Denver Public School Students Are Leading, Not Waiting

How do you convince people living in the arid, mountain West to understand that their actions can have a dramatic impact on the oceans?

How do you better use shared spaces, like schools and parks, to create healthier food environments, establish spaces to address issues of mental health and well-being, or provide children with a safe place to play?

How do you reduce the high school dropout rate?

Across Denver, more than 160 students are meeting in collaborative groups, making plans to answer one of these big questions and do it better than their peers from rival high schools. The students are participating in an initiative called the Aspen Challenge, designed to push students to think critically and creatively about the ways they can impact the challenges facing their communities. It's an opportunity for our students to engage with their communities at a deeper level and put their own ideas on how to make the world a better place into practice.

It's an opportunity for them to be leaders and problem-solvers in their world.

We have a motto in Denver Public Schools: Don't wait. Lead. It is a principle not just for our school and district leaders, but for our teachers, counselors and all educators. Most importantly, it is a principle for our students.

A critical aspect of educating our young men and women is to ensure that our students realize the leadership roles they can play and that they take full advantages of their leadership potential.

Three years ago, we launched a Student Engagement Initiative with the goal of dramatically increasing student engagement in athletics, after-school activities and leadership. Part of this program was creating a Student Board of Education, with representatives from DPS high schools across the city. Athletics, extracurricular activities, and leadership opportunities are essential to student success. They allow students to build deeper bonds with their peers, establish community and gain a sense of belonging. And when students are more connected to the places where they learn they take more ownership over their own education and their environment, they lead by example. This effort has been one major factor in raising our on-time graduation rate by more than 20 percentage points and cutting our drop-out rate by more than half.

You often hear that today's students are tomorrow's leaders. That's true. But they are also emerging leaders today, too. On March 1, the 160 students participating in the Aspen Challenge will come together to reveal how they've worked to tackle those big questions. We look forward to seeing what they've accomplished and how they are progressing as leaders.

I believe in each of our students, and I continue to be inspired by them each day. They remind me that we all can make a difference in our communities. Our young people enrich our worlds with their energy, excitement and creativity. By helping them to channel their inner leader now as young adults, we help shape them into the amazing adults and leaders of tomorrow.