We ask—and try to answer—the question: Are local schools preparing students for life after high school?
—Photography by Ehren Joseph unless otherwise noted
In 1946, Harvard University and the National Education Association battled over the best way to prepare students for the real world. Life magazine tried to settle the argument by investigating their opposing ideas through the lens of Denver’s East High School. Seven decades later, we revisit Life’s analysis to ask: How are local schools preparing kids for life after high school?
Then: “Ever since John Dewey, in 1899, blasted the U.S. public-school system for glutting students with academic subjects and neglecting more practical courses, U.S. educators have been fighting the war of practical vs. cultural education.”
Now: Seventy years after Life magazine published that sentence, the debate still rages in the United States—and in Denver.
An East High School student appeared on the cover of Life 70 years ago. —Photo by Sarah Boyum
This past may, east High School counselor Elizabeth Roush was thumbing through a stack of old magazines inside an antique shop in Castle Rock when one of the periodicals attracted her attention. Although some of the pages had been torn free and there was a stain on the cover, Roush snatched the issue and delivered it to Andy Mendelsberg, East High’s principal.
“I had heard of it but never seen it before,” Mendelsberg says, pointing toward that April 22, 1946, copy of Life lying on a table inside his office. The cover bears a black-and-white photo of a young woman reading a textbook, her dark hair framing a smooth teenage face. The cover line reads “Denver High School.” The venerable publication may have gotten the name wrong—the young brunette was, in fact, a student at East—but its reasoning for selecting the school for coverage was spot-on. Compared with other U.S. high schools at the time, the City Park–based preparatory stood “well above the average.”
East was the ideal setting for evaluating how a successful high school was readying its students for reality. For some, that may have been college. For many others, it was the workplace. The cover story took aim at the philosophies of two competing entities: Harvard University and the National Education Association (NEA), the teachers union. The nation’s most august university called for more emphasis on cultural and academic subjects—like, say, the study of Plato’s Republic. The NEA, on the other hand, advocated for more practical education that the grads who would not go on to college could use in their careers. That meant, for example, eighty-sixing geometry because it served little purpose for the four out of five students who would not go to college at the time.
In the mid-1940s, East High hewed much closer to the NEA’s philosophy. It offered 176 vocational classes, from typing courses to an off-campus auto shop class provided through a partnership with the Emily Griffith Opportunity School, a local trade school. Today, East’s curriculum skews more college prep, offering 28 Advanced Placement courses and concurrent enrollment opportunities through partnerships with the Community College of Denver and the University of Colorado system. Yet the school still holds a well-above-average position in Colorado’s educational landscape. In fact, the most recent Denver Public Schools (DPS) report card rates the school as “distinguished”—meaning it exceeded district expectations. Not surprisingly, the waitlist to get into East stretches to 180 students, their parents drawn in by extracurricular activities, test scores, and likely, the myriad specialized courses the school offers: Where in 1946 East students struck a spoon to understand conduction and discussed Alfred Hitchcock’s latest movie in psychology, contemporary students are building robots and reading graphic novels. “I don’t know that students have changed much—kids are still kids—but the way schools operate has definitely changed,” Mendelsberg says.
While East is still among the best public high schools in the state, there are 198 other primary and secondary institutions within DPS and countless more along the Front Range. Which is why 5280 updated Life’s research project for 2016 by lifting some of the recommendations Harvard and the NEA made 70 years ago and using them to understand how local public, private, and charter schools are readying pupils for college and careers. We discovered that although educational weapons have improved (from eating utensils to 3-D printers), the war pitting practical education against classical continues to be waged in the Mile High City and beyond.
Then: “East High School students have their choice of 176 vocational subjects, can learn to be beauticians, radio repairmen, waitresses.”
Now: DPS’ CareerConnect program doesn’t make students wait until college to choose a major.
If the 1940s version of the NEA could’ve participated in this month’s election, you can bet the union would have supported the proposed mill levy that seeks to raise $56.6 million for DPS. That’s because in 1946, the NEA was “delighted,” according to Life, by the bevy of vocational courses available at East—and the millions sought by DPS this month are earmarked for, among other things, career-readiness programs such as CareerConnect.
