By Ellen Hu, Clara Hung, Jacob Kahn-Samuelson, Hannah Kim and Alex Tananbaum
Denali senior Serena Munoz had a difficult choice to make when she graduated from the Denali Middle School in 2016. After experiencing the Summit Model for three years she could either switch to a large public school or continue her high school career at Summit Denali.
“I knew I would be able to grow and have more opportunities,” Munoz said of her choice to attend Summit Denali for high school. “Summit gives you a strong support system.”
While Summit’s model draws in students due to its focus on community and life skills, the organization has been inconsistent with the implementation of their core foundations: mentorship, Expeditions, content assessments, projects and habits of success.
Summit Public Schools was founded with the mission to “reach every student and ensure they leave high school with the skills, knowledge, and habits they need to succeed.” The organization opened with their flagship school, Summit Preparatory Charter High School, in 2003, and has since expanded to 11 schools located in California and Washington state.
The organization claims that all students who attend Summit schools are eligible to attend college, with 98% of students having been accepted to a four-year college. Additionally, they maintain that Summit students are twice as likely to graduate from college than the national average.
The Science of Summit outlines the organization’s model in addition to what they consider success for their students. The model focuses on four main components: content (core knowledge), cognitive skills (academic skills), sense of purpose and habits of success (life skills).
To reinforce these elements, Summit utilizes an online platform called the “Summit Learning Platform” which enables students to personalize how they learn content. By learning at their own pace, students develop habits of success like self-agency and self regulation. Students then apply their independently learned knowledge to real world projects such as preparing for a mock trial in history or creating an energy simulation for physics in the classroom setting. Weekly check-ins with a mentor allow students to cultivate meaningful relationships and a sense of purpose.
In addition to the creation of a chain of charter schools, the organization now distributes their model for free integration in other schools across the country. The model is currently used in 330 schools across 40 states.
Recently, the organization has drawn attention after schools who had implemented the model faced backlash from parents. Other events, including the announcement that Summit Rainier in East San Jose will be closing for the 2020-21 school year, have caused Summit students to reflect on their experiences with the Summit Model.
Mentorship is valued but inconsistent
When students are able to articulate these elements of their lives, they can take steps to achieve a “fulfilled life”, according to The Science of Summit. These elements come together to give a student a “sense of purpose.”
One of the ways students identify their values is through the creation of community in the form of mentor groups. At the beginning of their career at Summit, students are divided into groups and assigned a staff member from their site. Mentor groups remain the same for all four years of high school. The goal is to create a support system for each student.
“The mentor group system in Summit allows you to be closer to other students in the same grade as you that can serve as support,” Summit Everest public high school junior Itzel Ramos Valverde said.
Denali junior Molly Freeman sees this as a beneficial aspect of her career at Summit. “Summit is so focused on community,” she said.
Staff members act as guidance counselors for their mentor groups, providing support both academically and in manners outside of the classroom. The mentor’s role is split into two situations: Meeting with students in one-on-one sessions each week to discuss personal manners and bringing the whole group together.
For many students, the concept of mentoring is the best part of their experience at Summit. “They would go the extra mile for you which is something that I really admire about a bunch of the mentors here,” Rainier freshman Mckayla Castigador said.
Mentoring has been a valuable part of the Summit Model for Tahoma sophomore Arjun Vyavaharkar. “I can’t stress it enough that mentors here at Tahoma do prepare kids, students for college. Even though it lets people work at their own pace it is also this ‘no one left behind’ mindset which I really value.”
For many students, mentoring also plays a beneficial role in the college admissions process. Denali senior Jayme Song finds that mentorship helped her mentor group with letters of recommendation due to the fact that their mentor “knows a lot about us [her mentor group] and can write about us on a personal level.”
While beneficial for many students, mentor changes are common at some Summit sites. “I’ve never had a mentor for over a year,” Song said. “Some years we’ve had, like, two mentors.”
“Mentorship is a hit or miss,” Tamalpais freshman Estrella Mendoza said. “Sometimes you’ll have a good one, sometimes multiple in one year, sometimes a bad one.”
