Blended Learning

Despite its high-tech profile, Summit charter network makes teachers, not computers, the heart of personalized learning

A surprise inside a school championed for its use of technology: Teachers are the stars

Middle school students at Summit Denali work with a teacher in a small group.

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — Diane Tavenner scanned the list of names a staffer at Summit Prep 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 charter school in 2003. Quickly, she and the teachers she hired began achieving so many educational goals with their non-traditional approach that Summit quickly grew into a network of seven privately run, publicly funded charter schools across the Bay Area.

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 deemed 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.”

So what was it? Tavenner set out to find out – even though she knew others were pleased by the number of Summit students who did get all the way through college.

“A bunch of our funders and supporters were . . . like, ‘Just keep doing it. How fast can you open schools?’ ” said Tavenner. “We were like, ‘Whoa, stop. We need to go back and figure out what we can do to set those other 45 percent up for success.’ ”

So, less than 10 years after opening its first school in Redwood City with the goal of reinventing high school, Summit set out to reinvent itself again.

* * *

Tavenner grew up in a poor family near the resort town of Lake Tahoe, California, where many people she knew never got past high school. She graduated from the University of Southern California, but describes her success in 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.

Students work independently on lessons during a time set aside for such work at Summit Prep. Some of the “Habits of Success” championed by the school are listed on the wall.

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 clichés that most bothers Tavenner is “college isn’t for everyone.”

Related: Blue-collar town leads Rhode Island’s tech-assisted learning revolution

“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.”

With that background and philosophy, she could not be satisfied if the children who graduated from her school had slightly better than a 50-50 shot in college.

Tavenner turned to her teaching staff. She asked them to work together — the school provides an extraordinarily high amount of time for collaboration — to figure out what was missing from the education they 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 – in terms of academics, but also in terms of personal habits.

They decided to design a system where teachers, students and parents could log on to computers and find a vast repository of lessons, as well as a system 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 technology for creating personal lessons for every student – cobbled together in-house by teachers who had limited expertise in building technology from scratch – couldn’t do everything they needed it to do.

Students in Summit Denali work independently a few times each day on computers, with teachers available to help. The school’s flexible layout allows for teachers to work together.

As luck would have it, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, had toured a Summit middle school earlier and liked what they saw. At the end of that visit, Zuckerberg asked what Summit needed, in terms of technology, and offered to send a team of professional engineers from Facebook to help.

In 2014, the engineers began working for the teachers, creating new functions, 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. (The Summit network itself also has two schools in Washington state.)

Related: Summit Schools and Facebook announce new personalized learning platform project

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, curriculums, mentoring materials and academic assessments. Teachers can quickly pull materials from a curated list, to create lessons that are the right fit, 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.

Two programs, Summit Reads and Summit Solves, give children daily practice in independent reading and math. Students meet with a teacher in a small group to read silently — and consult with a teacher, if needed.

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 of class, and at designated times during the school day, they can log into the computer network and work as fast or as 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) if they are ahead of or behind where they need to be 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 gives them options: If they’ve written a persuasive essay before, they can try one assignment. If they haven’t, they can try another. This means they must assess themselves and make a choice.

A student raises his hand.

“What if we pick something that’s too hard?”

Good question, Johnson says. He asks everyone to pay attention to the answer: You can try a different lesson if you don’t think what you’re doing is right. It’s OK if you need to try again.

Related: Improving lackluster U.S. high schools: Why it’s not too little or too late

One reason a science teacher is giving an essay lesson is that scientists, too, must know how to write a thesis and support it with evidence. Another is that the teachers at Summit Denali had decided at the start of the year to focus on building a foundation of math and reading skills by giving students frequent practice in these areas in all classes.

A student at Summit K2, in El Cerrito, California, works on an art project while she listens to music on her computer. Students at Summit are often given freedoms, such as listening to music as they study, that are off-limits at other schools.

Teachers work closely with each other and their students. The technology helps — it makes creating personalized lessons, tracking progress and sharing insights more efficient. Yet few teachers cite computers when explaining what makes their school distinctive.

“I haven’t mentioned it just because it has never, in my head, been the primary magic thing that makes this work,” said Aukeem Ballard, a ninth-grade teacher at Summit Prep.

The phrase “personalized learning” often signifies a technology-rich classroom, but when asked to describe it, Ballard recalled a student who’d 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, and honoring that, and honoring that human beings aren’t just one thing all the time — I think that’s a huge part of the personalized learning work that we’re doing.”

Creating individual lessons for students has been the “dream of public school educators for well over a century,” said Larry Cuban, an emeritus professor of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, and that “most recent incarnation of it” is using technology to do so.

“What’s given it a great deal of momentum,” he said, “is that it’s less expensive than getting more adults in the classroom.”

Cuban remains skeptical about it, though, because, he said, so many programs make big promises and fail to deliver. He believes in tailoring lessons to a student’s level, but he isn’t convinced that technology is a panacea for achieving it.

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.

The schools have also benefitted, Cuban pointed out, from a low turnover among teachers and Tavenner’s sustained focus as the leader.

“Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I still believe in the American Dream,” Tavenner said. “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,” she added. “We’re crazy enough to believe in all kids. We deeply believe that. Our schools have always been about all kids, every single one of them. I think if you don’t actually believe in all, you’re never going to get to all.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about blended learning.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

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Nichole Dobo

Nichole Dobo is a reporter and the blended learning fellow. Her work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic's online edition, Mind/Shift,… See Archive