How this Bay Area charter school network is reinventing education

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Diane Tavenner went through the list of names that a member of the staff at Summit Preparatory Charter High School had just given her. She started crying. They weren’t tears of joy.

Where many would see signs of success, Tavenner saw failure.

“I taught these kids,” Tavenner said of that moment in 2011. “I was their principal, I was their mentor. I knew everyone personally – and their families.

Tavenner had founded the award-winning Silicon Valley School in 2003. With her non-traditional approach to teaching, it quickly grew into a network of seven private and state-funded charter schools in the region. bay. 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 life at school and at home.

All students, not just teachers deemed creative, can take art, yoga or film classes, and participate in learning “expeditions”, often taught by experts from community orchestras or museums.

And teachers don’t rely on rote drills that can take so long in class when poor neighborhood schools focus only on improving test scores.

By 2010, this approach had led to impressive test results, even among children who typically have difficulty in school. National education experts honored Summit teachers and administrators for their recognition. And in a state where many see the dropout rate outrageous, virtually every Summit student has graduated.

But the list of names Tavenner scanned about five years ago told a more complete story. Almost half of the Summit students who went to college failed to make it through to the end.

“I knew it wasn’t because they didn’t want a college degree,” Tavenner said. “Or because they had another fabulous opportunity.”

Many school funders and supporters were thrilled with the numbers, Tavenner said. “We were like, ‘Whoa, stop it. We need to go back and figure out what we can do to prepare that remaining 45% to be successful. “

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

A little help from technology

Tavenner grew up in a poor family near the resort town of Lake Tahoe, California, where many people she knew never made it through high school. She 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 a wealth fueled by technology.

The idea was for all the children in the community, rich and poor, to go to school together and for university to be a fate for all, not just certain types of children. One of the pedagogical clichés that bothers Tavenner the most is “college isn’t for everyone”.

“The people who put forward this theory almost exclusively have a college education, and their children are well on their way to getting one,” she said. “They never talk about their own family. They are always talking about someone else’s child. I never heard a low income mom tell me that, ever.

Tavenner asked his teaching staff to see if they could figure out what was missing in the education offered by their schools and how to fix it.

The teachers decided that with the help of technology, they could give each child the skills that particular child needed to be successful in college – not only in terms of academics, but also in terms of habits. personal.

They set out to design a system that would allow teachers, students, and parents to connect to computers and find a large repository of lessons, as well as a way to track success and immediately see when students were taking strength. delay.

They also decided to teach the ‘success habits’ people need to function well in college, dividing them into six categories: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, interpersonal skills, decision-making and behavior. responsible.

Students who already had these skills when they got to high school “were taking off and doing really well,” said Bobby Cupp, a teacher at Summit. For others, he said, tasks as simple as addressing an envelope or returning a piece of paper on time were challenges that required too much grip.

To be successful in college, students should know when to ask for help and when to find the answers themselves.

But measuring these types of skills isn’t as easy as tracking progress in math lessons, for example. And the school’s system for creating personal lessons for each student – cobbled together in-house by teachers with limited expertise in building technology from scratch – couldn’t do everything they needed to do.

Luckily, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, had visited a Summit College 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, engineers started working for teachers, fine-tuning the interface and troubleshooting issues.

Ultimately, the plan is to make the technology developed at the Summit available for free in schools across the country. The process began last fall, with partnerships formed between Summit and 19 other schools – both chartered and traditional – to give them access to teacher training, mentoring tips and software.

Cultivate independence

What goes on inside the “new” Summit schools is still human-centered work, but backed up by a high-tech silent filing cabinet.

The computer system, known as the Personalized Learning Plan, is however more than a database. It stores projects, programs, mentoring materials, and academic assessments.

Teachers can quickly pull material from an organized list to create lessons that are neither too easy nor too difficult; they can also seek advice from colleagues on lessons that have worked well for a particular concept or project.

Students can use the system as well, but they don’t just sit and click on computer screens all day.

They have traditional classrooms with teachers, as well as real world projects. Outside of class and at specific times of the school day, they can connect to the computer network and work as quickly or slowly as they want through various lessons.

As they progress, a line on the screen moves like a rhythm car through a list of lessons, letting students (as well as their parents and teachers) know if they are on the right track. to complete the course on time.

A pupil who loves history, for example, can zoom in on this topic, but if he neglects his English lesson, he will have to find a way to catch up. The mentor assigned to the child, at their weekly meeting, can help a student anticipate problems that could arise if they do not stay on track. But the point is to teach the students to understand this themselves.

“The skill I’m really trying to learn is reacting to chess,” said Isabel Pamintuan, a 11th grade student at Summit Prep who expects to be the first person in her family to go to college. “Sometimes I hit a wall and panic, but I realize, ‘OK. I have to breathe, then I have to figure out if there is a wall, how do I get over it or around it. It’s something that I really hope I can improve myself, so I can take it to college.

Cultivating independence means giving students more independence. The idea is to avoid culture shock when they get to college. No one there gives detention to students who skip class. Students should think for themselves, manage their time, and understand when and when not to ask for help. This means that they must also learn to self-assess.

“Personalized learning”

It’s part of what Brian Johnson, a science teacher, was teaching when he embarked on a lesson by writing a persuasive essay with a sixth-grade class in Summit Denali, in a chunky 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 an assignment. If they hadn’t, they could try a different one. Such choices force students to self-assess.

The phrase ‘personalized learning’ often means a tech-rich classroom, but when asked to describe it, Aukeem Ballard, a ninth grade teacher at Summit Prep, recalled a student who had his head bowed this way. that day in class, a computer problem could not be addressed.

Ballard solved it by gently pushing the student away, reminding him of the need to be attentive and asking if he had a problem that he needed to tell someone about.

“Part of personalized learning is understanding that people are in different places at different times,” Ballard said. “They are in a different place in their head space and their heart.”

Creating individual lessons for students has been the “dream of public school educators for over a century,” said Larry Cuban, professor emeritus at Stanford University Graduate School of Education.

Today technology is helping to make this approach viable. “It’s cheaper than having more adults in the classroom,” he said.

Cuban remains skeptical of education technology and “personalized learning” because, he said, so many programs make big promises and fall short.

Summit, he said, is a promising experience as the school has changed how and what students learn and how the school day is organized, before turning to technology.

He said Tavenner’s sustained attention has also been good for 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 the opportunity to be whatever you want to be. I believe education is the key to this.

“I think a lot of people say ‘all the kids,’ but they don’t really believe it’s going to be all the kids. We are foolish enough to believe in all children.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on inequalities and innovation in education.

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