Summit K2 students have had similar issues. Summit K2 freshmen Pyper Baker and Jahir Sandoval explained, “[Our mentor] had issues with [his] paperwork coming from Utah. We were left alone with a sub for a month.” Though one of our sources do not recall being informed of the situation, the other can confirm that the school administration communicated the situation.
With the announcement of Summit Rainier’s closure in January, questions surrounding new mentors have risen. “If I go to Tahoma, I don’t really know if I can have a mentor as good as what I have now, so I’m not sure if they’ll prepare me the same way as they prepare me here at Rainier,” Rainier junior Karla Tran said.
In 2018, Summit implemented a new structure for mentors to lead students through once a week. Often called “circle,” each student in the group is prompted to share how they are feeling and share any news with their peers. However, a number of Summit students found them tedious and even counter productive. K2 freshman Ambar Flores said, “A
circle where you just ask names doesn’t make sense.”
While the new protocol annoys many community members, it has brought good to certain groups. “While a lot of the time people don’t go in-depth about their feelings, there are times where we will genuinely want to share how we feel and what we have going on in our lives outside of school,” Everest senior Evelyn Velazquez Cerda said.
Expeditions provides opportunities but falls short on expectations
Students are also given time to explore interests during Expeditions, a two-week period that occurs four times a year in which students participate exclusively in elective classes. The goal of these eight weeks is to “allow students to be exposed to perspective-changing ideas and people, to explore interests, and to pursue passions,” according to Summit Public Schools.
Students are offered a variety of courses that range from cooking to film studies. The most unique, and often sought-out, course is named independent learning. In this class, students participate in an internship or design and complete their own course.
“This year me and two of my friends are doing a podcast,” Summit Prep senior Osmar Ortiz said. Projects like this allow students to work remotely from different locations and grants them freedom they would not otherwise receive from traditional Expedition classes.
“It works really well for my learning style,” Denali freshman Kaitlyn Kaniuth explained for her advanced wilderness independent study. “I’m relying on myself to complete what I need to complete, but it’s also with a small group.” The combination of independent learning and collaborative work is very appealing to her.
While many wait for the courses in anticipation, the long stretches between Expeditions weeks can be difficult for students. “I don’t like that we wait so long between each round of Expeditions and for me personally, I forget certain things that we learned in class. By time we get back I am a little bit lost or I forgot what we did.” Tahoma senior Anevay Bryan said.
While students get to choose what classes they take, every student is required to take a college readiness course as one of their Expeditions classes in junior year. The course aims to provide students with information regarding financial aid, best-fit colleges and eventual career paths.
Feelings about the class are not all in agreement. “It depends on the person, if they take it seriously,” Tran said. While controversial, she believes that the class’s manner of addressing the future is important.
Shasta senior Yara Currier-Herzallah felt that the course gave students a vague idea of college overall, but no guidance on applications. “Some private schools require you to submit a CSS profile in addition to FAFSA and some other schools require you to submit through idoc,” Currier Herzallah said. “No one told me those existed.”
“I definitely see the value in it,” Denali junior Michael Stavnitser said. “I know that some of my peers already think they know what they’re going to do, but that’s not the case for me.”
Stavnitser, who went into the class with an idea of what he wants to do in the future, finds the course useful in helping him identify the majors that correspond with his current career path. Understanding financial aid has also been a beneficial part of his class experience.
Content assessments results depend on student engagement
In 2014, Summit Public Schools partnered with Facebook to develop the current Summit Learning Platform. While the organization is no longer associated with Facebook, The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative is Summit Public School’s long-term technology partner.
Students gain content knowledge through independent learning. Information associated with each class is divided into different units called “playlists” that are located on the learning platform. Each playlist identifies key terms and the knowledge that students must understand while providing a variety of online resources such as slideshows, videos and articles for students to learn the information.
In order to finish each of these units, students must pass a ten-question online assessment. Playlists are divided among power focus areas, additional focus areas and challenge focus areas. Students are expected to pass all power focus areas by the end of the school year while additional and challenge focus areas are not required, but the latter can boost student grades. Students often work on this material during special Self-Directed Learning, or SDL, blocks.
