new school on the block

After unusual accomplishment, Denver charter network opens third high school

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
DSST: Cole High School freshman Jayr Cardenas is the first to arrive for the school's morning meeting.

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.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede