One of Colorado’s highest-ranking schools has applied to open two new locations in Denver and Sterling Ranch.
STEM School Highlands Ranch, which ranks 10th in the state according to the US News and World Report, has applied to replicate its KOSON problem-based learning model in two new communities. Replication is the process by which charters open new schools that use the same instructional model.
In the Denver Public Schools district, STEM hopes to open an elementary school, and in Sterling Ranch, the school would range from kindergarten to 12th grade.
“One of (STEM’s) strategic initiatives is to get the method we use everywhere,” said Penny Eucker, former executive director of STEM and CEO of KOSON Schools, a charter network that includes STEM and the proposed schools.
Eucker is an enthusiastic proponent of the KOSON problem-based learning model, which has students think through and create diverse solutions to a central problem or question, because of the student engagement and educational results she has seen come from the program.
“Students don’t do well with people talking at them,” she said. “Seeing their engagement (with problem-based learning) … you can’t make (students) work that hard. They have to want to.”
Both proposed schools have seen community interest and high intent to enroll, Eucker said, while noting that she expects Denver Public Schools to initially deny STEM’s application to open a new school because of the district’s declining enrollment numbers.
According to DPS, the 2020 enrollment numbers were down 3,500 from a year earlier, a continuation of decreasing elementary enrollment numbers.
However, that hasn’t deterred STEM from planning to open a school in the area, and Eucker said STEM will appeal to the state board of education if the district rejects them. She said parents want more choices, which she cited as a key reason to open a STEM elementary school in Denver.
“It’s like saying restaurants aren’t doing well right now, so we shouldn’t open new restaurants,” Eucker said.
Currently, Denver Public Schools doesn’t have a STEM elementary school option. Eucker said she’s hoping the STEM school will get families and students excited about the new learning opportunity and potentially help bring up DPS district enrollment.
“I always say to never move a happy student, but if the student isn’t happy, what is there to lose,” she said.
STEM’s application for Sterling Ranch in the Douglas County School District is more likely to be approved by the school board since the district is not seeing an enrollment drop and members have voiced support for parent choice and charter schools.
The location for the Denver school is between three possibilities, while the Sterling Ranch school would be at Piney River Road and Georgetown Street.
To establish the schools in their respective communities and help ensure their success, each would initially only teach just 25 students per class. At the Denver school, the first year would be just kindergarten to third grade and Sterling Ranch’s school would start with grades kindergarten through second grade.
Ultimately, STEM aims to teach 110 students per grade at each school by the fall of 2027.
STEM’s new Teacher Support Team is playing a critical role by creating the foundational guidelines and rubrics for problem-based learning that can be adapted by teachers to individual subjects and lessons.
“The team is laying the groundwork now and what they’re doing is creating a repository of (problem-based learning units) K-12 that can get repurposed at other schools and be a jumping off point,” said Nicole Bostel, director of communications for STEM School Highlands Ranch. “That’s not to say that you can’t adjust PBLs because a whole component of our mission is never stop innovating.”
Both the Denver Public Schools and the Douglas County School District are expected to respond to the STEM applications in June. In the meantime, Bostel said the KOSON team will be presenting their plans to each community and answering questions.