DPS laid the foundation for CareerConnect in 1976 when it opened the Career Education Center Early College of Denver (CEC), a vocational high school in the Jefferson Park neighborhood. At CEC, kids not headed to college learned to fix cars, weld, or cook. Then, three years ago, DPS received a grant to widely expand CareerConnect, making the program available to all high school students.
There are 10 pathways under CareerConnect’s umbrella, from BusinessConnect for future financiers to MedConnect for aspiring doctors. These tracks are sprinkled throughout 27 DPS buildings. Students follow these tracks during their elective hours, taking classes that lead to either industry certifications or college credit. Accordingly, enrollment in CareerConnect jumped to more than 6,000 last year, up from around 4,000 in 2013-’14.
That boom might be short-lived. The grant subsidizing CareerConnect’s growth dries up after the next school year. This month’s proposed mill levy would cover the tab indefinitely. “We need to work hard to show our community the importance of investing in education,” DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg says, “and the long-term payoff of that investment.” It’s too early to put a dollar value on CareerConnect—but it seems to be working for 17-year-old Citlali Barcenas, a first-generation Mexican-American and senior at CEC, who describes her journey through CareerConnect.
Thanks to CareerConnect, Citlali Barcenas is on track to become an EMT.
Citlali Barcenas' Passage Through CEC
Ninth Grade: All CEC freshmen take four survey courses to explore different careers. The school placed Barcenas in Construction Technology, Early Childhood and Elementary Careers, Computer Applications and Business Management, and Health and Wellness. “At first, I wanted to be a chef," Barcenas says. "But health and wellness opened my eyes.”
10th Grade: Students start out on chosen career paths as sophomores. Barcenas picked Culinary Arts in the HospitalityConnect program for her first semester class. She took Principles of Biomedical Science during her second semester. “Cooking is fun, but it’s not something I could do every single day.”
11th Grade: Barcenas switched to the MedConnect program, enrolling in Human Body Systems and then Sports Medicine. She also received a mentor from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “We went on a trip to the University of Colorado Denver for a cadaver lab. It was the greatest experience. They showed us where every single organ was.”
Summer Internship: Barcenas spent six weeks at Denver Health Medical Center shadowing the paramedic division and an ER doctor. “The reason I took the internship was to make sure [being an EMT] was something I wanted to do. And it was amazing.”
12th Grade: Barcenas will take Medical Interventions, which explores medical cases—such as the diagnosis and treatment of unknown infections. “The teacher for Medical Interventions and I started together when I came to [CEC]. I started to take all of his courses...because of the way he was teaching them.”
Graduation: Barcenas will leave CEC with college-level credit in CPR for Professionals and Medical Terminology, both of which can be applied to future EMT certification. “I have two options: go to the University of Colorado Denver, then get into medical school at CU Anschutz, or become an EMT. But I think I’m set on being an EMT first.”
Then: “N.E.A. believes that more girls would take science courses, even chemistry, if they were taught to make their own cosmetics.”
Now: Every young woman at GALS studies science—even chemistry!—but in a setting that research suggests positions them for success.
GALS students create a chemical reaction, adding sulfuric acid to sugar to produce carbon.
To some, a school that caters to a single gender might seem as quaint as the NEA patronizing women with makeup classes. But Girls Athletic Leadership Schools (GALS) founder Liz Wolfson firmly believes gender-specific education provides girls the chance to grow into successful women like Hillary Clinton—who, we should point out, attended the all-female Wellesley College. “When girls graduate from girls schools, I believe they have a better sense of who they are,” Wolfson says.
Don’t let the name throw you: Lincoln Park’s GALS isn’t exclusive to the lacrosse- and soccer-loving set. “Brain science says movement boosts cognitive achievement—period,” Wolfson says. A teacher might present students with a historical scenario, such as Columbus’ treatment of Native Americans. Students who agree with the Italian explorer go to the opposite side of the room from those who disagree. Once there, each girl must state why she chose her position, encouraging students from the other side of the room to cross over. Back and forth, they move.
