Teaching Opinion

Summit Denali: Engaging Student-Centered High School Model

By Tom Vander Ark — June 13, 2013 3 min read
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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

  • 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 his or her 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 (I don’t know of anyone even thinking about this). 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

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.

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.