Public charter schools hold the promise of quality options and laboratories of innovation. At Summit Public Schools a system of charter middle and high schools in California, that promise starts with a mission: “preparing all students for success in college and to be thoughtful, contributing members of society.” A process rather than a product, innovation at Summit makes up the threadwork of the entire organization; not just for students, but for teachers and educational leaders too.

Summit Preparatory Charter High School first opened its doors in 2003. The school’s organizers envisioned an American high school “that achieves the promise of providing a high quality public education to every child, regardless of family circumstances or background.” And since then, Summit Public Schools has worked to help students succeed without ever looking back.

Community demand led Summit to expand beyond its original solo High School location to include six schools serving 1,600 students in grades 6-12 throughout the Bay Area. Continuing with this trend, the charter organization plans to open its seventh school in California in the fall of 2014 along with two new schools in Washington State the following year.

The Christensen Institute explains that “School leaders have designed Summit schools to be self-sustaining on the traditional state and federal funding allocation, with a small amount of parental fundraising once they reach full capacity.” Summit provides a startup grant to each new school which supports the school through its first operational year “allowing it to open with its inaugural grade-level and slowly build the school culture one grade-level at a time.”

Though students arrive at Summit schools with “slightly lower scores than their peers at local high schools,” the student-driven learning occurring at Summit continues to produce results well above the state’s measure of a successful school (800 API). Additionally, 96% of graduates are accepted to at least one four-year college; Summit graduates are “on track to graduate college in six years at double the national average.”

While great things are occurring in Summit classrooms, it’s important to recognize that such results are predicated on the teacher development and compensation system in place.

It’s primarily a skill-based system that is focused on what teachers need to know and be able to do to accelerate student achievement. Demonstrated expertise across seven dimensions of the Summit Public Schools continuum places teachers on one of four levels (basic, proficient, highly proficient, and expert), which they use to focus their own professional development in order to graduate through the program. The measured dimensions of teaching include Assessment, Content, Curriculum, Instruction, Knowing Learners and Learning, Leadership, and Mentoring.

Summit founder Diane Tavenner said, “Teachers are charged with gathering and presenting evidence of their performance as demonstrated in student work and achievement. For example, a teacher wanting to be evaluated as highly proficient on Curriculum/Differentiation would have to present evidence he/she consistently differentiated throughout the course, and that students of all levels of prior knowledge and skill were able to access and demonstrate mastery as a result.”

Placement and movement on the continuum are based on a combination of principal evaluation, peer evaluation, and self evaluation, which is considered. To move from starting salary (over $50k) to top scale (near $100k), a teacher must be rated expert in at least four of seven dimensions. It usually takes Summit teachers at least two years to move up a level. Teachers can also receive annual performance bonuses of up to 10% of base salary, which are determined by student achievement. (They are updating their comp system–more on that this fall.)

This system “empowers teachers to present any and all evidence they believe is valid and appropriate to judge student performance, while simultaneously ensuring that objective student performance data is always included. Teachers embrace it and respect it because they have control over presenting a total package of performance.”

Professional development at Summit Public Schools isn’t a laissez-faire mandate, however. Rather, staff engage in forty days of focused and systematic professional development every year. This is in addition to a six week paid summer learning institute called Summer of Summit and three to five days of site orientations for new and returning faculty members.

Experience is valued as the richest resource for learning, for students and teachers alike. Collaboration is the most meaningful experience to be offered by Summit staff.

According to Adam Carter, “It is an imperative that we consider adult learning as being always in the context of application to real-life situations. Imagine spending forty or more working days per year being told things that don’t matter to you, or that don’t help you do your job any better.”

For Carter and his Summit Public Schools colleagues, “When teachers set goals, administrators follow up to provide resources to help them meet those goals. . . [they] help put people in touch who are in similar places in their careers, engaged in similar problem solving.”

Drawing on research-based principles of psychology and motivation, Summit maintains that “at least 95% of the professional development experiences at Summit are optional.” That is because school leaders see the effects of intrinsic motivation playing out daily with both students and adults.

What started as a single Bay Area charter high school with an impassioned vision for innovative change has grown into not only a successful string of equally successful campuses, but a culture of innovation encouraging ideas and exploration through an “intentional and thoughtful process to enable a laser-like focus” on the mission of Summit Public Schools, a case in point of what world-class professional development can do.

Contrary to being a secret recipe for charter school success, the power of the Summit system is not telling who is a good teacher and who isn’t. It is giving teachers a high degree of accountability and responsibility, attracting the right people and incentivizing them to perform. Doing this is what will ultimately allow us to create the space for teachers and students to create and design ways to get kids college and career ready and to do so in ways we cannot even imagine today. With Summit Public Schools, however, imagination is quickly becoming reality.

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