These seniors are defying expectations from every corner of the city

Standing on stage in front of more than 4,000 people at the Denver Coliseum, sophomore Kanara Bramlett-Pittman made a declaration that no teacher, principal or visionary ed reformer could have spoken with more passion or truth.

“I believe that the zip code in which a child grows up should not determine their access to a good education.”

Talk about a mic drop. And yet, her words were amplified through the voices of 474 seniors from DSST Public Schools and STRIVE Prep, all of whom rocked the same mic to declare their plans for college next fall.

Over two days, more than 10,000 people packed the Coliseum to watch every senior from the state’s two largest charter networks prove that current zip codes don’t have to determine future success.

This is what Senior Signing Day in Denver is all about.

“D-S-S… D-S-S… What!?!”

Emcees Tomi Ahearn and Quincy Shannon lead more than 5,300 students in the anthem known only to those attending one of DSST’s seven middle schools and six high schools. Known to nearly everyone, however, was that for the last 10 years, 100 percent of DSST’s graduates have been accepted to a 4-year college or university. This year, seniors from DSST: Cole had a chance to add to the network’s legacy of achievement with it’s first graduating class. And they did not disappoint.

First to make their college declarations, Cole seniors revealed plans to attend in-state schools as well as top tier schools like Columbia, Stanford, and Yale. That’s what happens when you achieve the state’s #3 overall SAT score among Black students and #4 overall SAT score among students eligible for free or reduced price lunch.

The new kids on the block definitely set the bar high for their peers at DSST: Stapleton and DSST: Green Valley Ranch (GVR).

But as they say in the Coliseum, “This ain’t our first rodeo.” And the Stapleton Knights and GVR Raptors came prepared to make their own history. In fact, before its students set foot in the Coliseum, DSST: Stapleton’s students received Colorado’s highest average SAT score for White students, Black students, and for students eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Black and Latino students at DSST: GVR also achieved the #2 and #6 overall SAT scores in the state.

With an array of post-high school plans, you can bet students will live up to the words of gubernatorial candidate Mike Johnston, who encouraged them to “Get used to making history.”

Speaking of making history…

When Haleigh Quinn first attended DSST in 6th grade, college seemed so far away. But on Senior Signing Day she revealed plans to attend Stanford University—an achievement few African American women can claim. She is also the first in her family to attend college.

“I’ve definitely had to overcome the rhetoric that I wasn’t good enough or that maybe if I got in it was because they had to meet a quota, not because of my merit,” Haleigh said. “I’ve had to constantly remind myself that I worked extremely hard to get where I am and I’m not going to discount it or discredit my hard work because of what other people say or what society tries to tell me.”

Sure, some might find it hard to believe that a young woman whose family once experienced homelessness could find herself attending Stanford. But Haleigh believes Stanford wouldn’t be in her future if her family’s struggles weren’t a part of their past.

“I wrote my college essay about my mom,” Haleigh said. “She was one of the most integral components in my path to success and she always made sure I was stable and she never had made me deal directly with our struggles so I could focus on my education.”

So by the time Haleigh got to DSST, the idea of going to college actually seemed possible.

“No matter what type of student you are, they make sure you know college is an option and they remain so focused on motivation and overexposure to every option available,” she said.

For students like Haleigh, Stanford was the goal. For others, it was staying in-state and for some it included joining the military or attending a 2-year college.

At the end of the day, Haleigh was overwhelmed by one feeling: pride. “I’m just extremely proud of all the hard work that everyone has put in and it’s definitely counteracting those stigmas of what it means for first-gen and low-income students to get accepted to college.”


STRIVE Prep brought the hype to a whole new level

For the seniors at STRIVE Prep – SMART and Excel, what could beat taking center stage to shout to the world where they’re going to college? Well, when your biggest fans (who are about half your height) come decked out with pom-poms, posters dawning your name and a serious commitment to losing their voice in your honor—you’ve brought the college hype to a whole new level.

Suddenly, your achievement becomes the inspiration for hundreds of kiddos who are just starting to discover their own dreams for the future.

And that is exactly what STRIVE Prep’s 150 seniors did at their signing day celebration. One hundred percent of seniors gained acceptance to a post-secondary school, college or university next year, and 95 percent of them shared plans to attend a four-year college or university. From all four corners of Colorado to both coasts and the midwest, scholars proudly waved swag from in-state schools like Colorado School of Mines, Vassar College, Drake University, The University of Texas, and more.

The “college class of 2022” showed their peers from kindergarten through 11th grade that college is within reach for everyone—yes, everyone.

A surprise for Dreamers

STRIVE Prep’s teachers and leaders have always believed that students from all backgrounds deserve a college preparatory education regardless of race or economic circumstance. That also applies to students whose immigration status is undocumented. And on Senior Signing Day, the network surprised four students with the Dare to Dream scholarship, a staff-funded scholarship for students who cannot access Federal financial aid due to their undocumented student status.

That’s right, in a year that’s seen thousands of teachers across the state walk out for more school funding and better pay, STRIVE Prep teachers reached into their own pockets to show their seniors how much they believe in their ability to succeed. All year teachers and staff have donated money to the scholarship fund, which provides $6,000 over four years to four seniors.

When the first winner was announced, STRIVE Prep – Excel senior Chasel Valdivizeo-Perez was overcome with such emotion that she immediately started crying.

“Then they called my name, and I started crying even more,” she said. “It was so overwhelming and to think that I was going to be able to go to college because my teachers, who already worked so hard everyday, helped pay for it…it was just a roller coaster of emotions.”

Chasel plans to attend Colorado State University where she hopes to realize her lifelong dream of becoming a veterinarian. With help from her college access team, she’s headed to Fort Collins with experience from two internships at local animal shelters.

Thanks to the Dare to Dream scholarship and the DREAM.US scholarship, Chasel can focus on her studies, and continue to prove her ability to accomplish anything.

Defying expectations across the Mile High City

Both STRIVE Prep and DSST operate schools in areas of Denver that have traditionally underserved students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. And, both networks have found themselves at the center of the charter school effectiveness debate. But to their students, there’s really nothing to debate.

“I wouldn’t have half the success I have without the dedication of our teachers,” Haleigh said.

“They look at each student and consider how they should learn and grow both inside and outside the classroom,” Chasel added.

But perhaps Brayan Parga-Martinez, one of two Daniels Scholars to come from STRIVE Prep summed it up best.

As an aspiring medical student whose high school internships have already placed him inside the operating room, Brayan said, “STRIVE helped me find my voice and become the best version of myself.”

And isn’t that what a great education should afford everyone? There’s no shortage of school leaders and reformers weighing in on who does it best. But at the end of the day, it’s the voices of kids like Brayan, Haleigh and Chasel that matter most. And I, for one, look forward to hearing from them, their peers and the generations of kids behind them who are sure to exceed our greatest expectations.


Photos courtesy of DSST Public Schools and STRIVE Prep


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