Kaniuth enjoys being able to get a head start on class material at the beginning of the year. “I really like getting to go at your own pace,” she said.
Even so, Kaniuth finds that sometimes learning content in class helps her understand content better than working on her own. “They [teachers] go over the content in class to the point where I feel like I don’t need to take notes if I’ve already written two essays and watched four videos in class that correlate with the playlist,” she said.
Shasta freshman Sarah Rusali agrees that students’ abilities to move at their own pace is beneficial. “I think it’s good that people can get ahead in the classes,” she said.
While useful for many students, questions surrounding retention of information in this format have also risen. “I’ve already passed ninth grade and after I did that I was kind of slow to work on tenth grade and I don’t remember most of the information,” Rusali added.
Other Denali students identify classroom environments for SDL blocks as essential in determining productivity. The current Denali campus does not have enough classrooms to ensure each community group has their own room for the first block of SDL in the mornings. This is a common experience among the Shasta and Prep students as well. As a result, all of the senior mentor groups meet in the gym each morning.
“I know the teachers do their best to regulate it and it’s a really big open space,” Song said. “Since all of your friends are in the same room, it’s kind of hard to stay focused.”
Large spaces and limited teacher supervision have also raised questions about cheating on assessments.
“I don’t think content assessments are the most effective… a lot of people will cheat on them… it would be better if they made sure we are studying and taking good notes,” Bryan said.
The recent adjustments to California’s order for residents to “shelter-in-place” as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic has led Summit Public Schools to transition to a virtual school. During this time, students are still able to take assessments which has contributed to concerns regarding students’ abilities to cheat due to a lack of supervision while taking assessments.
In an attempt to build visible connections between content assessment knowledge and projects, the platform identifies specific playlists that are associated with projects. Students are expected to complete playlists associated with a project by the time the project is completed.
“Personally, I would basically take this assessment, and then, depending on the assessment, I’ll retain close to nothing until the project starts or in the middle of it,” Rainier sophomore Aidan Franco-Lee said.
“It’s too general,” Everest sophomore Xitlali Curincita said in regards to the information students are provided in playlist resources. She believes that more specific information would help students pass the associated assessments.
Students find limitations in skill-based learning
Summit also focuses on developing higher-order interdisciplinary skills through their project-based learning. These set of 36 skills, called cognitive skills, are “separated into seven domains: textual analysis, using sources, inquiry, analysis and synthesis, composing/writing, speaking and listening, and products/presentations” according to The Science of Summit.
Students are graded on these cognitive skills in projects through a rubric that Summit developed in collaboration with the Stanford Center for Assessment Learning & Equity (SCALE). Throughout each school year, students are tested in different cognitive skills for each project and subject. The scores that students receive for these skills compose 70% of their grade with the final 30% coming from playlist completion.
Students who attend Summit schools do not participate in midterms or final exams. Instead, faculty put more of their focus into assisting students with improving their cognitive skill scores and passing content assessments in the middle and at the end of the year.
“I’ve noticed that Summit before hasn’t really been that much of testing-based, they’re usually project-based,” Rainier senior Kenny Tran said. “Senior year, with the big essays, and a few quizzes has pushed us to get ready for how college is going to be.”
While the benefits of skill-based learning is important to many, there have been concerns with how students are being prepared for college environments where finals and midterms are frequent. “I feel like people will have a huge shock with finals and midterms in college,” K2 junior Charlotte Moody noted. “That is what you do in college.”
Tahoma senior Divine Escobar also feels that the deadlines at Tahoma are an issue. “There is not really a strict emphasis on the deadline [for projects] so that made me slack off a little bit because I know that I could turn it in later,” she said.
“Since you have really long deadlines to get things done, I feel like they have to be stricter with that, otherwise, I feel like I’m not going to be prepared for college,” Castigador echoed.
“We’re so conditioned to the regrades that we’re not putting a lot of work into our first attempt,” Moody added. She identifies the ability to redo projects that stem from these relaxed deadlines combined with the practice of taking a student’s best cognitive score of the year as opposed to averaging all their grades acts as a “safety net at Summit.”
In recent years, Summit has adjusted the project-based approach in concept heavy subjects such as math. Students are graded on math concepts based on their performance in tests that act as the final products.
