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Answer Sheet: At This High-Poverty High School, College Comes Early to Students

Nurse Felicia Hawkins talks with student James Dixon at Denver’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College. (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College)

Nurse Felicia Hawkins talks with student James Dixon at Denver’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College. (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College)


In Denver, there is a high-poverty high school that not only provides wraparound support for its students — including an on-site medical clinic — but also helps them get ready for college in a very specific way.

At Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College School in Denver, students can earn college credits early, and that’s one of the reasons it is an honoree in the latest round of an annual project called “Schools of Opportunity,” which recognizes publicly funded high schools that work to create learning environments to reach every student and close achievement and opportunity gaps that harm students from historically disadvantaged groups.

Schools of Opportunity started in 2014 as a pilot in two states and went national in 2015-16. It is based at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and has honored several dozen schools by assessing them on factors including how well the adults in a school building provide health and psychological support for students as well as judicious and fair discipline policies, and broad and enriched curriculums. Student standardized test scores are not part of the assessments. Schools submit applications explaining why they should be recognized.

As a previous post on this blog about the project’s honorees said: “These schools do not cherry-pick students using selective admissions or ‘push-out’ practices that falsely inflate test scores and graduation rates by eliminating anyone who struggles with behavior or academics. Nor can these schools assume that their students enjoy privileges such as book-filled homes, often-costly summer enrichment experiences, or college savings accounts — or even housing and food security.”

The 2019-20 application cycle is open, and if you know a potential School of Opportunity, visit to learn more.

This profile is the third of seven I will publish this year about the latest honorees. It was written by Kevin Welner, a founder of the Schools of Opportunity project, the director of the National Education Policy Center and a professor specializing in educational policy and law.


By Kevin Welner

College comes early at Denver’s Dr. Martin Luther King Early College School.

By the time they reach graduation, students at the high school have, on average, earned over 15 college credits, and more than 80 percent of seniors have taken at least one college class. Some students will enter college as sophomores, and some will have earned an associate degree even before graduation.

As an “early college,” DMLK is a place where students start working toward a postsecondary degree while in high school. Thanks to the school’s partnership with the Community College of Aurora, the University of Colorado, Western State College, and Community College of Denver, students can take college classes tuition free. At this grade 6-12 school serving 1,144 students, there’s also an option to spend a fifth year in high school (after receiving a diploma), pursuing additional college coursework — still tuition free.

“From internships to summer programs, DMLK has provided me many ways for myself to look outstanding in front of many job opportunities and college representatives,” said student Dylan Phoutthavong. “Not only are we an early college, but I have been taking concurrent enrollment classes since my sophomore year. By the end of my senior year, I will have accumulated an associate degree, making my track to graduate college much easier.”

Early colleges are gaining in popularity; there are several hundred spread out across the United States. But postsecondary access is not the only benefit that DMLK offers to its students, 97 percent of whom are people of color and 79 percent of whom qualify free or reduced-price meals. The graduation rate is 97 percent.

King also has many hallmarks of a community school, a research-based model that combines rigorous academics with cultural relevance and student and family engagement and support that transcends the classroom. Denver Health has an on-site clinic where 70 percent of the school’s students have sought services such as vision screenings, physical exams and immunizations.

Supports offered at the school include a full-time nurse, psychologist, trauma social worker and social worker. In an office she calls “the peace room,” the trauma social worker listens to students’ concerns in an environment with calming lights, fidget items, soothing ocean sounds, a tiny Zen garden and a couch. Families can also approach the school if they need assistance with their energy bills or other help.

“I feel like MLK is a school of opportunity because they will help you even when you’re down,” said student Alana Mitchell. “They’re not like most schools who only care about test scores. They truly believe in us and our well being.”

The school’s students are assessed for college readiness in 10th grade, taking Accuplacer exams that many postsecondary institutions use to determine the need for remedial education. The objective is to address this need before students enter college so that, once they do enter college, they do not spend money and time on remedial coursework that typically does not count toward degree requirements.

Even as some DMLK students earn college credits, others need assistance with more basic skills such as learning to introduce themselves or ride the bus. That’s because DMLK is home to four programs for students with severe special needs, such as autism. Even the students with the most significant disabilities take social studies, science and electives in mainstream classrooms. Those with mild or moderate needs spend about 70 percent of the day in mainstream settings. All students are encouraged to attend dances, field trips and other school activities.

DMLK also provides additional supports for teachers, with debriefing and coaching sessions twice per month, as well as mentors for new teachers. Collaboration time that’s built into the schedule allows departments to meet at least twice a week. Most importantly, the school has teacher leaders who teach half time and coach during the remainder of the school day.

For students, this careful approach to professional development can translate into a sense that their teachers go above and beyond.

“I think that MLK genuinely cares to support students’ dreams and aspirations,” said student Jenelle Nangah. “Their support goes further than, ‘I am here if you need me.’ I enjoy the field experience with Ms. Roberts where we help elementary school kids at their school with their reading and school work. Also, our school is smaller, which allows us to build close relationships with our teachers and staff and you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get that experience elsewhere.”

Here are some other stories in this Schools of Opportunity series:

This successful school doesn’t do things like many other schools

At this school in Maine, the entire state is the classroom

Here are 7 'Schools of Opportunity’ that 'show us a way forward’

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The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.

Kevin G. Welner

NEPC director Kevin G. Welner is a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education, specializing in policy and law. He and Alex Molnar foun...