Ideas in Action: Broad Prize Winner Broadening Diversity Through Intentional Community Outreach
Tuesday, July 24, 2018 | Safal Partners
Key Takeaway: DSST Public Schools is bridging cultures and expanding integrated schools through targeted and intentional community outreach.
“No matter who you are, or where you come from, our kids can all feel like they belong.”
How do you instill a sense of belonging for more than 5,700 students across 14 schools? At DSST Public Schools in Denver, it starts with a strong focus on community.
“Our focus on community and common sense of values has been instrumental,” said Heather Lamm, chief advocacy and communications officer at DSST. “Having smaller schools, having an advisory structure that allows staff to know their students more deeply, it all makes students feel like they belong.”
DSST will continue its mission as it grows to serve more than 10,500 students across 22 schools by 2025.
Those who have followed the many successes of DSST that led to its recent awarding of the 2018 Broad Prize know its impact well. The Broad Prize honors public charter management organizations that have demonstrated the best academic outcomes, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds and students of color. One hundred percent of DSST graduates have been accepted to four-year colleges or universities, and during the 2016-17 school year, on average, DSST students exceeded the ACT college readiness benchmark across all available demographic groups.
“We were founded on a belief that a diversity of backgrounds is beneficial for all kids, not just low-income students,” said Lamm. “When we completed our strategic plan in 2016, we took a look at ourselves over the last 12 years and looked at where we needed to shift. We realized we needed to double down on integration.”
As research has shown, students in diverse schools have higher average test scores and graduation rates than peers of similar backgrounds. As the Century Foundation explains in its Diverse-by-Design Charter Schools report, “the experience of learning in integrated classrooms alongside peers with different experiences, perspectives, and abilities helps to reduce racial bias and increase creativity, motivation, deeper learning, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.”
Eighty-one percent of DSST’s students are students of color, while 66 percent receive free or reduced-priced lunch. Some of DSST’s success integrating its schools can be attributed to Denver Public Schools’ use of a single application for public schools (both charter and traditional) to aid families in school choice and enrollment. The school district can apply various strategies to weight admission in different types of schools as allowed by applicable laws for those types of schools. Charter schools like DSST benefit to ensure charter program requirements are met in the design of the weight.
But even with a single application system, DSST has had to continue to innovate to attract families to its schools.
“The challenge in anything is when you have 13 schools and you’re serving a variety of different neighborhoods, you have to really dig in and figure out how to serve a diverse range of families,” said Lamm.
Like many schools across the country, both charter and traditional, one of DSST’s biggest challenges lies in how to attract middle-income families that have traveled to other counties for their children’s schools. Transportation is also a challenge.
“One of the big obstacles, in any organization, is [deciding] where to spend your time when you have relatively limited time and resources,” said Lamm. “How do you narrow down your focus, so that you are targeting and talking to the right people?”
DSST has incorporated new marketing techniques, including the use of a Customer Relationship Management system, or CRM, to help track prospective families.
The school has also had to overcome the obstacle of racial bias.
“With an integrated schools focus, we’ve had to look at how you overcome some of the perceptions that are out there, not only with charters but everywhere,” said Lamm. “People say they like the idea of diversity, but when they walk into a school where people don’t look like them, they get uncomfortable.”
Lamm says they’ve countered that by allowing parents and families to come into the schools to meet teachers and see the work they do.
Families ultimately choose DSST for one of its simplest principles: “Belong. And be yourself.” That dedication to helping children develop a strong sense of self may ultimately be what sets DSST apart.
“There’s a lot we could say about academic rigor and expectations, which are important, but when it comes to our work in integration with cultures and community, it makes students feel like they are part of something during the tricky years of middle and high school,” said Lamm.