Currier-Herzallah notes how she receives “lower As” because of small math errors on her final products. Currier-Herzallah acknowledges that this test-taking approach is “better preparation for college,” but explains that it is “less about understanding…[and] less in adherence with the Summit Model.”
While there are critiques, many students see Summit’s project-based learning as a positive aspect of their education. “I feel like those are very interactive,” Rainier Freshmen Mia de La Rosa said about projects. “You really need to dive into the new material to it, so I feel like I appreciate that because you learn more like that.”
Shasta senior Evelyn Ho also sees the values in projects. “Projects help me learn about global issues or current events and ways we can help resolve them,” she said.
Development of “habits of success” elicits mixed responses
One of the key ways that Summit aims to prepare students for the real world is through “Habits of Success,” a set of 16 skills that “describe the dispositions, mindsets, and behaviors” students need to carry with them in order to be successful in college and career according to the Science of Summit. These skills are not meant to be found in a single program, instead being integrated throughout key elements of the model.
Both projects and content assessments encourage students to exemplify these habits. While projects are designed to develop students’ self-awareness and academic tenacity, content assessments help students understand their strengths, weaknesses and areas of growth in the learning process.
“The projects and content assessments help a lot because they help us be independent and learn responsibility,” Tamalpais 7th-grader Marta Linqui said.
Other students echo that they have felt an increased responsibility for their learning since adjusting to Summit’s project-based learning style. They emphasize that independent learning allowed them to learn how to adapt to different circumstances.
“I’ve become really independent at Summit,” Ortiz said. The combination of working at his own pace with the knowledge of deadlines has been beneficial for his learning.
Even so, the self-paced learning can be difficult for some students. “While the setup seems good for teaching time management, it really just lets already failing students slip behind even more,” Everest freshman Julian Christensen said.
Mentors lead students through the “Self-Directed Learning Cycle” daily, guiding them through the process of setting goals, creating a plan to achieve those goals and later reflecting on the cycle in one-on-one mentor check-ins.
Goal setting, the first thing students do during mentor SDL time, elicits a mixed response amongst students. Some students find the process helpful to remind them of their tasks and keep themselves on track while the process seems meaningless for others.
Kaniuth found learning and practicing how to set SMART goals, the goal-setting method Summit encourages students to use, helpful for her. “I just feel more held accountable for the goals I’m setting for myself and then also have a check to make sure that my goals are realistic,” she said.
On the other hand, Shasta junior Aaron Susantin feels that goal-setting has lost its purpose in the Summit Model. When goals were set before each task in the beginning of the school year, he found that it helped him focus on the task at hand. As the year progressed, Susantin noted a shift in how goals were viewed. “Goals are now for the sake of setting goals instead of the underlying purpose of goal setting,” he said. “[It’s] more like ticking off a box,” he said.
Some students feel they are not developing habits of success. “I am really worried that I will become too reliant on other resources that are already just given to me,” Lopez said. “A lot of these classes give you multiple chances and easy access to information that will not be available in college.”
“The model only works if students buy into it,” Susantin said. “If we [students] look at it in terms of improvement, we get more mileage.”
“I feel that I do have the habits of success to succeed in college. I don’t think it’s because I attended the Summit. I think driven students will succeed anywhere,” Currier-Herzallah noted.
Regardless of whether students actively seek to acquire the habits of success or utilize them, it appears that these habits are deeply embedded in the way students at Summit experience school and approach their learning.
“I personally don’t really think about them everytime I go to school and when I’m doing schoolwork,” Stavnitser said. “I’m sure I’m doing them, but it’s not something that I’m focusing on.”
FEATURED IMAGE (at top of post): Summit Public Schools has established eight schools located across the California Bay Area. GRAPHIC CREDIT: Alex Tananbaum
Rainier Editor-in-Chief Keith Dinh, Prep Editor-in-Chief Eliza Insley, Everest Editor-in-Chief Molly Pigot and Tamalpais 7th-grader Marta Linqui contributed reporting to this article.
This article has been adjusted to clarify communication surrounding a credential issue at K2. The clarification has been issued within 24 hours.