A Douglas County, Colo., Sheriffs Department deputy walks past the doors to the STEM Highlands Ranch school early Wednesday, May 8, 2019, in Highlands Ranch, Colo.

David Zalubowski/AP

STEM School Highlands Ranch is the ninth-ranked high school in Colorado, located in one of the wealthiest counties in the country — and now it's been the site of a school shooting. 

Before two students entered the building Tuesday and began shooting, it was best known in the area for its approach to science, technology, engineering and math.

STEM School is located in Douglas County. It’s a charter school of about 1,875 students serving kindergarten through 12th grade. It was founded in 2011 and is currently one of the highest performing in the state, with 70 percent of students reading and writing at grade level and 57 percent on target in math. A sizeable number of students come from outside of Douglas County, drawn by the school’s unique focus.

Douglas County, a suburban area located between Denver and Colorado Springs, is one of the wealthiest counties in the country, and the school reflects those demographics. Only 6 percent of students at the school qualify for federal free and reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty.

The school has far more students identified as gifted than most, and relatively few students get additional support due to a disability. Just over a third of the body is students of color. Almost two-thirds of the students are male. 

The school emphasizes science, technology, and engineering and math subjects, but has gained a reputation for its innovative focus and being a catalyst for creativity. A big part of the school’s philosophy is a “bottom-up” approach to conducting science and exploration.

Teachers are expected to be role models and innovation coaches who provide the framework for learning while students drive much of the inquiry and discovery. School leader Penny Eucker told CPR in a 2015 interview that students today are fast thinkers with “high-clock speed in their processing,” and they want to be part of the decision making.

“They want to interact, they want technology and they have less tolerance for the slower delivery of notetaking,” she said.

Art is an integral part of STEM School. There are six recording studios where students learn not only classical music theory, but also how to play guitar, bass and keyboard as well how to digitally compose music.

Eucker took the reins of the school in 2012, when it was failing and slated for closure.    Today it ranks number one in the district on ACT scores and seventh on SAT scores. 
The school emphasizes interdisciplinary instruction, with teachers pulling concepts from other subjects. For example, in an AP World Studies course, students created and programed artificial intelligence-powered talking heads of Kaiser Wilhelm that debated the merits of entering World War I.

“When you walk into some of our sophisticated classrooms where teachers have been at this for a few years, you don't even recognize it as a classroom of your past,” Eucker said. “Many of the teachers have said, ‘Students don't really know what class they're in because the art teachers work with the engineering teachers who work with the social studies teachers.’”

The public charter school initially served grades 6 to 9, but gradually expanded to serve K-12 and now has more than 1,850 students. Students are selected by lottery. It’s governed by an elected volunteer Board of Directors representing parents and community members from the Denver area.