Charter school network spreads ‘personalized learning’ model nationwide

July 23, 2018

Sixth-grade students at Pomeroy Elementary School in Milpitas work on their assignments on desktop computers.

Founded more than a decade ago, Summit Prep became nationally known for its success in getting all its students through Advanced Placement classes and into college. But school leaders found that many of its graduates struggled in college without the mentoring and support they’d received at the small charter school in Redwood City, south of San Francisco.

“Graduates told us, ‘You guys loved us too much'” said Lizzie Choi, Summit’s chief program officer.

In 2012, with a goal of creating “self-directed learners,” Summit redesigned its two high schools and opened two new schools. The network now consists of eight middle and high schools in California and three in Washington state.

A key element of Summit’s model is an online platform developed with engineering help from Facebook. The model is now supported by the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, the foundation established by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Dr. Priscilla Chan.

For a closer look at the Summit Learning Platform go here. 

Students master academic content by choosing from “playlists” made up of a range of learning tools including free online instructional videos from the Khan Academy, animated videos from BrainPOP, guided practice problems and interactive exercises, websites and texts. Students take tests when they feel ready, moving on only when they’ve achieved mastery of the content.

Students spend most of their time learning cognitive skills and concepts through individual and collaborative “deeper learning” projects. Ninth-graders, for example, create scientific experiments to measure the impact of technology waste on the environment, while 7th-graders explore the civil rights movement in the United States by examining injustices in their own communities.

The online platform comes loaded with a comprehensive teacher-created curriculum, ideas for student projects and assessments for grades 4 through 12 in core academic subjects. A blue line on the student’s dashboard shows whether he or she is progressing at the expected pace.

In addition, teachers work one-on-one with students, helping them set short-term and long-term goals and develop “habits of success,” such as self-management, responsible decision-making and persistence.

By 2015, Summit was ready to share its model — at no charge — with schools across the country.

What’s now known as the Summit Learning Program includes free use of the platform, summer training sessions for teachers and mentoring and technical support for teachers and school leaders throughout the school year. In exchange for the free services, partner schools are testing how the platform works in a variety of settings, adapting it to their needs and sharing their improvements.

Summit Tahoma High, now located in south San Jose, was one of the new schools founded in 2012 to prepare students to direct their own learning. With 400 students, primarily from middle- and working-class Latino, white and Asian-American families, the school is housed in a cluster of gray portable classrooms next to Oak Grove High, part of the East Side Union High School District.

In Emily Richey’s 9th-grade English class last school year, students were told to select and read a nontraditional text, such as a political cartoon, video, or song about a social problem and then write a paragraph explaining the text’s point.

And in 9th-grade “Modern World I” Eileen Kim taught students to integrate evidence into their arguments as they wrote an essay about a fictitious “zombie revolution.” Eventually, students were expected to research a real revolution — Russian, French, Cuban, Egyptian, Mexican, or Iranian — and write an essay on whether it was “necessary.”

Twenty percent of the school day is devoted to what Summit calls Personalized Learning Time. or what students more commonly call PLT. Using their laptops, students log into the Summit Learning Platform and access online playlists related to topics such as the structure of DNA and trigonometric ratios. “PLT is my favorite,” said Ely Villagrana, a 9th-grader.

Just as technology facilitates student learning, it also helps teachers connect with students, said Nicholas Kim, who was the school principal from 2013-17. “We have so much clarity about what students know and can do,” he said. “Teachers know exactly which kids need more help and what they need help with.”

Four of the non-Summit schools that are trying out the personalized learning program are in the Milpitas Unified School District, just north of San Jose. Once a blue-collar town with a Ford plant, Milpitas has become a more gentrified community along with the rest of Silicon Valley.

In 2012, then-schools superintendent Cary Matsuoka asked principals at all district schools to come up with redesign plans that would integrate technology, use data to inform instruction, allow flexibility in how teachers used classroom space and provide creative ways to take advantage of the classroom schedule.

“My teachers said ‘No way,’” recalled Sheila Murphy-Brewer, who was then principal of Marshall Pomeroy Elementary, one of the four participating schools. She asked her staff to study how they might individualize instruction to reach students at different levels. Such extensive customization would be impossible, they concluded; teachers didn’t have the time.

That realization motivated them to try what educators call blended learning, which integrates online learning with more traditional face-to-face instruction from teachers. Teachers realized they could work directly with a group of students who were all at the same level in a particular subject area, while other classmates were learning online at their own pace. Still, implementing a new way of teaching was “painful,” recalled Murphy-Brewer.

By 2013–14, all the district’s schools were using some form of blended learning, but Murphy-Brewer wanted to go further. After seeing personalized learning in action at Summit Denali, Summit’s school in Sunnyvale, she “begged” for a spot in the 2015 summer teacher training program. With its focus on giving students control over their learning, Summit’s personalized learning model was a good fit for Pomeroy, she decided. Pomeroy began implementing it in the 6th grade during the 2015–16 school year.

The transition to the new model wasn’t easy. Pomeroy has a shorter school day and as a result had less flexibility than Summit charter schools did. Teachers were given the option of assigning Personalized Learning Time as homework, instead of it being an integral part of classroom instruction.

Teachers were enthusiastic about the concept of giving students one-on-one mentoring, a linchpin of Summit’s personalized learning approach, but couldn’t find the time for weekly mentoring. They settled on meeting with each student for 10 minutes every other week.

After the first year, growth in English language arts was “exceptional” at Pomeroy and at Joseph Weller Elementary, which also piloted the Summit approach, said Matsuoka, who is now superintendent of Santa Barbara Unified School District. Math scores remained about the same. At the suggestion of Milpitas teachers, Summit altered its math approach to focus on “concept units” as well as projects.

To his delight, students “took ownership of their learning,” Matsuoka said. “They were getting things done on time, searching for information. It was magical to see these 11-year-olds acting like adult learners, totally engaged.”

It is too soon to know whether these approaches to personalized learning will prepare students to succeed in college better than other methods do. A December 2017 RAND research brief looked at schools that received Gates Foundation’s Next Generation grants to implement personalized learning. While the approach is promising, RAND researchers cautioned that “it is not clear what personalized learning practices or combination of practices have the greatest impact.” Among the challenges they identified were a lack of time for teachers to customize lessons, pressure to move students to graduation whether they’d achieved mastery or not and lack of quality in online-learning materials.

But Summit teachers remain enthusiastic. With students learning subject content at their own pace, 6th-grade teacher Deanna Sainten said she is free to focus on “big-picture teaching.”

“In the past, I was losing so many students on both ends” of the learning spectrum, she said. “They were bored or they were confused.” Now “there’s far more discussion and collaboration and engagement.”

EdSource contributor Joanne Jacobs, a former San Jose Mercury News editorial writer and columnist, writes about K–12 education and community colleges and blogs at

A longer version of this story appeared in Education Next.

This is the first part of a two-part series on personalized learning at the Summit charter school network. Tomorrow: Preparing teachers to personalize classroom instruction. 

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