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All Graduates from a Denver STEM School Are Headed to 4-Year College

A high school graduation rate of 100 percent is quite a feat. At Stapleton High School in Denver, not only will all seniors earn a diploma this spring—each one has been admitted to a four-year college or university, according to a press release issued last week. And it's not a fluke. This has been the case every year since 2008, for the school, where 40 percent of the racially and ethnically diverse student population comes from low-income families. 

Stapleton is an open-enrollment, STEM-focused charter school with 490 students operated by the Denver School of Science and Technology Public Schools network. (The charter network is authorized by the Denver school district, and currently operates seven schools.)

So what's their secret recipe?

To get this year's 89 seniors to the finish line and aiming beyond, school Director Jeff Desserich said the key was setting high expectations and providing high support.

"We make sure students have access to the kind of rigor they will see in college," he said in a phone interview. "It's about keeping the bar up there and not lowering it no matter what."

The school provides additional tutoring, remedial support or whatever it takes to help students succeed. And if they don't, the school doesn't hesitate having them repeat a grade, says Desserich. Teachers use data analysis to change student plans based on their performance and make sure they are getting the instruction they need.

Students at Stapleton High work hard for their diplomas. All students must take four years of math and reach precalculus at a minimum. A 10-15 page senior thesis is required for graduation. Several Advanced Placement courses are offered and about half of students enroll in at least one. 

Maybe you wonder if the class size is small. Not particularly. Classes hover between 20 and 30; never more than 32.

An intensive counseling program? Just two people work in the school's college placement office. They do, however, begin integrating elements of the college-search process into the freshman year curriculum. By the time students are seniors, they attend class twice a week with the college-placement counselors to work on filling out college applications and other steps to gear up for college.

Families 'Know Our Reputation'

The diverse student body at Stapleton is fairly evenly divided among among Latinos, African-Americans, and whites. Students who wish to attend Stapleton are chosen at random by a lottery, with no entrance requirements. 

"We are not creaming at all. These are not the best of the best," said Desserich. "But we have a reputation and we have families that know our reputation and want to be part of that."

Desserich also credits the school's track record with a feeling of community in the school, from the faculty to the maintenance staff and cafeteria workers. "Everyone is invested in everyone's success. Being a strong community together, we are able to help students," he said.

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