Influenced by books such as Learning Like A Girl: Educating Our Daughters In Schools of Their Own, which shows that during adolescence, girls begin to defer to boys in coed classrooms, Wolfson designed an environment that encourages female students to speak out. For example, when a teacher asks a question, a girl’s impulse generally is to answer, but often she first checks to see who else has raised a hand. A GALS educator knows this and might wait a few beats until there are more arms in the air before calling on someone. (Boys, on the other hand, are inclined to raise their hands before they know the answer; they trust they’ll come up with it later.)
Stalker Henderson sent his daughter Catherine to GALS as part of the school’s inaugural class in 2010 (originally a middle school, GALS has since added high school and will graduate its first cohort in 2018). Now a senior at George Washington High School, Catherine serves as co-president of the National Honor Society, stage manager for the winter musical, and co-captain of the cross-country team. “GALS allowed her to recognize her abilities and her voice,” her father says.
Quantifiably, things seem to be working out, too. In 2016, 52.6 percent of GALS students met or exceeded expectations on the English portion of the Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) assessment test, compared with 39.5 percent of all Centennial State test-takers. Furthermore, 31 percent of GALS pupils met or exceeded expectations on the math part of the exam; Colorado boys did so only 26.4 percent of the time. “Coed schooling has produced an inequitable system for women,” Wolfson says. “So maybe we should try something different.”
Then: “Students should do own experiments.”
Now: Graland Country Day School looks to nurture the next
Thomas Edison Elon Musk.
Sophie Goldberg with her latest invention, skis with built-in skins.
The intellectuals from Harvard and the pragmatists from the NEA agreed on at least one thing: Students don’t learn through lectures alone. So it’s safe to assume both would approve of Graland Country Day School’s Gates Invention and Innovation Program. Every year, the private school’s fifth-, sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders spend elective periods or personal time conceiving, developing, and then, in March, pitching inventions to six judges. Inventions the judges deem market-worthy receive the support necessary to try to obtain a patent. “They learn the quickest way to success is to fail early and fail often,” says Andy Dodge, co-director of the Gates program and chairman of the Hilltop school’s science department.
Started in 1999, the elective program has become hugely popular. In 2015-’16, only 14 of Graland’s 71 fifth-graders didn’t participate. A few years ago, the school’s younger students even lobbied administrators to be included. Third-graders, who were studying civics at the time, drafted a “bill” that would’ve allowed them to participate in the Gates competition. (The principal has since incorporated invention-related curriculum into all grades.)
Sophie Goldberg empathizes with her younger schoolmates. She had been dreaming about joining the program since she started at Graland as a kindergartner. When her time finally arrived, Goldberg connected two umbrellas with a length of PVC pipe and—voilà!—invented the Bi-Dry, an umbrella that provides twice the protection but can still be held by a single person. The following year, one of the program’s instructors asked the students to infuse a hint of altruism into their inventiveness, so Goldberg studied gears and gravity to develop the Grav-wash-ity, a gravity-powered washing machine for people who don’t have access to electricity.
This fall, Graland will debut the 24,000-square-foot Corkins Center. The school spent more than a year raising funds from parents and other benefactors to pay for the $10 million on-site facility—and the 3-D printers, laser cutter, and other high-tech tools inside it—in order to imbue the entire campus with the sort of experiential, self-sufficient, and creative passion the Gates competition has fostered. “One of the highlights is that teachers are there to help you but not necessarily give you the answers or tell you what to do,” says Goldberg, now a freshman at East High School, whose Grav-wash-ity earned a patent. The end result, at least for Goldberg, was satisfaction she had never before felt in a traditional classroom. “It made me very proud,” she says. “I made that. It’s part of this world now.”
Three Gates-contest-winning inventions that earned patents.
The Drip Drop
Inventors: Sam Nassif and Oliver Greenwald (pictured above)
The product: This edible ring wraps around your everyday sugar cone to protect kids’—OK, and adults’—hands from melting ice cream. This past April, Nassif and Greenwald pitched the Drip Drop on Shark Tank, securing $50,000 from one of the show’s investors.
