by Les Burch
What was the dream of D’Evelyn? What vision prompted a group of parents to strike out in a new venture, to spend thousands of hours in research and writing and meetings, to navigate against the tide of decades of dumbed-down educational theory, to fight the political and legal chicanery of a school board bent on quashing any extension of the excellence of Dennison? It as a vision of a student given every opportunity to excel.
It was the late spring of 1993. I was walking around at Dennison’s annual Lakeside Day when Kathi Pitzer came up to me and asked a question I wasn’t prepared for: “Would you like to help start a high school?” Start a high school? Though a teacher at heart, I had only been through school systems as a student and shepherded my kids partially through elementary but never had I operated in or managed, much less created, a new school.
Still, having managed our family business for years, the notion of how organizations need to run wasn’t entirely foreign. But what really intrigued my wife and I was that this possibility answered a looming question for us. Our eldest son, Jeff, was about to finish the sixth grade. At that time Dennison ran through eighth grade and we were stumped for what to do after that.
Dennison’s education and work ethic were unparalleled in the county. We didn’t want our son to go to high school unchallenged, to lose the momentum he had gained, to risk that his zest for learning go dormant or even disappear. We could change to private school or search the county for an accelerated program.
We were intrigued with the possibility for another reason. We knew things could be better. We’d seen it at Dennison: ordinary kids achieving extraordinary results in a high expectation environment. Jeffco had somehow lost the drive for excellence since my student days at Bear Creek High School. As parents, we believed we shouldn’t have to search for a special environment when high academic achievement should be the norm.
So, we had this vision of a student, one who could continue the fundamentals of a great elementary experience and expand it to what is called Liberal Arts. That term, I was to learn, was not a reference to socialist ideology but to a broad course of study that would ground the student in our political and cultural inheritance. I believed in higher achievement, but in helping develop D’Evelyn I would learn a lot from Kathi Pitzer and Carolyn DeRaad about the curriculum we needed and how to deliver it.
The first thing I learned was that the prerequisite to all learning is good behavior. If the halls are in chaos, if students lack respect for staff or each other, if cheating is overlooked, if discipline is not backed up by the front office, little learning will occur. It is why D’Evelyn is a closed campus.
There isn’t a business consultant in the world who doesn’t advise, “What gets measured gets
done.” We reinforced grading both as feedback to students and as a way to set a standard of learning. There is no curve in the real world. You either have the goods or you don’t. We wanted our students to face the realities of their performance.
Experience shows that there is only one way to be prepared, whether it is boot camp for the military, practice shooting hoops, or hours at the violin. A former D’Evelyn principal, Tom Synnott, used to say, “We are not smarter than everyone else, we just work harder.” We were teaching a great life lesson: nothing worthwhile is easy. That meant our students couldn’t opt out with only one year of math and, yes, there would be lots of homework.
What does it do for students to use all four years of high school to study English, math, science,
history, foreign language, music, art, and of course physical training? It means they have taken the adventure into ages of enduring literature made great with moral spine; peered into a different language to the point they understand their own better; traveled the halls of history far
enough to know the rarity of a group of men who formed a new country with the goal of divesting themselves of power; explored the world of science and numbers to see both the beauty, usefulness, and the excitement of the chase; and touched arts and sports enough to discover the rhythms that resonate within.
Most-Recent Jeffco Public SchoolsDistrict-Wide Data
% Graduation % Remediation Avg. ACT Score
81.4 29.8 21
D’Evelyn Graduation/Remediation Rates and Average ACT Scores For Past Five Years
% Graduation % Remediation Avg. ACT Score
2013 99.7 2 26.4
2012 99.7 2 27.4
2011 99.7 2.2 26.3
2010 99.7 2 26.2
2009 99.32 1.3 26.1
It means they understand their culture, where they have come from, and how to navigate within it. It means they are not afraid of hard work and have built the confidence to take their next challenge of life. The vision of the D’Evelyn graduate is one of many options; whether trade, or college, or university, he or she is ready to meet life and take on more responsibility.
What I believe, what I know, is that this preparation, this broader course of study, this higher standard of education, is not limited to the few. It is not an elite idea. My hope for Jefferson County Schools is that it can return to its roots, use lessons from today’s high performance schools, and adopt the vision of a student, prepared with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to build a strong life, family, and community. It will take time, courage, and work to turn the tide, but it can be done.
Les Burch is a Colorado native, a graduate of the Colorado School of Mines, a businessman, an author, and a person of faith. He served on the Founding Committee of D’Evelyn Junior/Senior High School in the years 1994–1999, and later served on the Steering Committee. He has written a book, It Isn’t The Way We Think It Is, published by Tate Publishing.