Succeeding in high school is never easy, but for Sha’nice Patterson it was harder than for most.

When Patterson started at City Arts & Technology High School in San Francisco, her mother had just died of a heart ailment at age forty-two. Her estranged father, who had served time in prison and then started a new family, was scarcely a presence, and she was being raised by her eighty-year-old grandmother.

“I wasn’t big on education,” Patterson says simply. City Arts & Tech Vice Principal Karen Bioski recalls the arrival of an “angry, frustrated girl.”

Four years later, Sha’nice Patterson is a student transformed. She has received college acceptances from three four-year universities and is awaiting word from several more. Her trail-blazing junior year internship at the San Francisco City Attorney’s office – the first time the office employed a high school intern – has inspired in her a serious interest in becoming an attorney. And she is, by all indications, happy, curious, and eager to learn. In large measure, Patterson credits her transformation to her school.

Video: Hear Sha’nice’s story in her own words, and learn more about what deeper learning looks like on the ground.

While most urban high schools struggle simply to get students through four years, at City Arts & Tech all students complete the required course work to be eligible for admission to the California university and state college systems. The students significantly outperform their counterparts at other local schools on the state’s annual standardized tests of student achievement in math and language arts.

Indeed, more than 90% of its graduates attend a two- or four-year college, compared with 50% of graduates of all California high schools. And in this student body, more than half the students will be the first in their families to attend college.

City Arts & Tech is one of the Bay Area’s four Envision Schools, a group of charter high schools started in 2002 that stress critical reasoning, the ability to communicate, and other skills that prepare students not just for college but for the life they can expect in the twenty-first century.

A New Model for Grantmaking in Education

The educational approach of Envision Schools, a Hewlett Foundation grantee, is a model for a new part of the Foundation’s strategy for grantmaking in education: “deeper learning.” This approach embraces a series of skills that enable students to go beyond basic skills and support their mastery of core academic content through thinking critically, solving complex problems, working collaboratively, communicating effectively, and learning independently.

Much of this is a far cry from the educational practices in most of the country’s K-12 schools, which still focus on rote memorization and the acquisition of knowledge removed from any context.

But research demonstrates that students do not develop the ability to analyze, think critically, write and speak effectively, or solve complex problems by working on tasks that emphasize memorization or require only simple recall or the application of basic instructions. Deeper learning, which is based on this research, enables deep understanding of core knowledge though critical thinking, flexible problem-solving, the transfer of skills and knowledge in new situations, and helping students understand how they learn and how to manage their own learning.

As Envision founder Bob Lenz, a former Marin County public school teacher, put it in a San Francisco Chronicle essay, “Meaningful college preparation is less about teaching facts than empowering students to think.” He might have said the same about education in general.

Hewlett’s new focus on deeper learning grew from months of analysis of current educational theory and practice and more than a hundred interviews with top education, business, and policy experts.

The Foundation will make grants to support a national network of model schools like Envision, but also to support efforts to evaluate the efficacy of the deeper learning approach and to encourage policy shifts toward it. Education Program grantmakers will also continue the Foundation’s longtime support for Open Educational Resources – high-quality, online educational materials available to everyone without charge – and for other initiatives to improve California public education.

“Deeper learning, under a variety of names, is an educational approach that already has a substantial track record and support around the country,” says Barbara Chow, director of the Foundation’s Education Program. “Our hope is that our grants can act as catalysts to broader adoption of deeper learning and its continued evolution.”

Exploring and Supporting a New Approach

Currently, only a small number of the nation’s public schools (probably less than 1%) assesses their students based on the precepts of deeper learning. Through its grantmaking, the Hewlett Foundation hopes to help increase that number to 15% (approximately 8 million students) by the year 2017. Initial support will focus on middle schools, high schools, and community colleges around the country. The Education Program’s grantmaking for deeper learning will also work to ensure that low-income or underserved students like Sha’nice Patterson have access to this educational approach.

For Patterson, the deeper learning experience at City Arts & Tech began with a faculty and administration working hard to get to know every one of the school’s 346 students.

“When I was in high school, I couldn’t tell you the names of my principal and vice principal,” says Vice Principal Bioski, who is also Patterson’s academic counselor. “Here we’re interacting with the students constantly. I’m on a first-name basis with all of them and their families. When kids come here, they’re shocked that everyone knows who they are.”

The goal, Bioski says, isn’t to be intrusive, but to engage: “We do it so the kids know they can’t fall behind, and so they are constantly reminded that the goal is their going to college. If we can get them to participate, we know we can get them through the twelfth grade.”

Patterson agrees that the faculty’s intense engagement has helped. “I can’t get anything past Miss Bioski and the teachers,” says Patterson, whose relationship to Bioski seems close and easy. “She’s like an aunt or a mom. Anything I need, I know I can get from her.”

Stressing Cooperation and Communication

Much of the classroom work at City Arts & Tech is done in small groups, which teaches skills in cooperation and communication and gives students weak in a particular subject a chance to learn from peers. “Math’s not my strongest thing, but we have students who are excellent in class, and I can sit with them to get help,” Patterson says.

Much of the curriculum is project-based – eighth and ninth grades feature a group investigation into the Holocaust that Bioski describes as a “full and holistic” study – and emphasizes critical reasoning skills.

The projects, in turn, become part of the centerpiece of education at City Arts & Tech – a portfolio of work called the Envision Schools Graduation Portfolio that each student develops over four years.

Bioski explains that a typical student portfolio represents a series of about twenty tasks: ten pieces of work that a student revises until each is deemed proficient and ten personal reflections on those works. They show the student’s best effort in each subject area, she says. Typically, portfolio projects are associated with exhibitions, essays, or other presentations completed over an extended period of time as the culmination of an academic concept or unit. Each year, students complete one or two tasks for their portfolios in each class.

“We don’t do lots of tests,” Patterson says. “We learn by listening, by looking – different ways work for different kids.”

But fewer traditional tests don’t mean a lack of rigor in teaching and learning. Instead of some testing, the schools conduct extensive assessments to determine students’ mastery. Indeed, that is the purpose the student portfolios serve.

Students’ reflections on their own work are particularly important, Bioski says: “They can explain where they are in the process of learning. Being able to explain your learning is something new, a way to understand your progress.”

And, indeed, the school is filled with posters like the one in Patterson’s classroom titled “Five Ways of Thinking: Justifying, Generalizing, Choosing a Strategy, Investigating, Reversing Thinking.”

Students’ portfolio projects also entail regular public speaking before fellow classmates and teachers, a process that builds confidence and self-esteem. As Envision founder Lenz observes in his Chronicle essay, “Studies show that the lack of self-management, critical thinking, and effective communication skills are major reasons why students drop out of college in their first year. Students also don’t get far in college without problem-solving and technology skills, as well as the ability to collaborate and be creative.”

Patterson was sold on the value of the projects and portfolio when a recent graduate returned from his first year at college and reported to City Arts & Tech students that both were just the kind of work they’d be doing as undergraduates.

But at this point Patterson, poised, verbal, and upbeat, needed no further convincing on the virtues of her school’s approach. “It was like coming out of the dark into the light,” she says of her years here. “I’m ready for my future.”