Last week, I sat with Bill Kurtz, CEO of Denver School of Science and Technology and asked him about his vision for school leadership and technology in the classroom. At the top of Bill’s list is a need to create a very strong culture, because school institutions that lack cohesive culture are bound to fail when they try to drive “high execution” academics and tech innovation.

Strong Culture, Strong Devices, Leadership Without a Title

If charter schools are to survive and improve the nation’s academic track record, a strong culture using strong technology platforms is going to have to be the norm, says Bill Kurtz, CEO of DSST, a liberal arts high school that puts technology, as well as math and science learning front and center for a student body that in three years has shown an extraordinary amount of success in college placement.

“You have to execute at a high level to have a great culture. Organizations that maintain a focus on culture sustain a strong return on investment,” says Kurtz. That ROI is not solely about money in education, he says. It’s about the students that come into the school hoping for a career-specific future. DSST does a good job marrying the STEM needs of a 21st Century society with the best available tools for performing those functions.

While DSST staff have not just taken a corporate model and glommed it on to education, DSST operates with the idea that they are not running a venture-backed new product idea that takes over the market and rides a wave of commercial excitement and market use. There is certainly excitement in how high-performing charter schools operate well, and often below costs. However, the view here is longer and more specifically targeted to improving a model for school and its impact on children.

For Kurtz, that means the enterprise is more human capital focused. In a model like that, says Kurtz, management have to look beyond internal dynamics and focus on how decisions of technology adoption, curriculum formation and management models impact students and the larger community. Then there’s the problem of being acutely focused on what’s happening in the school. Strong leadership working closely with students, teachers and data has so far equaled strong performance and high academic standards.

“Schools are one hundred percent human capital organizations,” says Kurtz. “Any problem you ever had in a corporation, you went back to the management. It was always a people problem. In schools, there is no product you can ride out for five to seven years. We have to succeed at that everyday, and the biggest people can survive when it’s a great product.”

In drawing an analogy, he referred to venture capital backed movements like the Dot Com Bubble as being run by a “locker room” mentality, where people could fight it out internally and not have to worry about creating a larger, guiding vision for their company. Revenue and capital inflows kept up even the most horrible company structures. “The locker room culture doesn’t matter when you are winning, it only matters when you run into trouble,” says Kurtz.

Kurtz’s idea, followed by many entrepreneurs in many other sectors, is to work in “distributed leadership” mode. Take the best of each person’s individual talents, and collaborate with each other’s strengths to shape the school model. “There has to be a commitment to demonstrated leadership without a title. When we look for internal leaders, we look for teachers that gravitate towards leadership, even if they are not a dean or a principal. They can lead others without the force and the power of a title,” says Kurtz.

He also said that once that issue is figured out, the school leadership can then spend energy on putting the right tools and knowledge frameworks in the hands of teachers and students, as the DSST School Model demonstrates.

“We use technology around assessment and getting data in the hands of students, not just teachers, so we empower them to own their learning, to use data to analyze their learning and their achievement,” says Kurtz. The results of this have proven the effectiveness of the school model.

Here’s a list of some of the DSST statistics.

Student Growth:

Based on the Denver Public Schools new school performance framework released in September 2008, DSST was the only “Distinguished” rated high school in Denver. DSST outperformed every other high school in Denver on both the student learning growth section of this framework and the absolute student performance section of this framework – an unusual combination of excellence.

From 2005-2007, DSST is the only high school in Colorado to earn an “Excellent” performance rating and “Significant Improvement” growth rating on state report cards based on state testing results.
DSST’s 11th grade students over the last two years have averaged a 3.75 point gain on the pre-post ACT tests in the junior year over an 8 month period – a remarkable increase.

DSST’s first 11th graders had the seventh highest composite score in the state behind six schools with FRL count of 6%. (DSST’s 11th grade -38% FRL )

In 2006-08 DSST’s 10th grade FRL students outperformed district and state averages for all students.

College Acceptance:

100% of its first class of seniors was accepted into a four-year college or university last spring. The 100% acceptance rating is particularly inspiring considering the diversity of this Senior Class, which included 62% minority and 40% low income students. Additionally, 50% of this first graduating class is first generation college students.

More than half of the class was accepted to the University of Colorado-Boulder, which is the most selective public institution in the state. DSST was the Colorado’s second largest sender of African-American students and the 7th largest sender of Hispanic students to CU-Boulder despite having one of the smaller graduating classes.

A representative list of the other colleges and universities where DSST’s students received admissions includes: Bowdoin College, Cal Tech, Cal Berkeley, Carleton College, Carnegie Mellon, Colorado College, Cornell University, CSU, CU Boulder, University of Denver, Howard, Middlebury College, MIT, Pomona College, Northwestern, University of Northern Colorado, Metropolitan State College of Denver, Stanford, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Tufts, Wesleyan, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

The folks at DSST are constantly improving their model and using the data they generate to tweak and make more precise the education offering. As costs come down on some tech devices, they are incorporating them into the model. This summer, a group of middle school students will do a virtual dissection of a human cadaver using a new online program, says Kurtz. It hasn’t been hard to get students to focus on education using one-to-one devices like laptops.

“The most surprising thing is how attached they are to it,” says Kurtz. “Getting their one to one device is so important to the kids. Once you give kids data and a context to use it, they get energized by it.”

“I am not totally convinced that technology replaces teachers. We focus on the use of technology to leverage teachers,” says Kurtz. “Online learning can be impactful for a kid that is highly motivated. Most of the time, the kids with the highest needs need the most from relationships. I think we need to be careful.” But according to Kurtz, a blended model may work. In a blended learning model, you take a slice of the day and devote learning to an online environment, taking pressure off of staff, but also allowing for teachers to engage with students in a more rigorous and intimate way. “I think that’s possible. I won’t say its impossible. The secret sauce is high execution,” says Kurtz.

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