“I think there is a kind of disconnect between how people have viewed their own success versus how I think the district is viewing their success. I feel like in my personal experience at the school that I went to in DPS, we were around a lot of high performing students, and it felt like you were being pushed into a four-year university, as that’s the ideal success. Whereas, that’s obviously not the only pathway and I think for a lot of students they feel that disconnect between how the district or how their teachers are portraying success, you know getting into that four-year university, even getting into top university, getting into the Harvards and Stanfords of the world versus not even going to a university at all, picking up a trade or not even doing that. There’s a disconnect there, and as a result there’s a bit of distrust that forms where it feels like the students don’t feel that their best interest is kept in mind a lot of the time.”

-DPS alum

For many students, some of the most impactful articulations of what it means to attain success are imparted by the adults they encounter in their schools. Denver Public Schools (DPS) strives to promote an understanding of success that incorporates and respects the various activities and occupations students may be interested in during and after their time in the district. The mission of DPS is to “provide all students the opportunity to achieve the knowledge and skills necessary to become contributing citizens in our diverse society.”  However, in practice, students are steered toward a narrow set of predefined goals in order to be recognized as successful. 

As an institution, DPS has a tremendous impact on how students, educators and even the community come to understand success. As one DPS alum noted, “the district has real power in shaping success and what that perception is to the students. I feel like I was extremely rocked by that because there was a lot of uniformity between the answers, it was a lot of college, college, college. It’s in the way it’s internalized and affects each and every one of our lives and how that ends up, how that sits with us into our early twenties. Just about how much impact the school system really does [have] on our perception of success and how it’s so reduced to just what you do if you get into college or whatever the narrative is pushed from your school.”

According to many DPS alumni, attending college has been pushed as the dominant means of securing high-paying jobs and a higher quality of life. For DPS alumni, the importance of choosing a path with a trajectory towards college was stated quite explicitly. As a former alumni said, “how success was presented to me was college, and getting out of the neighborhood… they pushed the IB program, they pushed AP classes.” Such messages, that being admitted to college is the first step on the road to a successful career and a high standard of living, makes it critical that students learn how to be competitive and in a position for college admission, especially at elite 4-year institutions. Teaching students to navigate elite institutions of higher education has become a critical aspect of positioning them appropriately to become successful after their time in the district.

While seemingly everyone agrees that it is important to equip students with the tools to succeed in unfamiliar environments, singling out the ability to navigate elite institutions as the primary tool for success can take the emphasis away from other developmental tools. Former students noted that developing other skills such as networking, engaging other members of their community, and managing routine life tasks are also critical for post-secondary success. For one former John F. Kennedy High School student, it made sense to prioritize college as one component of success. However, after receiving the “monumental piece of paper,” a diploma from a four year university, it became clear that it was going to take much more than receiving a diploma to consider herself successful. More importantly, she later realized that the four-year university path wasn’t the only route to success: “I didn’t realize my frame of reference of success had shifted until I was able to engage with people who didn’t go to college. Because I had such a strong identity in my 4-year institution, I didn’t realize you could be successful without going to college until 3 or 4 years ago.”

For some alum, perceptions of success may differ even within their families. As one put it,“when I think about my nieces and nephews who attend DPS schools, I define them being successful as being capable adults, but that’s not presented to them in a way that they really comprehend nor is presented to them in a way that my family comprehends. My family still thinks that the definition of our success is all of our college graduations.” Whether the result of differences in family views or encountering others who are successful without college degrees, DPS alumni are discovering that success means more than their schools may have told them.

According to alumni, college-only messages about success also point toward ingratiating oneself to people who occupy powerful positions in elite institutions. According to alumni, messages that equate attending four-year universities with success, also point toward learning to navigate bureaucracies, disclosing personal and familial information to qualify for support, and negotiating relationships with professors and others who exercise various forms of authority over students. Those that occupy powerful positions in the elite institutions of higher education are framed as gatekeepers who are responsible for students’ advancement after high-school. Students are frequently encouraged to cultivate relationships with high-status professionals and those who facilitate access to elite institutions, as these connections are likely to promote their success beyond high school.  Given these dynamics, the tools and connections required to succeed in higher education can be found amongst people not from their communities. These instructions come both explicitly and implicitly from those in the position to guide students towards post-secondary success. By presenting themselves as respectable, well-accomplished and decidedly different from other members of their community, students are told they can increase their chances of receiving financial and social support from those in positions of power.

According to a former Manual High School student, “it’s a lot about how I interact with people. When you’re really pushing for success when you’re younger and the school pushes you about this interaction with institutions versus interactions with people versus how do you interact with your school, how are you interacting [to have] the best application for college, that’s the only focus of your interactions and that’s like your make or break and then you get into the real world and it’s like no none of that really matters it’s how that I do interact with human beings… not this power structure.” Looking back, the incongruence between their self-developed definitions of success and those provided by the district can cause distrust between alumni and the district.

Positioning success as something to be found on the other side of elite institutions of higher education has the insidious effect of framing opportunities for success as only obtainable in already well-resourced areas. For students receiving this message, it can appear that there are always better opportunities somewhere other than the community they are from, and finding success means getting further and further from their community. After years of encouragement to elevate their position in life by removing themselves from their current environment, students come to believe that the grass is always greener somewhere else. Under-resourced and often perpetually neglected communities are framed as places filled with impediments to success. Former students even noted that they were told that success may be simply surviving the neighborhood.    

Another former student suggested that the definition of success presented to him throughout his high school education made achieving his goals harder than it needed to be in the real world. In his adult life, he has learned that success typically happens in conjunction with the opportunity to explore and potentially fail. Despite the benefits of learning how to pursue success, it is not until post-secondary education that some students effectively have the opportunity to explore their interests, experiment with a variety of processes, and fail in pursuit of their goals. Unfortunately, because many families can not afford college, many students never get to experience education in an exploratory environment. As he noted,“all this information we talk about now about building community, expanding your network, all those real critical business tactics that build you generational wealth or make real impact in the world is always sold to us when we get to the next level… That critical information is always sold to us but in the public education system where it’s supposed to be like free education, it’s not given to us, and I bring that up because I’m trying to wrap my head around why?”

In order to rebuild trust between the district and communities, DPS must display a serious commitment to providing students with a robust and inclusive understanding of success. Primarily promoting attending four-year universities as the sole successful outcome for students has tremendous, and oftentimes damaging, impacts on students and communities.