Inventors: James Cobb and Alex Kechriotis
The product: Designed for seniors with Parkinson’s, the Schnap attaches to a jacket’s existing zipper. Wearers then bring the two-sided, magnet-lined creation together to fasten their coats instead of
having to fuss with temperamental zippers.
The All Chairain
Inventors: Cailey Karshmer and Lily Fox
The product: Inspired by Fox’s mom, who uses a wheelchair, this knobby-tire attachment replaces the two front wheels of a standard wheelchair so the user can navigate rocky terrain.
Then: “The end product of the educational system, according to Harvard, should be a responsible citizen aware of his duties and of his fellow men.”
Now: At Mackintosh Academy’s Littleton campus, the school colors are cherry red and lime—but the students bleed a deep shade of environmental green.
Mackintosh’s Nathan Hofer carries seedlings from the greenhouse so they can be transferred to larger growing containers.
What better way to benefit your fellow men (and women) than to ensure they have a planet to inhabit in the future? In 2015, sixth-graders at Mackintosh Academy fulfilled a class project by writing a grant to install solar panels atop the private pre-K through eighth grade school in Littleton. That touched off an ecological arms race—one that has turned the campus into what administrators call a “smart village,” a term typically used to define communities in undeveloped countries that generate electricity through sustainable means. Here, a tour of the Denver-area school that’s taking literal its charge to produce responsible citizens of the Earth.
Solar Panels: Funded by a $98,000 grant from State Farm Insurance, the campus’ 97 panels save the equivalent of 40,000 pounds of coal per year—not to mention shave $3,000 to $4,000 off the school’s annual electric bill. Those savings go toward tuition for a kid who couldn’t otherwise afford to attend the academy. The program earned its founders a President’s Environmental Youth Award, which should look pretty good on their college applications.
Greenhouse: The result of a $2,000 grant through the Whole Kids Foundation, Mackintosh’s greenhouse provides lettuce, arugula, kale, spinach, and tomatoes that are sold to parents during Friday afternoon pick-up (the profits, about $300 so far, are reinvested in garden supplies). The produce also helped feed attendees during an event last March that featured local restaurateur Justin Cucci, owner of Linger and Root Down, who gave a speech about sustainable agriculture.
Terraces: Middle schoolers studying Peru’s Machu Picchu decided the Incas’ ancient terracing techniques would be a good way to prevent the erosion of a nearby hill while also increasing the area available for crops. Built by students in spring 2016, the four terraces offer 100 square feet of space for salad greens, tomatoes, corn, and pumpkins.
Glass Recycling: In single-stream recycling programs like Denver’s, glass tends to shatter when it’s passing through different stages of the system. And because it’s broken, workers have a difficult time separating the glass from other recyclables. Consequently, 83 percent of glass intended to be recycled ends up in landfills. That disturbing stat spawned a partnership between the school and local nonprofit Clear Intentions in March 2016. Every other week, parents bring discarded glass with them when picking up their kids from Mackintosh. Students and teachers then deliver the glass from the car line to Clear Intentions’ glass-only recycling station.
Messh Kits: Last year, seventh- and eight-graders in Mackintosh’s design course were asked to create a product that would turn school events into zero-waste affairs. With the help of their teachers, the kids dreamed up and constructed Messh Kits—cutlery and nonbreakable dishes bought secondhand and stored in washable mesh bags (so they can throw the bags, dirty kitchenware inside, into the dishwasher). Parents and students now use the kits in place of plastic utensils and paper plates during school events.
TerraCycle: Every grade at the school collects nonrecyclable items, such as Capri Sun pouches and Power Bar wrappers, and puts them into bins from TerraCycle, an East Coast company that turns them into plastic pellets. Manufacturers transform the pellets into benches, garden beds, and other plastic products.
Then: “Field trips and classroom discussions help liven up schoolwork.”
Now: The world is a classroom for the metro area’s growing population of home-schooled students.
