We’re not looking for a precedent to be set,” said Bill Kurtz, DSST’s chief executive officer. “We’re simply hoping to open our Noel high school.”