How Summit Makes Friends by Challenging the Traditional Edtech Marketplace

By
Christina Quattrocchi

For charter schools, there are a couple ways to grow. Some open up more sites or franchise their models. Others expand through influence, becoming thought leaders to those around them.

Summit Public Schools, a charter management organization based in Redwood City, CA, is emerging as an exemplar of the latter, with a unique approach centered around collaborating and sharing its time, its collection of curated learning resources and homegrown learning management software.

“It sounds corny, but we do this work because we believe in public education in America and we don’t see a pathway forward to getting better without collaboration,” says Summit chief executive officer Diane Tavenner.

Summit’s model has gained a great deal of attention from fellow charter schools and districts alike, not only for its unique blend of competency and project-based learning or extreme focus on student-led learning, but also for the technology its developed in-house.

After spending the last couple of years refining its model, Summit is ready to spread its homegrown tech by reaching out to other schools, sharing, making friends, and, yes, influencing others.

Sharing

“With everything we’ve built and done in the last couple of years, our goal has been to create a set of tools that can be widely accessible for free,” says Jon Deane, Summit's chief information officer. For Summit, the tools are instruments for supporting the model they’ve designed.

Case in point: Summit students spend a majority of their day working on group projects, assisted by teachers. They also work individually on mastering content skills, each following their own unique path of learning to master each skill. Each student decides how fast he or she wants to work through the content skills, which resources to use and when to take the relevant assessments.

This is where Summit’s Personal Learning Plan (PLP) tool and curated sets of playlists come in. To practice their emerging skills, students use playlists, which contain resources curated by Summit teachers and housed on Activate Instruction. To keep track of which playlist they should be working on, students turn to the PLP tool, which tracks the skills that they’ve mastered and the ones they have yet to attempt.

Summit CIO Deane says these tools are “built specifically to support the type of personalized learning model we believe in: self directed learning, supporting cognitive skills and habits of success.”

Last year, Summit made the playlists of Common Core-aligned resources it developed available to the public via Activate Instruction, a platform created by Illuminate Education and supported by the Girard Foundation.

This year, Summit wants to share its PLP tool with a broader community. But sharing this data-driven platform, built specifically around Summit’s unique needs and model, involves more than just sharing a collection of online resources.

“We are not a company. Our tool is changing quickly, and it doesn’t make sense for us to build it out as an open tool yet until we understand how it can best be adopted by others,” says Deane.

Making Friends

Network leaders say they will work with other schools to help them identify their needs, as well as where the PLP may need to change to support those needs. Summit school leaders are seeking five to 20 partner schools by fall 2015; each of those schools will pilot its tool. With these schools, Summit will share best practices, playlists, projects and assessments. School network leaders hope to learn how to support implementation and adoption in schools other than their own.

“There’s a lot we can learn about how people access and adopt this tool. We want to find partners we can learn from,” says Deane.

In July, Summit invited 20 districts and charter schools from across the country to its Redwood City, CA campus to participate in a series of 48-hour "consultancies." For two days, Summit school leaders shared the details behind their school model, the technology that supports it, and helped the other attending school leaders create plans they could take home to their own districts to support more personalized learning approach.

Attendees included administrators from Denver Public Schools,Pasadena ISD, Horry County Schools, and even small districts, such as Alabama's Piedmont City Schools. Also, in the room were emerging charter schools such as Design Tech High, East Bay Innovation Academy, and Alpha Public Schools. Many of the participating districts have received Next Generation grants from the Gates Foundation; the weekend costs were covered by the Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Next Generation Learning Challenges, and the Girard Education Foundation

“Through these consultancies, we hope to understand where [other schools'] model is, figure out where the overlap is, how we might influence that and support schools to push their work forward in personalized learning,” says Deane.

Summit leaders expect to spend the next couple of months developing plans to vet partnerships and continuing to strengthen their relationships with other districts.  

Influencing Others

By creating its own technologies and sharing the work with others, Summit is directly challenging the edtech marketplace.

“From the very first day, we have said we will not build it [tools and resources] if we can find it on the market,” explains Tavenner. However, as the school began designing its model, leaders could find nothing that quite fit their needs, “Sadly, we had to build more than we thought,” Tavenner continues.

But according to Tavenner, schools like Summit should push the market--and expand their influence. “Schools of the future need to look different. But traditional vendors are building products for the existing market, not the future market. We can’t wait for them to catch up with a market that doesn’t exist,” she says.

Summit doesn’t expect other schools to wait, either. Through their partnerships and thought leadership in the field, it’s no doubt that as schools begin building more personalized learning models they will look to Summit for leadership not only on how to design a model, but also for the tools and resources they use.

By opening up Summit, and sharing their unique model and unique tools, Summit's school leaders have placed themselves at the center of the conversation around personalized learning, potentially influencing not just other schools but the edtech market as well. 

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