At STEM School Highlands Ranch we put innovation at the center of learning to unleash the potential of all students and prepare them for an exponentially changing world.
Originally called the STEM School and Academy as a Douglas County School District public charter school serving 480 students in grades six through nine.
The school struggled in its first year both financially and academically, and in 2012, the board hired Dr. Penny Eucker as executive director at the beginning of the school’s second year. Eucker had a strong track record of opening successful STEM schools elsewhere in the Denver metro area. Under Eucker’s leadership, it took just one year for the school to move from a Colorado school grade of “F” to “A and 100 days of financial reserves (the benchmark for strong financials). It moved from being one of the lowest-performing schools in Colorado to being ranked 12th out of 333 high schools. Today it ranks 9th.
A grade was added each successive year through 2014, until the school consisted of a full middle and high school. The school’s independent board of directors decided to add an elementary school, starting with a fifth grade in 2015, and then adding grades K-4 in 2016.
In 2017, the school rebranded and changed its name to STEM School Highlands Ranch and adopted a new tagline and mission statement. The tagline of Never Stop Innovating reflects the unique STEM-infused culture that puts innovation in the center of learning in order to unleash the unlimited potential of every child and prepare them for a world full of possibilities.
The logos includes the school’s symbol, which reflects the energized and innovative approach to learning that makes STEM so unique. The rays extending outward represent the power of innovation that moves beyond our classrooms. Each ray reflects Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, all coming together in the center to reflect our unique integrated STEM curriculum. The energy of the mark reflects the unlimited potential of every student.
At the start of the 2018-19 school year, the school realized that from an organizational perspective, and especially in schools, the old models of top-down leadership no longer make sense. There can’t be one keeper of the vision, leader, boss, from who all wisdom and strategy flows. The job is too big for that.
With that in mind, the school adopted a “team” leadership approach with a goal to create a much higher level of consistency throughout the entire K-12 school than has existed up to now. This consistency will allow the school to improve deliverables to parents, students and staff.
Today, STEM School Highlands Ranch educates more than 1,800 students in grades K-12, with classrooms in two large, adjoining buildings in a Highlands Ranch industrial park. There’s a lengthy waiting list for students. It has become a magnet for strong teachers as well, which gives the school the luxury of being extremely selective in its hiring.
STEM School has built a strong reputation as an academically rigorous school that challenges its students while providing them with abundant hands-on experiences that make education more engaging and relevant than the traditional model. Students help direct their own learning, guided by experienced teachers who know how to facilitate learning without getting in the way.
One of the school’s strongest suits is its approach to teaching, known as problem-based learning. Rather than sit in classrooms working out of textbooks and taking notes as teachers lecture, students at STEM School Highlands Ranch grapple with real-world issues and challenges, and learn academic content in part by applying their ingenuity to problems they face in the real world.
Learning at STEM School Highlands Ranch is “inquiry-based, collaborative and, student-centered.,” said Hannah Reese, the school’s Assistant Director of Special Programs. “Students should have multiple options of how to demonstrate their knowledge, multiple products presented, according to student choice.”
A key component that makes problem-based learning work is the school’s connection to area businesses, who welcome students for internships, apprenticeships, and class visits. As we will discuss later, this exemplifies how a school that aims to prepare its students for the changing world of work should operate. The walls of the school are an artificial barrier that must be made permeable, so that expertise flows into the school and students and teachers can experience the world of work and knowledge that exists on the outside.
The school is racially and ethnically diverse (35 percent students of color), and 97 percent of its graduates either go immediately to college or take a gap year with an intention to matriculate the following year. Its students average the seventh highest SAT scores among Colorado public high schools.
The schools’ Enrichment program, formerly known as “The Academy,” is also rich and diverse offering after-school options ranging from ballet, fencing, soccer, basketball and lacrosse to Technology Student Association, Best Robotics and Acting.
Once STEM School Highlands Ranch reached its full span of grades and its student body approached 2,000, it made sense to reexamine the structure of the school’s leadership. It has always been true, but never more than in today’s hyper-drive-paced world, that organizations must continually evolve if they are to remain healthy. This is as true of schools as any other institutions, though schools historically have been slower to adapt to changing circumstances than many businesses.
In short, STEM School Highlands Ranch is extraordinarily strong. The school’s challenge going forward is to continue improving, providing students with the education they need to lead fulfilling lives in the dawning Age of Agility.