“How does slang reflect our culture?” asked Sean Kennedy, a history teacher at Bard High School Early College Baltimore (BHSECB). Many hands went up in his classroom. The students were eager to talk and soon engaged in a rollicking conversation as Kennedy explained that the class would study the 1920s in the United States through the lens of youth slang at that time. The 1920s represented a time when youth culture strongly influenced society. Asking students about current slang and its impact on modern society offered an engaging way to introduce the topic.

Already, these high school students were working at the deeper learning competencies. Highly engaged with this discussion, they wrestled with challenging content knowledge and with transferring that knowledge to other situations, from the present day to the 1920s.

“Early college high schools are a prime example of deeper learning in practice,” said Clara Botstein, the associate vice president for Bard Early Colleges. “At their best, these innovative, hybrid models marry the intellectual challenge, freedoms, and standards of higher education with the support systems appropriate to help younger scholars develop and achieve.”

The first early college high schools opened their doors almost fifteen years ago as a way to increase the college-going rate for historically underserved youth. Each early college program allows students to attend four years of high school and earn both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree tuition free.

In its 2014 paper calling for the expansion of early college high schools, Jobs for the Future (JFF) identified a Common Instructional Framework for these programs, which includes “six strategies … designed to foster deep learning and promote the skills necessary for all students to succeed in high school and postsecondary education.” The six strategies align closely with the deeper learning competencies. For example, collaborative work is a hallmark of early college high schools and a critical piece of deeper learning. As in any school committed to deeper learning, students at early college high schools “are expected to be active participants in their education … immersed in a challenging curriculum that requires them to seek out and acquire new knowledge, apply what they have learned, and build upon that to create new knowledge.”

Bard has seven early college high schools in four other cities besides Baltimore: New York, New Orleans, Cleveland, and Newark. Currently in its first year, the Baltimore campus has 165 students, of which 77 percent are African American, 19 percent are white, and 3 percent are Latino. The school no longer collects forms to identify students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch because the district provides free lunch to all students since the majority qualify for the federal lunch program. In School Year 2014–15, Baltimore City Public Schools (City Schools), enrolled just over 22,000 high school students. Districtwide, 82.7 percent of all students were African American, 8 percent were white, and 7.4 percent were Latino.

Bard’s Baltimore campus will grow to 500 students during the next three years. It’s the first school of its kind in that city.

“The launch of BHSECB set an important precedent for Baltimore City Public Schools as it allowed us to establish a firm baseline and foundation for building college credit opportunities for our students,” stated Rudy Ruiz, executive director for college and career readiness in the district.

The Bard campus in Baltimore is a powerful start. City Schools is working to increase the number of early college programs, rethinking the high school-to-college pipeline and the role of postsecondary education in a K–12 system. That sort of scaling up already is occurring in districts supported by a federal Investing in Innovation grant JFF received: Denver Public Schools, Brownsville (Texas) Independent School District, and Pharr–San Juan–Alamo (Texas) Independent School District (PSJA ISD).

PSJA ISD has become a leader in creating more academic opportunities for all students. Located at the southern tip of Texas, just ten miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, the school district serves 32,000 students, 99 percent of whom are Latino. In the communities of Pharr, San Juan, and Alamo, 88 percent of families are considered economically disadvantaged. Through its College Ready, College Connected, and College Complete approach, the school district designated eight high schools as early college schools, and approximately 3,000 students participate in college courses through dual- and concurrent-enrollment programs that allow students to earn high school and college credit simultaneously.

Critical to the effectiveness of this district’s early college program has been an intense focus on instructional rigor. The district adopted JFF’s Common Instructional Framework, which emphasizes high-level intellectual discussion and inquiry among students, uses accessible and challenging material, and encourages students to own their learning. To implement the framework effectively, PSJA ISD enacted instructional coaching and comprehensive professional development from JFF and the district’s partner Educate Texas. School principals now serve as instructional leaders and observe classrooms several times a week using standardized classroom walk-through tools that look for consistent college-readiness strategies in action.

Several studies confirm that students who attend early college high schools, like those in PSJA ISD and City Schools, are significantly more likely than their peers to graduate from high school, enroll in college, and earn a college degree. For example, a January 2014 study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) finds that, during the study period, 81 percent of early college high school students enrolled in two- and four-year colleges, compared with 72 percent of students in traditional high school programs. Similarly, 25 percent of early college high school students earned a college degree (typically an associate’s), compared with only 5 percent of students in traditional programs. The impact of attending an early college high school generally did not differ by subgroup. When it did, the difference favored underrepresented student groups.

Additionally, the team at Bard calculated that its early college high schools can decrease students’ overall college costs by reducing the time needed to complete a bachelor’s degree, saving them up to $27,200 at public colleges and $72,600 at private colleges.

As Ruiz in Baltimore said, “We look forward to our first set of Bard graduates in 2017, and the growing wave of City Schools students demonstrating not merely college eligibility, or even college readiness, but college success, as they cross our graduation stages.”

For historically underserved young people, early college high schools like Bard offer a pathway not only for high school success but also for postsecondary success. Moreover, the successes of school districts in Texas and other states show that this new pathway can scale, and the Every Student Succeeds Act provides opportunities for states and districts to advance these deeper learning approaches. Perhaps there will be a time in the future when a high school education becomes synonymous with a college education and with a full preparation for life.

Abner Oakes is director of outreach and strategic partnerships for the standards, assessment, and deeper learning team at the Alliance.