Tell Me Something Good: Meet Bill Kurtz, CEO of DSST Public Schools

In celebration of our third year of partnership with visionary educators, we’re highlighting three examples of the work being done by incredible school districts, charter school networks and non-profits. We sat down to talk with three fascinating leaders about who inspires them, what they’re looking forward to this year, and what keeps them going when things get hard.

Bill Kurtz, CEO, DSST Public Schools

Who (or what) lives in your house?

We’re a family of five. There are also three chickens who don’t live in our house, but live in our backyard. I can’t say I ever thought I’d own chickens, but my youngest daughter is an animal lover.

What’s your morning routine like?

I try to get up early enough to do the things there is no time for at any other point in the day. Take a run, pray and reflect, and do a little reading. Then it’s time to get everybody else ready for the day.

If you have a few hours to yourself, what’s your favorite thing to do?

Either read or take pictures in a beautiful place outdoors.

What’s the best thing you did to relax and have fun this summer?

We spent a couple of weeks in a small cottage on the coast of Maine. It’s a good chance to slow down, read, relax, hike, and enjoy the coastline.

Tell me about one of your personal heroes. 

My mother, who raised me and my three brothers. She has just been a phenomenal source of energy, strength and conviction on all the right things. The most selfless person you’ll ever meet. She spent her life dedicated to serving others. 

How did you get your start in education, and what did you do before that?

I’ve always loved working with kids, and spent summers either as a camp counselor or leading expedition trips for kids in the west. Another passion of mine was trying to figure out why it often seems like the most educated adults, those who gain power and influence, end up creating or sustaining systems that oppress and hurt the people they’re trying to lead. I studied environmental policy and how that played out in sub-Saharan Africa: government policies that became the reasons people could not sustain a living off the land. Then I started looking closer to to home, and at a public education system that seemed to be failing the people we were trying to serve. It seemed like a big problem, and one we could help solve. That’s how I got into public education 20 years ago. 

What is your most important strength as a leader?

I think people would say I am able to create a vision that encompasses big goals and a cohesive conceptual view of the foundations of our work. And that I can connect those two things, and connect people deeply to a vision to accomplish it. 

What advice would you give to young people working in education or thinking of joining the profession? 

The best advice I can give is to reflect on why you want to be in this work and to continue to cultivate that. Continue to answer the question, does this commitment integrate with your life’s values and your sense of purpose and want you want to be a part of in this world. If you do that, you can sustain a rewarding career in public education — the most important profession one can enter in this country.

The past year has been an incredible one for DSST, including being honored with the Broad Prize. What are some of the moments that stand out in your memory, and why?

The moments that stand out for me include seeing our first class of DSST: Cole High School graduate with 100% acceptance to college. Seeing their leadership and perseverance… they embody the belief that all kids, given the opportunity, can achieve amazing things.

Second is our annual senior signing day where we celebrate 100% college acceptance for all of our graduates, and that feeling of pure joy and deep accomplishment. It’s a very poignant and moving moment. It’s why we do this work. We are very proud of being honored with the Broad Prize, but we are not motivated by winning awards. We’re in this work to help people become the best versions of themselves.

What were some of the most significant challenges you faced? Were any of those challenges a surprise?

We are seeing an increasing level of trauma and anxiety, one that reflects larger problems in our society. There is a body of research that shows that anxiety and trauma are increasing for young people at all levels. We ask so much of schools today, so much more than we did 20 years ago. And on top of that we’re trying to meet those higher expectations with young people who are experiencing a different level of anxiety than we’ve ever seen. We’re not fond of funding education in Colorado. We’re asking ton of schools and educators, but we’re not providing the resources they need to serve some of the kids who need us the most.

When the work gets really hard, how do you remain committed and invigorated?

The greatest challenge, for any leader or teacher, is how to sustain yourself. You have to create the capacity to re-energize. Self-care is actually one of the hardest things for any leader. Many people never develop that capacity, and it’s critical. For my part, I try to make sure I’m getting into our schools and seeing our kids and experiencing the communities we serve. Spending time with our amazing and beautiful students. I also try to ensure I have a regular routine of doing things that energize and sustain me. That’s why I get up at 5am. I try to have a  strong reflective life and maintain the ability to keep things in perspective. To recommit and reconnect to the why. If you don’t do that, the work can get the best of you. 

What are you anticipating in the 2018-19 year? From positive things you’re looking forward to, to trends you’re watching closely?

I’m looking forward to our first high school graduation at DSST: College View in southwest Denver. This part of Denver has suffered the greatest educational inequity, more than any other part of the city.

The superintendent search in Denver is also really important. I’m optimistic that we’ll find a really great leader who will help us put students first and truly close the opportunity gap that is so large.

What will DSST’s big bets be in the upcoming year?

We will continue to focus on high-performing middle schools and consistent achievement in all schools. We are also going to be more focused on helping students find colleges and universities that are successful in helping them graduate. Colleges have dramatically different success rates; it matters where you go. We will also continue building the heart of our organization around our values, and maintaining a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Lastly we are looking at how we can expand options for experiential learning in STEM and in the arts.

Springboard Communications led DSST Public Schools in crafting new brand positioning in preparation for its network expansion from 13 to 26 schools. We contributed to a 10 percent increase in student choice by developing new foundational messaging, campaign concepts and digital marketing. Click here to check out a brief case study of our partnership, and say hello today!