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For DSST seniors, exciting futures come into focus

As a young boy, Daniel Tochimani Hernandez would often miss school to work with his father, a custodian whose job took him to buildings all across the metro area.

It wasn’t that Hernandez’s Mexican immigrant family didn’t value education. It did. But skipping a day of school now and then, his parents thought, wouldn’t hurt. Their son, after all, was a solid ‘B’ and ‘C’ student.

He worked with his father because the more work his father could get done, the quicker they’d come back home; the sooner they’d be there to help his mother who was battling a chronic health condition.

But when Hernandez reached middle school, he stopped tagging along with his father to work. Instead, he tagged along with his older brother, Ivan, two years ahead of him and a student at Denver’s DSST: Montview High School. That changed his life.

Montview is one of eight DSST charter middle and high schools in the Denver area.  Started in 2004, the Denver Schools of Science and Technology identify, attract and nurture students who show a strong interest in the sciences. Montview and its seven sister schools have been lauded nationally for their excellence in the STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—disciplines.

The fact that every graduate of DSST has “been admitted into college or university” is testament to their excellence.

“I didn’t even think about college before, nor was it something I really wanted to do,” Hernandez said. But little by little, class by class, old ideas of life after high school gave way to real-time, achievable dreams. It didn’t hurt that older brother and former Montview graduate, Ivan, now a rising junior at Dartmouth, would regularly share stories about life in faraway New Hampshire.

Hernandez’s almost straight-A high school grades helped as well. “I think I got one ‘B,’ he chuckled. “The only ‘B’ was in my freshman year…it was an English composition class.”

While he was soaring academically, others, including a number of colleges, were taking notice. In Hernandez’s senior year, the floodgates opened. He was making visits to prestigious colleges and universities across the country, including the University of Richmond.

“It (the literature) said it had the most beautiful campus in the country,” he said. “It really was beautiful,” he agreed. Richmond also promised a full ride scholarship. He also took trips to Amherst College and Williams College and Lehigh in Pennsylvania, and the University of Alabama. They all seemed keenly interested in Hernandez.

Where, in fact, is he going this fall? Keep reading…

An eclectic student body

DSST admits students through a weighted lottery to guarantee a diverse student body. Enrollment is as high as 80 percent students of color at some campuses, with an equal balance of young men and women.

It’s a rigorous academic program, but that doesn’t change the fact that the students are still just kids. Between classes or heading to lunch, they linger to talk with friends, they laugh and joke, they sneak away to use their phones, they study.

You see Afros, long hair, short hair, multi-colored hair. Some wear hijabs, others ballcaps. They’re kids. College-bound kids who, for the time being, have found their happy place.

“I just think it’s a lot about my teachers,” said Janea Evans, who has been accepted to Florida A&M, an HBCU—Historically Black College and University—school. “They gave us the freedom to make our own decisions and a chance to figure out who I am,” she said in a recent Zoom call.

Maddox Jones is an outlier in that he won’t be heading to college in the fall. The Montview senior is taking a gap year to study abroad. He has nothing but praise for his time in DSST.

As a “gay, multi-racial kid,” he said, he was grateful to his family and teachers who made a challenging period in his life a lot easier to handle. “They supported me and believed in me, that I had the capacity to succeed and that’s really important.”

“I think it’s just part of the culture here,” said veteran Montview teacher Lisa Gibbs. “I just feel that teachers here care and that’s part of what makes us unique. Beyond teaching, Gibbs said, “caring is one of our core values.”

Senior signing day

On a late April day, DSST ‘Senior Signing Day,’ it was time to celebrate. With a nod to Winston Churchill, after four years of ‘blood, sweat, toil and tears,’ students would officially announce where they will be going to college. Many had to winnow their final choice down from several options.

The Denver Coliseum was electric with excitement. With the upper bowl of the historic venue packed, DSST’s Class of 2022, down on the floor, hugged and danced to a musical mixture of hip-hop, dance and, for good measure, a little R&B. If some of the older members of the audience couldn’t relate, everyone else could.

One by one, each school paraded its seniors to the stage to make their big announcement. Each announcement was followed by thunderous cheers and more than a few tears.

‘I’m going to Colorado College—on a full ride,’ one student would yell. In the next second, he would be followed by a line of students taking their turn at the mic and screaming the names of schools like Puget Sound, University of San Francisco, San Diego State, Cornell, University of Colorado, Colorado School of Mines, Metro State, and on and on and on.

In the fall, this diaspora of newly minted grads would seed the country with young minds ready to make their mark.

While DSST has earned national respect for its success, it can be an acquired taste for a few. “I didn’t like it at first,” said MeKayla Tolar, a Conservatory Green High School graduate. “The way I learn is different,” she said. In her case, it took a little time combined with a bit of struggle to get comfortable with the rigor of DSST.

Tolar’s struggle was complicated by her ADHD. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a common issue among young adolescents. Through a lot of research, said Tolar, her mother figured out her daughter’s challenge. She also decided that DSST might be the best option for her.

“When my mom figured it out,” said Tolar, she brought me here. “The people and the teachers really helped me out.”

Finding a fit

At Conservatory Green, Tolar found classes like algebra and calculus challenging but rewarding. She also found time to participate on the cheer squad and became its captain. She also has plans to try out for cheer squad in college. Tolar’s plan at her new school is to study speech pathology.

Tolar applied to a handful of HBCU schools, partly because she wanted to try life away from Colorado and also because attending an HBCU was important to her. The choice was ultimately made when she found out that South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C. was the only one that offered her major.

Tolar spent a lot of time studying the history of speech pathology and found it intriguing on a number of fronts. “There’s not many African American women or African American people in general in speech pathology. It’s really, really rare.” As a speech therapist, she said, “My whole thing is I want to make an impact.”

Her recent trip to the university gave her a chance to visit the speech clinic that’s run by the school on campus. “It’s basically for those who can’t afford speech therapy for their children.” Another selling point for the school, she said, was that the clinic “does it for free.”

Tolar was accepted at every school she applied to except one, and there she was wait-listed. Her interest in speech therapy is rooted in a sense of both pioneering and altruism. As a speech therapist, she said, she can help remove the stigma among minorities about therapy.

“Not a lot of African American people believe in therapy at all, and that goes for a lot of minority communities.”

One of the many things DSST students get over the course of their time in the program is an introduction to ideas and concepts they may never have considered before, including careers as opposed to ‘punching a clock.’

A Harvard Man

Daniel Hernandez, with several schools courting him, decided to shoot for the top: Harvard University. He did everything he could, including spending two months polishing his personal essay to submit to the school. It underwent draft after draft and review after review before he sent it off.

So nervous was Hernandez that his personal story wouldn’t have the impact he hoped, “he wouldn’t even say the word ‘Harvard,’” recalled Gibbs, his teacher. “He didn’t want to jinx things.”

But then, after waiting three months for a reply, the envelope arrived.

At home, with his parents waiting, along with his brother who’d traveled back from college to be there, he opened it. “I read it to myself and then out loud,” he remembered.

His first words: “Oh, my God!”

After the group hugs. “I called Miss Gibbs. She was with me the whole process.” Gibbs was on a service trip with students when she got the call. “Can I tell everyone?” she asked her student. With permission, she yelled to everyone, “Daniel got into Harvard!!!”

Hernandez plans to study health care economics at his new school. It is the culmination to a plan not even he knew was percolating when he entered Montview and DSST. His experience like those of hundreds of others in DSST’s Class of 2022, as wonderful as they may be, isn’t unique.

But by any definition, all are extraordinary.