The Denver Museum of Nature & Science presents myriad learning opportunities for the Kinners.
Nine years ago, Denver-dwellers Tracy and Matthew Kinner scoured the city for a kindergarten program for their daughter and came back disappointed. Their neighborhood’s public schools weren’t performing well, and the 13 private schools they researched were overpriced. “Then I heard that someone on our block was going to home-school,” Tracy says, “and I realized, ‘Oh, regular city people can teach their kids at home.’ ”
Today, Tracy teaches her ninth-grade daughter and seventh-grade son using a variety of resources, including a formal math curriculum from a free web-based nonprofit; writing projects inspired by, for example, a particular era of music history; and field trips to cultural institutions like the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. “We have tremendous flexibility to go and do whatever we find interesting,” Tracy says. Outside-the-living-room learning also combats the myth that home-schooled kids are unsociable because they never learn to navigate playground politics. “My kids have to talk to a much broader range of people,” Tracy says. That’s not just a mom’s opinion; studies suggest home-schooled students have stronger friendships and better relationships with adults.
The Kinners are far from the only urbanites turning to in-house education: Last year in Denver, 291 students were home-schooled, up 64 percent from 2009. (Families who want to teach their children at home notify their local school districts each fall.) These kids often seem to be more prepared for higher education: Research from the University of Colorado Boulder shows that Colorado students taught at home have a higher average GPA (3.18) at college graduation than their classroom-taught peers (2.88).
Yet the Kinners’ biggest goal, Tracy says, “is that the kids don’t lose their interest in learning.” To that end, the family has taken two recent road trips through the South, giving the children a hands-on lesson in everything from early colonial settlements to the Civil War. “We’re not really home-schooling,” Tracy says. “We’re out-schooling.” —Hilary Masell Oswald
U.S. public schools spend about $3 billion a year on digital content. This timeline shows how educational technology has evolved from projectors to virtual reality over the past eight decades.
1930s: Overhead projector
1972: Floppy disks
1972: Handheld scientific calculator
Late 1970s: VHS tapes
Early 1980s: Lemonade Stand, a computer game that teaches basic math skills
1981: IBM’s personal computer
Mid-1980s: Dry-erase boards
1985: Oregon Trail computer game
Early 1990s: PowerPoint
Early 1990s: Interactive whiteboards
2016: Virtual reality, for “field trips” to the South Pole
Then: “Grammar should be taught by conversation and by reading good literature.”
Now: Classical schools in Denver agree with this Harvard tenet, believing there’s a lot to learn from reading a good book.
East High School student Josiah Peters reads Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest book.
One late-fall morning, a pink glow from the east shines through our car windows as I drive my kids to school. I’m nervously watching the clock (and the traffic) when my then first-grade daughter murmurs, “For each new morning with its light/ For rest and shelter of the night….” She trails off, then says, “Mom? I guess Ralph Waldo Emerson probably lived in Colorado because I see the morning light he was talking about.”
I would love to say we regularly read 19th-century American poets around our house, but the truth is our kids attend a classical school. Back when I began shopping for elementaries, I discovered typical public school curricula tend to separate literature from its history. Plus, new standards emphasize “informational texts”—like train schedules and recipes—over literature. In contrast, classical education employs literature as a window to culture, people, and ideas over time, providing a deliberate link to historical context and philosophical impact. Pragmatically, exposure to good writing boosts vocabulary, provides early knowledge of grammar, and bolsters speaking skills. All of which explains why, in 1946, the high minds at Harvard pushed what Life called “the world’s great literature” so fervently.
But my favorite benefit of a curriculum rich in literature is loftier. Stories help us understand our collective and individual humanity: Charlotte’s Web gives us a view of self-sacrificial love. The Hobbit reminds us that courage isn’t the absence of fear, but the ability to act in spite of it. Hamlet shows us the results of too much (brooding) talk and not enough action.
