How Shared Values at DSST Shape Youth Development

This post was originally posted by Culture Feed.

During her critical high school years, Karen missed a lot of school attending medical appointments with her mother who spoke limited English. Karen attended to translate but often felt inadequate to the task given the technical terminology.

Karen (center) discussed the challenges with Jeremy Wickenheiser who directs Entrepreneurial Studies at DSST Public Schools, a high performing network of secondary schools in Denver. Wickenheiser encouraged Karen to recruit two colleagues and delve deeper into the problem.

“These students identified a very real problem that they became experts in,” said Jeremy. “They did over 60 interviews with community members, hospitals, and clinics. As a result, they learned that existing solutions for translation and interpretation services are not effective.”

Karen and her classmates turned the problem into a business proposal for a startup called Aorta. The project was particular to Karen’s challenge but typical of the work students do at DSST. “Each of our business consulting or new venture creation projects demonstrate creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, and an entrepreneurial mindset,” said Jeremy.

Shared Values at DSST

The STEM-focused (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) schools send all of their graduates to four-year colleges. DSST not only delivers on academic results but prepares young people for careers and civic contribution.

Shared values are central to life and learning at DSST. “We’re a values first organization,” said CEO Bill Kurtz. The shared values are alive in the DSST culture, practiced in the advisory system, and applied in real life learning opportunities.

The six values at the heart of DSST include:


  • Appreciating the value of a person or an object through your words,
  • actions and attitude—treating people appropriately with common courtesy.


  • Able to be trusted and or depended upon to complete tasks, follow directions and own up to your actions.


  • Being truthful, fair and trustworthy in your words and actions
  • doing as you say and saying as you do.


  • Possessing confidence and resolve to take risks and make right decisions in the face of pressure and adverse or unfamiliar circumstances.


  • Eager to learn, explore and question things to gain a deeper understanding.

Doing Your Best:

  • Putting your best effort into everything you do.

“Each human being strives to be fully known and affirmed for who they are and to contribute something significant to the human story,” said Kurtz. These values that encourage courage, curiosity and contribution are visibly present in all DSST schools.

A morning meeting kicks off the day at Stapleton Middle School (feeder to the flagship DSST high school). It proves a quick check in a reinforcement of shared values. During an advisory period, students receive individual feedback on how they are living the shared values.

“Our program is really built around three things,” Wickenheiser said, “‘Who am I?, How am I going to create impact?, and How can I start now?

Each junior completes an internship. Seniors frequently take the knowledge and relationships from their internship to develop a senior project like Karen’s startup proposal.

Through visual aids, cultural practices, regular feedback, and application opportunities, DSST students develop important values and habits of mind that will serve them for life.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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