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

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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. 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."

His take on this last topic?

"It's an incredibly important and complicated question -- a problem we've been trying to solve for years now, and we've spent billions of dollars trying to do it. It's a very complex system operating in the public space. But I think in the last ten or fifteen years, we've learned a lot about how to create great schools that serve all kids, and I think we have proof points about how to do it.

"There are lots of schools around the country -- district schools or charter schools -- that are great for kids. But the problem is, we can't do enough of that for enough kids. There's a lot of inertia built into changing public education that makes it difficult to have a unified strategy and to implement it on a large scale over a long enough period of time."

One example: Michelle Rhee, schools chancellor in Washington, D.C., who's featured in Guggenheim's movie. Rhee campaigned on behalf of Mayor Adrian Fenty, who appointed her to the post, and when Fenty lost a primary vote to Vincent Gray, she called the results "devastating." As a result, Gray is widely expected to replace her if he is elected in November, as he almost certainly will be.

"My guess is that she's not going to be superintendent there in three more months," Kurtz says. "Now, you can argue if what she's done there has been good or bad, but it's definitely going to change, and that's part of the problem. You can create a vision for what needs to change and do that for two years and then you're out, and someone else comes in and puts in a new vision."

In Kurtz's view, such vacillations can have a negative impact. "We need to create a long-term vision -- one with a little more insulation. That way, we can create schools that work for all kids, and do it over a long period of time -- and then replicate it at other schools as well."

DSST is trying something similar on a smaller scale.

"We have two campuses now, and approval to open three more," Kurtz says. "We're raising money to make sure we can do that, and this money" -- the Oprah fund -- "will help us open these additional campuses."

The operative word in that last sentence is "help," Kurtz stresses.

"We need to raise a bunch of money, and this helps us get there," he acknowledges. "But we have to raise more money to get to that goal -- and in Colorado today, it's hard to know where school funding is going to go. From what I've read about the current budget, and the future budget of the state, there are going to be a lot of challenges. But thankfully right now we have strong financial support to be able to open the campuses, and we hope to be able to open one a year -- one next summer, one in 2012 and one in 2013. But we still have money to raise to support the full build-out of those schools."

At the end of this road, DSST will be able to educate between 4,300 and 4,500 students between grades six and twelve -- and he would love for the schools to become role models for other institutions to emulate.

"It's important to shed a light," he says. "And I think that's what Oprah is intending to do. There are schools that work out there, and schools that are serving a broad range of kid, whether they be low-income students or minority students or students with disabilities. The movie talks a lot about the system being broken, but there is hope. And there are great public schools, including schools right here in Denver" -- among them Beach Court Elementary and Denver Prep, he says.

In the meantime, he goes on, "this is a very important dialogue that our country needs to have, and the movie is a chance, like An Inconvenient Truth was, to raise an issue that's very complex and difficult. Our hope is that with the movie and this gift, people will continue to ask the hard questions about how to do a better job of educating kids. Because if we don't do a better job, there are monumental consequences for society.

"We can't continue doing the same old things," he adds. "We've been doing them for forty or fifty years, and they're not working."

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