Summit Denali: Engaging Student-Centered High School Model

Summit will track progress in 4 dimensions

Imagine a school where a skillbuilding playlist prepares students to engage in projects that matter. It’s not science fiction, it’s Summit Denali, a high school opening in Sunnyvale California in August.

Summit Public Schools is an innovative high school network in the Bay Area. CEO Diane Tavenner and Diego Arambula, Chief Growth and Innovation Officer, visited us in Seattle recently and showed us a demo of their new platform and described their new school model.

Summit has very high graduation and four year college attendance rates. More than half of their grads have or are on track to graduate from college, but the Summit team continues to innovate to improve on college and career preparation. Their vision for an optimized learning environment includes five features:

  • Students are empowered to self-direct learning;
  • Provide opportunities for deeper skills development across curricula;
  • Offer authentic, real-world experiences that allow students to explore passions and careers;
  • Personalize a student’s pathway through a competency-based progression; and
  • Ensure meaningful opportunities for students to foster community and a sense of belonging.

The Denali day will begin and end with personal learning time featuring a combination of playlists, online learning resources, coaching and peer-to-peer tutoring. Each student will work at their own pace on a personalized path driven by immediate, actionable feedback.

The core of the schedule is devoted to deeper learning projects–persuasive speeches, research papers, science labs, and engineering activities–facilitated by teams of educators. Heterogeneous groups focus on Common Core skills and dispositions including problem solving, constructing arguments, reasoning abstractly and quantitatively, and critiquing the reasoning of others. Summit is using ShowEvidence to capture rubric-based project feedback and build digital portfolio.

Denali students will develop habits of success–self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, interpersonal skills, decision-making, and responsible behaviors–through projects and many ways to engage and contribute to the school community. Students will gain real-world experiences through a series of career preparation, college readiness, and cultural appreciation expeditions supported by partnerships with Bay Area organizations.

Bringing it together. To manage this student-centered learning system, the Summit team is building Activate, a learning management system with Illuminate Education.  It’s usually a bad idea for a school management organization to dive this deep into software development, but Diane and team have a clear vision of a competency-based system and there’s nothing on the market to manage the environment they’re creating.  The project is funded by the Girard Foundation and will be available free to all. Their development philosophy is “fail fast, iterate, fix it, keep moving.”

Skill-building playlists will be curated from the world of open content as well as what their own teachers develop.  The college and career readiness system will track growth trajectory of knowledge, skills, and success habits against college goals (see picture; I don’t know of anyone else thinking about goal-focused tracking on these dimensions). Students falling short of their planned growth trajectory, on any front, will see a big red warning system. The system will also need to translate the innovative experiences into credits and grades for application to traditional universities.

The space will be innovative as well.  The NGLC-winning school design is “an open learning space where students can work on digital content in individual workstations. These workstations will be surrounded by learning spaces for small-group learning, one-to-one coaching and mentoring, and larger-group workshops and seminars.”

A powerful culture permeates everything. The Summit team is researching which habits of success characteristics are most beneficial.  Persistence to and through college is a priority.  They want students to “own their own learning, to be ready for college–that’s what kids are missing right now,” said Tavenner.

The Summit cohort model has worked well, but they want to add more personalized and competency-based aspects. Denali students will have the social and cooperative aspects of working in teams and the benefits of customized skill building playlists.

Check out the feature on the Summit teacher development system (the best we’ve seen).  Like Bill Gates, Summit Public Schools is one of our favorite education startups.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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