Byers junior high to go from unofficial dog park to DSST charter school

Empty since its closure in 2004, the fate of the former Byers junior high school has perplexed residents of Denver school district 7.

The school, named after William Byers, founder of the similarly defunct Rocky Mountain News reportedly required costly repairs before it could reopen; in the meantime, locals took to using the abandoned grounds as a kind of speakeasy dog park, complete with extra plastic bags for pickup and water bowls for thirsty puppies.

But in 2011, the Denver School of Science and Technology in Stapleton mounted a campaign to reopen Byers as a middle-school campus -- and its efforts were successful: The new school -- a DSST and DPS charter school partnership -- is enrolling students for classes next fall. Westword spoke with Brad White, DSST's enthusiastic new middle school director, about his ambitions for Byers.

Westword: What made DSST decide to move into the vacant Byers campus?

Principal Brad White: We were brought to the campus, invited by the community and DPS to move in to this absolutely gorgeous building. We were incredibly grateful about that. There was a DSST-to-Byers campaign organized by folks in the community who wanted to bring educational opportunity to kids in the area. They got together and we really responded to that, and we were honestly humbled to have the opportunity to come here.

How's enrollment going?

We're already fully enrolled for the first year. We have about 150 students per grade level at all DSST campuses. At Byers, which will be the fifth DSST charter, we'll just be starting with a sixth-grade class this year, and we won't be in the Byers building for the another year after that. At this point, we're focusing on our temporary campus at Calvary Temple, where our first sixth-graders will go next year.

Can you describe DSST's approach to education?

College preparedness is always our first priority and for the past six years, 100 percent of our students have been accepted to four-year colleges. First and foremost, we are a liberal arts program with a S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) focus. Our hope is to develop well-rounded students that develop in each of the liberal arts, including humanities and math, but also giving students opportunities to grow in science and engineering. We want each student who comes out of Byers to have a command of reading and writing skills -- they'll all take Spanish and be taught the language of coding, which will be an essential skill set going forward in the 21st century. It's a real need in our society.

How are you modernizing to meet that need?

At each DSST campus we provide highly rigorous opportunities for students to engage in science. Specifically at Byers, we have a unique opportunity to work in a theme around computer science and programming, including digital art, a video-game design course coordinated with the University of Denver and advanced programming. Currently, only about 10 percent of schools around the country provide any coding or computer programming curriculum, and the opportunity to do that here in Denver is pretty special. We have a 1-to-1 laptop program, so each student is equipped with a laptop which provides a unique opportunity for engagement with teachers while providing data for educators to track the progress of their students.

As far as the building itself goes, since it's a historical landmark, we're trying to balance modernization with preservation through the design.

Neighborhood residents have taken to using the Byers grounds as a dog park. What are your plans for discouraging local dog owners going forward?

Honestly, we were not super aware of any kind of dog park, though I do remember hearing about that. I'm not sure what we'll end up doing there. We're more focused on building our curriculum at the moment.

More from our Education archives: "Denver School of Science & Tech gets $1 million from Oprah, but CEO sees much more to do."

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