Denver School of Science & Tech gets $1 million from Oprah, but CEO sees much more to do

On Monday's Oprah, host Oprah Winfrey spotlighted the new documentary Waiting For "Superman", which examines charter schools and America's troubled public-education system. Along the way, she opened her pocketbook and gave $1 million to six impressive charters -- among them the Denver School of Science & Technology. Below, Bill Kurtz, the school's CEO, talks about the gift and the future for DSST and U.S. education. [jump] The Oprah segment in which DSST reps learned about this gift captured legitimate surprise, Kurtz says. "They just brought us up on stage and told us, 'You stand here' and 'You stand here,' and that was pretty much it. They didn't say, 'You're going to get a big check in five minutes, so act surprised.' We just stood there, and then they let the cameras roll."

Once Winfrey's largesse was revealed, school personnel had to keep the excitement to themselves.

"We found out when the taping happened, and the show is taped in advance of the air date," he says. "So we found out on the 10th of September," ten days before the rest of the world. Still, Kurtz didn't find keeping this secret especially difficult. "Obviously, you want to be able to tell people," he concedes. "But when you know what's going to happen at the other end, you can probably survive the process."

Although the program focused to a large degree on Waiting for "Superman" and the thoughts of its director, Davis Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth, made with former vice president Al Gore, DSST isn't part of the documentary. So why were the school's efforts rewarded in the same episode?

"To be honest," he says, "I think they chose schools that aren't featured in the film, but ones they felt were equally worthy."

Even so, he has kind words for both "Superman" and The Lottery, a doc on a similar subject by director Madeleine Sackler.

"There are a bunch of films in this genre," he points out, "and I think they're all quite good at raising provocative questions around the challenges of our public education system today, and the question of why it's not better."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts