The Evolution of the Denver Public Schools Portfolio

By: Tom Vander Ark and Emily Liebtag

If you ask Jennifer Holladay, Denver Public Schools (DPS) Portfolio Manager, why their portfolio approach has worked, she would tell you it’s because “all boats [both charter and district schools] are rising and students and families have access to better options”. She’d also tell you that they still have a lot to learn and that there have been many failures along the way.

In following the district over the last thirty years, we’ve seen the evolution of the portfolio from a weak example of managed instruction, through early authorizing to what it is today — one of the leading models for public school collaboration and accountability.

The Denver 2020 plan is based on five pillars that apply to district, charter and innovation school ranging from Montessori elementary schools to college-prep high schools.

All schools in Denver share a common enrollment, funding, discipline, transportation and facilities plan. They all have a high degree of flexibility as well as accountability for results.

Charter schools are authorized by the district and are operated by nonprofit organizations. Innovation schools have charter-like autonomy but are operated by the district. Both require periodic reauthorization (the remaining district schools do not).

When the initial portfolio compact was developing in 2010, it took compromise on the part of charters who agreed to participate in the common enrollment systems and accept an attendance boundary. District schools accepted stronger accountability in a competitive landscape.


What started in 2004 as The Denver School of Science and Technology, a STEM-focused high school serving low-income students has become DSST Public Schools, one of the nation’s best school networks. With 14 secondary schools, the network continues to send all of its graduates to four-year colleges.

Dan Sullivan (above), director at the flagship Stapleton campus, explains that every day for his 900 grade 6-12 students begins with a 45 minute morning meeting where core values are reinforced.

Sullivan said the advisory system is at the core of DSST success. A group of 15 to 18 students meets daily with an advisor who monitors progress.

Every lesson at DSST concludes with a mastery check. “The data tells us where to look and what student work to get in front of us,” said Sullivan. Frequent checks are the basis of a “Do what it takes” culture.

DSST has a focus on people development. Every teacher has a coach. Like students, every staff member receives regular feedback on shared values.

Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design

A 2013 New Jersey bus ride while visiting schools fueled ideas of Lisa Simms and Danny Medved for what became the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design.

The DSISD team created their design with the help a grant from Carnegie and support from the Imaginarium, a DPS incubator (more below). As an innovation school, DSISD has waivers that allow it to focus on competency-based learning (for students and teachers).

Five drivers shape learning at DSISD:

  • Advisory: mentoring, personal learning time, community building
  • Student support: grade level teams, differentiation, restorative approach
  • Student agency: self-directed learning, design my future, and habits of success.
  • Competency-based education: project-based learning, personalized instruction and assessment, cognitive skills and innovator competencies.
  • Data-driven instruction: backward designed curriculum, spiraling skills, professional learning community data analysis, and strategic instructional shifts.

As a new school, DISID is still working on 11-12 pathways including career connections and an early college pathway (with the opportunity to earn college credit up to an AA degree).

The Beacon Network

Grant Beacon is one of the two middle schools in the Beacon Network. Led by a rockstar team comprised of Alex Magaña, Kevin Croghan and Michelle Saab, Grant Beacon is a school that went from running the risk of being shut down to drawing families back into the neighborhood because of the solid education and personalized attention students receive.

The turnaround focused on blended and personalized learning, character development, and extended time. To support students, particularly in character development, grade-level deans loop with student cohorts and focus on culture and relationships building with students.

Magña explains (below) that the network added a focus on critical thinking. Like DSISD, the Beacon Network has innovation status in Denver.

Beacon schools offer a variety of student leadership opportunities and voice and choice in assignments; daily advisory and mindfulness training and Friday family time focused on character development.

High Tech Elementary

One of the five attendance zone elementary schools on the grounds of the former Stapleton airport, High Tech Elementary is a district school that shares a building with a DSST middle school.

Shared values evident in classrooms include creativity, inclusiveness, perseverance, accountability, love of learning and humanity. Teachers help students recognize the emotional zone they’re in to promote positive behavior regulation. There is a schoolwide focus on mindfulness and social-emotional learning. The motto is “Learners today, leaders tomorrow.”

Well managed small groups form the basis of morning reading instruction. With the help of students from UC Denver, they get down to groups of eight and use every available space in the new building (below). And, ironically, High Tech ditched computers for a print approach to primary reading instruction.

High Tech uses project-based learning to integrate social studies and English in 90-minute blocks twice weekly.


The Imaginarium, the DPS incubator, helps leaders interested in innovating (who may or may not have experience in doing so) develop, plan and implement their big, bold new ideas.

Imaginarium Innovation Partner Richard Resendez (below) explained the foundational drivers of their work include relationships, culture, mindset and metacognition. The key drivers include:

  • Learner paths: profiles, goals setting, and progress monitoring
  • Evolving Learner and Teacher Roles: learner as Lead, learner as collaborator, teacher as facilitator
  • Strategic Resource Use: strategic use of space,  tech, time, and communities
  • Developing and Demonstrating Competencies: competency-based progressions based on demonstrations of learning

Every school in Denver, including district schools that haven’t requested innovation status, have the flexibility to choose curriculum and assessment and professional learning. Schools have advisory boards that provide input on key decisions. The school board has made a couple of big bets on literacy and early learning that are not optional.

After adding 20,000 students in post-recession boom years, DPS growth has slowed and property values have skyrocketed. As a result, DPS is opening few schools (there are about 20 approved schools that couldn’t find a facility).

Slow growth and gentrification are adding new opportunities and challenges to Denver schools. New schools like DSISD have to work a little harder to achieve full enrollment. With gentrification, some DSST and Beacon schools have to work harder to attract low-income students. The Imaginarium is collecting less external grant funding. Despite the new challenges, the DPS portfolio model remains the most mature district-charter collaboration in the country–and a place worth visiting.

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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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