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Inner City Success

A small group of public charters near San Francisco are using project-based learning to propel students to become the first in their family to attend college.

The saying "if these walls could talk" usually refers to some deep secret that occurred long ago inside the building in question. But it is fitting that the phrase has been turned around at the four public charters in the San Francisco area run by Envision Schools. For within these buildings, the walls not only talk, they inform, illuminate, and even brag. Brightly colored posters showing each senior line the hallways of the schools. They list key accomplishments and point out what college he or she will attend after graduation.

Turning that old phrase around is apropos because, in short, that is exactly what Envision is doing to education within its walls. When one of the cofounders, Bob Lenz, first came to prominence in education, it was for creating a project-based, cross-disciplinary curriculum at Sir Francis Drake, a public high school north of San Francisco. While the school piled up accolades-it was named one of the 13 best high schools in the country and featured on the cover of U.S. News & World Report in 2000-Lenz says he was bothered by the "Yeah, but..." attitude that so many visitors adopted. Because the school was radically redesigned, because the changes came with private and public help above and beyond that given to a typical school, and because it was located in a rich suburb to begin with, most visitors complimented the school's progress but left saying that such changes would never work at their schools.

Lenz knew better. In 2002, he and Daniel McLaughlin, a former senior research associate at WestEd, set out to prove that their model could work in the most trying circumstances.

Nine years later, they have four schools-two in San Francisco, one in Oakland, and one in Hayward, California. The 9-12 schools take all comers: Coming in, 55 percent of students are below grade level in math and English; more than six in 10 qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 14 percent are special education students. Most significantly, a full 60 percent are first-generation college-bound.

Lenz has kept the cross-curricular, project-based learning model that worked so well at Drake, and the results have followed. In California, only one in three high school graduates-one in four if they are African-American or Hispanic-qualify to attend the state's college system. In contrast, every one of Envision's 2010 graduates was accepted to a college or university; 93 percent of them are attending either in state or out, 84 percent at four-year institutions.

Lenz's schools still attract a lot of visitors, but now most leave with a full notebook and a good idea of how Envision's strategies and model could work in their towns and cities.

High Stakes, Envision-Style
Because envision created its model in large part by working backwards- identifying key skills students need to attend and succeed in college and then figuring out how to infuse them into the day-to-day work of high school-we'll begin the same way: by looking at seniors about to leave for college.

Mariela Velasquez is a 17-year-old senior, and today, she's facing the biggest day of her academic life. For the next hour, her diploma hangs on the decision of four people who will judge her achievements at Hayward's Impact Academy of Arts and Technology. Velasquez, like every other senior at an Envision school, has to present and defend the work she has accomplished. Then after a short, private, review, the judges will let her know if she has passed and can graduate.

Velasquez is a somewhat unusual student for Envision. She began at the 9-12 school less than two years ago, transferring from a neighborhood high school. Her goal then was to become a dental technician; now she hopes to become a dentist. But starting late at the school meant she didn't conduct a tenth-grade defense, a sort of walk-through for the high-stakes senior version. Her late start also compromised her ability to find her own internship, a big part of the Envision experience. Velasquez ended up interning at the school itself, a useful experience but one that lacked the pressures most students face, such as making your way in an office where you don't know anyone, communicating with and getting a work advisor to agree with your goals, and just handling the basics of a job-arriving on time, keeping track of hours, and so on.

For her presentation, Velasquez wears heels and nice clothing, and for 30 minutes she runs through several of her better projects, using some index cards and a fairly low-tech projector setup to show her work. Velasquez is a good presenter and seems unusually honest. She even points out flaws in a project she completed and mentions how procrastination has held her back in the past. For about 15 minutes, she answers questions from the judges. One is her teacher mentor, another is a fellow student, and the final two are teachers at the school.

While the judges are quick to point out some strengths, all find fault with several aspects of her presentation. The decision is as swift as it is harsh. Because of some key mistakes, Velasquez won't pass. When she's brought back in and told the news, she immediately wipes a tear from the corner of her eye, but she keeps her composure, listens to her judges' advice, and thanks them for hearing her.

Her bad news isn't the end of the line for her. Like the one-third to one-half of students who don't pass their defense the first time, she'll have a chance to work on her presentation, incorporate the input from her panel, and re-stage her defense. Her panel agrees that she's pretty close to passing, and sure enough they are right-her next defense is successful. Velasquez graduates on time and is attending Eastern Oregon University this fall.

Finding the Right Formula

The 17-year-old Mexican-American student probably doesn't realize it, but her path to success mirrors the growth of Envision during the last decade. Even with Lenz's previous success at Drake, he and cofounder McLaughlin didn't get the formula right the first time they opened a school. They have been willing to tinker with the schools' formulas to improve, but they're sticking with their core mission. Envision lists a different set of Rs than most schools as the key to its success: rigor, relationships, relevance, and results. The biggest difference I saw while visiting two schools is how the staff demands that students reflect on all their work, from projects to internships to progress reports.

"We believe strongly that reflecting metacognition is critical to transfer new learning to new situations," says Lenz. "High-performing individuals are highly reflective. That's a habit that needs to be built.

"At first, students couldn't identify the skills they were using in internships. Kids need language and practice doing this work. We want them to get in the habit [of reflection], so when they get to college, they'll say, ‘I've been in this situation before, and here's how I tackle it.'"

Erika Neilsen Andrew, the director of Center for College and Career Success, says that Envision originally wanted to try to serve students from sixth grade through graduation. The reason is obvious: Two-thirds of Envision's students tested at a fifth-grade level when they started ninth grade. But the feasibility of getting charter approval for such a grade-level span wasn't possible, so the school runs just the traditional four years of high school.

In some ways, the schools don't look different than any inner-city school. Students wear Oakland A's and Raiders hats with the stickers still on the brims, hooded sweatshirts and baggy jeans. Students in a tenth-grade English class discuss their essays on To Kill a Mockingbird. In other ways, they are definitely different. In one art class, a group of students work on a project together while one restlessly pushes a skateboard under his foot. At some times, it is hard to identify the teacher among the students, because everyone is working in groups and there's no one person at the head of the class dispensing information.

Influence, Not Expansion
Envision's schools now serve about 1,300 students. While the schools' desire to have a national impact hasn't waned, Lenz says, the point of scale of trying to grow a national network of charters became too much. "The time and energy to start schools, build relationships with schools, locate a facility, and get funding was distracting us from putting our full attention into the schools," Lenz says. "We were growing to have an impact, and we asked, Could we jeopardize what our impact is?"

The schools recently decided to stop expanding to concentrate on working with other school leaders across the country to share their framework: a demanding atmosphere in which students do deeper learning but receive the skills and motivation to reach these goals. Envision works with two leading groups: High Tech High-a successful group of project-based public charters in San Diego that has grown recently to include teacher certification and an innovative graduate school of education-and the New Technology network of schools, a growing nationwide group of project-based high schools. Envision has also started its Center for College and Career Success, aimed specifically at building the skills students will need when they leave high school.

Ask Lenz what the reaction to his schools is today and he doesn't have to flinch or hide behind the dreaded eight-letter word boutique. "We don't get ‘This won't work for underserved kids.' We're really conscious of keeping the playing field as level as possible. We're showing what's possible right now, for kids who need it the most."

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