How this Bay Area charter school network is reinventing education
Diane Tavenner scanned the list of names a staffer at Summit Preparatory Charter High School had just handed her. She began to cry. They weren’t happy tears.
Where many would see signs of success, Tavenner saw failure.
“I taught those kids,” Tavenner said of that moment in 2011. “I was their principal, I was their mentor. I knew everybody personally — and their families.”
Tavenner had founded the award-winning Silicon Valley school in 2003. With its nontraditional approach to teaching, it quickly grew into a network of seven privately run, publicly funded charter schools across the Bay Area. The Summit network also has two schools in Washington state.
Every student is assigned a mentor from Day One, and they meet weekly to talk about school and home life.
All students, not just those teachers deem creative, can take art, yoga or film classes, and get involved in learning “expeditions,” often taught by experts in community orchestras or museums.
And teachers don’t rely on the rote drills that can take up so much classroom time when schools in poor neighborhoods fixate only on improving test scores.
By 2010, this approach had led to impressive test scores, even among children who typically struggle in school. National education experts singled out Summit’s teachers and administrators for recognition. And in a state where many view the high school dropout rate as scandalous, virtually every Summit student graduated.
But the list of names Tavenner scanned about five years ago told a fuller story. Almost half of Summit students who went on to college failed to make it all the way through.
“I knew it wasn’t because they didn’t want a college degree,” Tavenner said. “Or because they had some other fabulous opportunity.”
Many of the schools’ funders and supporters were thrilled with the numbers, Tavenner said. “We were like, ‘Whoa, stop. We need to go back and figure out what we can do to set those other 45% up for success.’”
So, less than 10 years after opening its first school in Redwood City, Calif., with the goal of reinventing high school, Summit set out to reinvent itself.
Some help from technology
Tavenner grew up in a poor family near the resort town of Lake Tahoe, Calif., where many people she knew never got past high school. She describes her success at college as “luck.”
After 10 years as a teacher, Tavenner helped found Summit, in the Silicon Valley town of Redwood City, where the poor coexist in the shadow of technology-fueled wealth.
The idea was to have all the community’s children — rich and poor — go to school together, and to make college a destiny for all, not just for certain kinds of kids. One of the educational cliches that most bothers Tavenner is “college isn’t for everyone.”
“The people who put that theory forward almost exclusively have college educations, and their kids are on track to get one,” she said. “They’re never talking about their own family. They’re always talking about someone else’s child. I’ve never heard a low-income mother say that to me, ever.”
Tavenner asked her teaching staff to see whether they could figure out what was missing from the education their schools offered, and how to make it right.
The teachers decided that, with help from technology, they could give each child the skills that particular child needed to succeed in college — not only in terms of academics, but also in terms of personal habits.
They decided to design a system that would enable teachers, students and parents to log on to computers and find a vast repository of lessons, as well as a way to track success and to see immediately when students were falling behind.
They also decided to teach “habits of success” that people need to function well in college, dividing these into six categories: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, interpersonal skills, decision-making and responsible behavior.
Students who already had those skills when they arrived in high school “were taking off and doing great,” said Bobby Cupp, a Summit teacher. For others, he said, tasks as simple as addressing an envelope or turning in a piece of paper on time were challenges that required too much hand-holding.
To be successful in college, students would need to learn when to ask for help and when to figure out the answers themselves.
But measuring these types of skills isn’t as easy as tracking, say, progress in math class. And the school’s system for creating personal lessons for every student — cobbled together in-house by teachers with limited expertise in building technology from scratch — couldn’t do everything they needed it to do.
As luck would have it, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, had toured a Summit middle school and liked what they saw.
At the end of the visit, Zuckerberg asked what Summit needed, and offered to send a team of engineers from Facebook to help improve the technology. In 2014, the engineers began working for the teachers, refining the interface and trouble-shooting problems.
Eventually, the plan is to make the technology being developed at Summit available, for free, to schools nationwide. The process began last fall, with partnerships formed between Summit and 19 other schools — both charter and traditional — to give them access to teacher training, mentoring guidance and the software.
What’s happening inside the “new” Summit schools is still human-centered work, but supported by a silent high-tech filing cabinet.
The computer system, dubbed the Personalized Learning Plan, is more than a database, though. It stores projects, curricula, mentoring materials and academic assessments.
Teachers can quickly pull materials from a curated list to create lessons that are neither too easy nor too hard; they can also search for advice from colleagues about which lessons have worked well for a particular concept or project.
Students can also use the system, but they don’t sit around clicking through computer screens all day long.
They have traditional classrooms with teachers, as well as real-world projects. Outside ofclass, and at designated times during the school day, they can log into the computer network and work as quickly or slowly as they want through various lessons.
As they progress, a line on the screen chugs forward like a pace car through a list of the lessons, showing students (and their parents and teachers) whether they are on track to complete the course on time.
A student who loves history might zoom ahead in that subject, for example, but if she neglects her English class she will need to find a way to catch up. The child’s assigned mentor, in their weekly meeting, can coach a student to look ahead at the problems that may arise if he or she doesn’t stay on track. But the goal is to teach students to understand this themselves.
“The skill that I’m really trying to take in is responding to setbacks,” said Isabel Pamintuan, an 11th-grader at Summit Prep who expects to be the first person in her family to go to college. “Sometimes I’ll hit a wall and then I freak out, but then I realize, ‘OK. I have to breathe, and then I have to figure out if there’s a wall how do I get over it or around it.’ That’s something that I really hope I can get better at, so I can bring it to college.”
Cultivating independence means giving students more independence. The idea is to prevent culture shock when they reach college. No one there assigns detention to students who skip class. Students are expected to think for themselves, manage their time and understand when and when not to ask for help. This means they also need to learn how to assess themselves.
That’s part of what Brian Johnson, a science teacher, was teaching when he embarked on a lesson in writing a persuasive essay with a class of sixth-graders at Summit Denali, in a squat concrete building in an industrial park near the heart of Silicon Valley.
He gave the students options: If they had written a persuasive essay before, they could try one assignment. If they hadn’t, they could try another. Such choices force students to assess themselves.
The phrase “personalized learning” often signifies a technology-rich classroom, but when asked to describe it, Aukeem Ballard, a ninth-grade teacher at Summit Prep, recalled a student who had his head down that day in class, a problem a computer couldn’t address.
Ballard solved it by quietly nudging the student, reminding him of the need to be attentive and asking if he had a problem that he needed to talk to someone about.
“Part of personalized learning is understanding that people are at different places at different times,” Ballard said. “They’re at a different place in their head space and their heart.”
Creating individual lessons for students has been the “dream of public school educators for well over a century,” said Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education.
Now technology is helping to make that approach viable. “It’s less expensive than getting more adults in the classroom,” he said.
Cuban remains skeptical about education technology and “personalized learning” because, he said, so many programs make big promises and fail to deliver.
Summit, he said, is a promising experiment because the school changed how and what students learn and how the school day is organized, before turning to technology.
He said that Tavenner’s sustained focus has also been good for the schools.
“Maybe I’m old-fashioned,” Tavenner said. “But I still believe in the American dream. I believe that if you work hard and are a good person, you have an opportunity to be anything you want to be. I believe an education is the key to that.
“I think a lot of people say ‘all kids,’ but they don’t actually believe it will be all kids. We’re crazy enough to believe in all kids.”
This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
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