Interview: Bob Lenz on how Envision Schools prepare low-income high schoolers for college
Bob Lenz, co-founder and CEO of Envision Schools, is not satisfied with teaching history and science: he wants students to practice being historians and scientists. That’s why at his schools you are more likely to find a student preparing a multimedia public presentation on a real-world issue like “Does it pay to go green?” than memorizing information to pass a standardized test. That’s not to say his students don’t achieve well — Envision manages four charter schools in the Bay Area, all of which commonly boast the highest test score gains in their districts, despite their focus on youth who will be the first in their families to reach college. Lenz chatted with Dowser about the challenges of preparing students to thrive in college and beyond.
Dowser: At a time when schools serving low-income students face great pressure to “teach to the test,” Envision uses project-based learning, art and technology to teach critical thinking and creativity. What led you to this approach?
Lenz: I was a teacher and a leader for reform at Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo, CA. The school went from being one of the lowest achieving in the district to being recognized as a New American High School, an initiative by the U.S. Department of Education for outstanding secondary schools. I built a plan to show that what we accomplished would work for all kids, not just the privileged few. We found some organizations who believed in our plan, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the California Department of Education. We opened our first school in 2003.
Envision manages four Bay Area charter schools. How does a charter school differ from other public schools?
Like all public schools, we receive state funding. We are not managed by an elected school board. And we are freed from the regulations and bureaucracies of the California Education Code and the Department of Education. We have more flexibility with our money than other public schools, although we receive less.
What is an example of that flexibility?
In a traditional public school, funds are tied to specific programs. As charter schools, we decide how to allocate our money. In terms of accountability, our students take all the same state tests they would in public schools. If our results are not adequate and the plans we submitted are not realized, the district can shut us down. A traditional public school is not that easy to close.
How did you get the support of these institutions so early in the life of Envision Schools?
Our educational model was powerful, and it happened to align with the priorities of the Gates Foundation. We were also fortunate in terms of timing — we started early in the development of charter management organizations. And our ideas about project-based learning and making curriculums rigorous and relevant were not theoretical — I had done it before and could demonstrate results.
How do you recruit teachers and students for schools that do not yet exist?
You have to be clear about your vision and be able to tell the story in a compelling way. Build relationships with key community members in education, politics, and business – it gives you credibility. Garnering the support of eighth graders and their families operates somewhat like a political campaign. We obtain their contact information and invite them to information sessions. Then we begin a whole series of events and outreach to get those who are interested to commit to coming to the school.
Has your mission changed over time?
No, but some of our tactics have. At first, we thought we would just build five schools. Then we started seeing great results, and the Gates Foundation said they wanted us to build as many as 10,000 new small schools. We followed the money.
We thought about managing schools remotely as a way to fuel expansion. But with our focus on growth, our quality had dips. About a year ago, we decided to focus instead on deep impact that is documented and can be replicated. We decided to have four schools that would serve as exemplars and as research sites.
Can you talk about the project-based learning that’s at the heart of Envision Schools?
One of the biggest reasons students drop out of college is a lack of project management and time management skills. If we can get the students to be successful in their first year of college and on to their second, they will be more likely to graduate.
We think about project-based learning as follows: first, to be successful in college and in your career, you have to master content. Second, you have to be able to demonstrate and apply that knowledge. Third, you have to be able to collaborate, think critically, and problem-solve.
So how does project-based learning actually work?
Three to four times a year, our students collaborate on projects that culminate in an Exhibition of Learning, when they present their work to an audience of a few hundred. For a recent project, the driving question was, ‘Does it pay to be green?’ The students studied green technology, such as solar power. In a digital media arts class, they created public service announcements addressing their technology and whether it pays to be green. In a visual arts class, they created models of a house based on the technology they were using. When the students graduate, they defend a portfolio of projects they feel proficient in, similar to a dissertation defense.
What metrics do you use to measure your students’ success?
Our ultimate goal is to quadruple the number of students who are the first generation in their family to graduate, bringing it from 10% to 40%. Our kids take the classes required for entrance to the University of California/California State University system. We measure proficiency in basic skills— we want our kids to perform at the same level as their non-low-income peers. We track basic accountability, measured by attendance, discipline issues, and survey results that measure their level of engagement in school.
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President Obama wants states that have a cap on charter schools to lift them (as one, New York, did a few weeks ago). Do you think that’s the right way to go?
It’s awesome that the President of the United States is out in front on education. It’s about time. Having more charter schools is not necessarily the answer. There are around 60,000 public high schools in the U.S. Let’s say I can build 24 new charter schools. That does not mean it is going to tip the system. It’s important to have highly effective charters, and charter management organizations, and to apply the lessons we have learned from charter schools to public policy so that all public schools benefit.
Where do you see Envision Schools 10 years from now?
I have a vision that we create an institute for college-ready graduates, a lab for innovation that could be disseminated and replicated. Envision Schools would be in five metropolitan areas around the country, each with six schools. We would partner with the local school districts and educational leadership.
What advice would you offer someone who aspires to a career focused on social impact?
We have a motto here: ‘PDO’ – ‘persistence and determination are omnipotent,’ first said by Calvin Coolidge. The idea is to never, ever give up.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Photo: Bob Lenz