Momentum for classical ed is strong. At least eight such schools—including parochial, traditional private, and chartered public varieties—operate in the Denver metro area, four of them having opened in the past seven years. “I think more parents are realizing that our education system today is sometimes a real gamble,” says Nate Ahern, headmaster of my kids’ school, Lakewood’s Augustine Classical Academy. “So they’re looking at other options. Classical education boasts a multicentury track record of brilliant results, beginning with Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers.”
And if Galileo had been required to take the ACTs, chances are he would have aced them, considering classically educated kids bettered the national average in English by almost seven points (27.2 compared to 20.4) and reading by almost six (27.1 versus 21.4). For now, I’m just glad we have children building solid grammar foundations and vocabularies wide enough to say what they mean—and the wisdom to occasionally wonder at the morning light. —Hilary Masell Oswald
Then: “The problem America faces today, declares Harvard, is how to give a full and equal education to this amorphous mass which now constitutes the high-school population.”
Now: DPS certainly hasn’t solved this issue—although a new program makes it so kids marked as “not college ready” don’t fall behind.
Metropolitan State University of Denver was the first school in Colorado to offer supplemental academic instruction classes.
Imagine you’ve passed all your high school classes, cleaned out your locker, and attended a four-hour buzzkill of a ceremony to grab your diploma. You’re ready for college…right? Well, if you graduated from DPS, maybe not. Before students who have graduated from Colorado high schools can enroll in English and math at Colorado’s public universities, they first must achieve a predetermined score on an assessment test—either the ACT, SAT, or the College Board–administered Accuplacer, which evaluates basic abilities of community college enrollees. A student who makes less than 18 on the English portion of the ACT, for instance, is labeled by the Colorado Department of Higher Education (CDHE) as “not college ready”—a stigma that previously could only be cleansed by passing a remedial class at a community college.
In 2014-’15, the latest year for which data are available, the Centennial State’s remedial rate stood at 35.4 percent. Things were worse for seniors graduating from DPS: 53 percent needed at least one remedial class. And while remedial classes have the best of intentions, stats prove that they often become tar pits. Nationally, only four in 10 students actually matriculate through remedial classes. Plus, research from the CDHE shows that many remedial students actually could pass credit-bearing college math and English courses. That’s why, in 2012, state lawmakers passed a bill permitting public colleges in Colorado to bypass remedial course requirements in favor of supplemental academic instruction (SAI).
SAI looks a little different at every school. Simply put, students who barely miss the assessment-test threshold are allowed to enroll in credit-bearing courses. However, they must also participate in some sort of extra instruction while enrolled in the credit-bearing class—whether that’s individual tutoring or a one-hour, once-a-week lab. So far, the CDHE has approved four schools and the Colorado Community College System to offer SAI programs.
Next month, the CDHE will release its first official study on retention rates for students in SAI programs. However, Metropolitan State University of Denver, which in 2013 became the first Colorado institution to offer SAI, reports that in the program’s inaugural year, 88 percent of SAI students passed the school’s freshman English course—compared with 71 percent of all pupils (those deemed “college ready” included) who took the class. There were similar results in MSU’s math courses. And those are the kinds of dividends the CDHE hopes SAI will pay throughout the state.
Turning The Page
Denver Public Schools began a new English track this year by rolling out English I, II, and III for freshmen, sophomores, and juniors, respectively. Most of those classes’ core texts are classic (read: older than dirt) books—a strategy the NEA would probably have disapproved of considering it felt that 1946 English courses did “not include enough contemporary American and British authors.” Current DPS teachers, however, have leeway to inject more modern texts into their classrooms. One educator seizing that opportunity is East High School’s Todd Madison, who outlines some of the texts he’s teaching his English III juniors this year and why.
Selected Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1800s): “Nathaniel Hawthorne helped invent American literature. His stories are really evocative and often stunning. It’s good to study these formative writings.”
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986-’87): “Students are familiar with superhero stories now, but this graphic novel also addresses the 1980s in interesting ways, touching on politics, power, and corruption.”
Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015): “Coates is often called the successor to James Baldwin, and we’ll study his book for using a letter as a storytelling technique. But this book also speaks to things that happened 18 months ago and forms a contemporary conversation about power and community.”