Deeper Learning Inspires Dreams of the Stage

Regina Leon, 17, will begin classes at San Francisco State University in the fall, where she plans to study theater and drama. She is the first in her family to attend college. Photo: Peter Schurmann/NAM.

Regina Leon, 17, will begin classes at San Francisco State University in the fall, where she plans to study theater and drama. She is the first in her family to attend college. Photo: Peter Schurmann/NAM.

By Peter Schurmann

Above: Regina Leon, 17, will begin classes at San Francisco State University in the fall, where she plans to study theater and drama. She is the first in her family to attend college. (Credit: Peter Schurmann)

Editor’s Note: With graduation season here, New America Media is profiling students who have benefited from the Deeper Learning education model. Supported by a national network of foundations and organizations, the Deeper Learning Network aims to revamp the way students are taught in U.S. classrooms, focusing on mastery of core content while also fostering skills critical to competency in both college and career. This is the third in a series of NAM stories looking at how Deeper Learning has impacted students from traditionally underserved communities. (Read Pt. 1 and Pt. 2.)


SAN FRANCISCO – On a balmy afternoon in late May high school senior Regina Leon is preparing to give her portfolio defense. A keystone of her graduation, Leon plans to discuss topics as wide ranging as The Great Gatsby, fashion legend Coco Chanel and abortion before a panel of teachers and school administrators.

The defense, a requirement for all graduating seniors at San Francisco’s City Arts and Tech (CAT) High School, is meant to demonstrate students’ readiness for the rigors of college and career.

“I feel confident, because this whole College Success Portfolio project is preparing me for the kinds of presentations I’ll do in college,” says Leon, 17.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Leon will be the first in her family to go to college, where she plans to study theater and drama. The daughter of immigrants from Nicaragua, Leon says her choice of topics –particularly abortion – stems in part from her aspirations to become an actress.

“Coming from such a traditional family, it was difficult for me to understand [the debate]. But as an actress, I’m open to learning everything,” explains Leon. “I may have to play a role that I don’t agree with and I have to understand both sides.”

Fostering a capacity for that kind of self reflection is a key aim of teachers at CAT, a small charter high school on the southern edge of San Francisco, in the largely immigrant Excelsior neighborhood. The school, which opened about ten years ago, has a student population of just under 400, 85 percent of them African American or Latino and 80 percent qualifying for free or reduced meals.

Part of the Oakland-based Envision Education charter network, which operates three high schools in the Bay Area, CAT’s educational approach embraces the Deeper Learning model, which looks to inculcate students with the kinds of skills deemed critical to success in the 21st century. These include things like critical thinking, the ability to work collaboratively and communicate effectively, and the development of what proponents call an “academic mindset,” or learning to learn.

Envision is one of several education organizations that make up the Deeper Learning Network, which encompasses around 500 schools nationwide.


Student centered

CAT’s principal is Daniel Allen. He says Deeper Learning began with the recognition among educators and education reform advocates that existing ways of assessing students “didn’t meet the complexity or depth of understanding that we should be expecting from our kids.”

Indeed, according to the latest report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the “nation’s report card,” less than 40 percent of U.S. 12th graders are academically prepared for college. The study found that only 39 percent of graduating seniors had the requisite math skills, while only 38 percent met college-level reading standards.

Proponents of Deeper Learning say it can help reverse these numbers. Many also point to the new Common Core standards, which have been adopted in California and 44 other states and are predicated in large part on Deeper Learning principles, as a step in the right direction.

Allen, however, draws a slight distinction between the new standards and Deeper Learning. “I feel like Common Core has space for Deeper Learning, [but] it depends on how the educational establishment defines the Common Core.”

Deeper Learning, he continues, “is an awareness of yourself as a learner, an awareness of your strengths, your weaknesses, your interests. And not just an awareness of it, but spaces where you are encouraged to explore those interests, to lean into those weaknesses, and to leverage those strengths.”


Grasp every opportunity

Leon holds up her student portfolio, a weighty binder filled with four years of projects – Project Based Learning is another hallmark at CAT – a compendium of her own high school journey.

Describing her classroom experience, Leon says teachers routinely put students into groups for a given project. The process allowed her to learn to both communicate and collaborate with her peers.

“You have to find a way to work with and learn from each other,” she says. “Now, I feel more confident being able to talk to different people and ask how to move forward.”

Todd Smith teaches English at CAT. He says these projects help students develop Deeper Learning skills, adding they are far cry from his own experience in school. “I had textbooks when I was in school. Teachers would lecture, and we would take notes … it’s markedly different.”

Smith adds that teachers at CAT often incorporate multi-media tools into their curriculums, which are designed around both standards as well as what teachers “want students to learn.” That often means drawing directly from student experience.


It’s a theme Leon is quick to pick up on.

“In my middle school it was very textbook heavy … it was very traditional. Here [at CAT] they’re not very traditional at all. They try to teach you ways to understand things in your own way,” she says.

When she first got to high school – Leon spent three years at Metro Arts and Tech, CAT’s sister school; the two were eventually merged – she says neither college nor career was on her radar. She credits her teachers with steering her toward the theater.

“In my ninth grade year I had a drama class. My teacher sat with me and told me to check out this new theater [in San Francisco],” recalls Leon. “My whole entire dream has since revolved around that center.”

As to the future, Leon is nothing if not determined. “I want to go to college. I want to graduate and be the first in my family to graduate. I want to grasp every opportunity I can from college.”

Source: News America Media

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