Warning: you may find what I’m about to write disturbing.
What if you were given the chance to design a new school from scratch? And there was no need to follow the typical education model: a teacher at the front of a classroom lecturing to 25 to 30 seated students. No need to follow an existing curriculum, either. You could completely re-imagine what a good education is all about.
What kind of school would you make?
One person who took that question on—and came up with an intriguing answer—is Diane Tavenner, founder of Summit Public Schools, which operates some of the top-performing schools in the nation.
In her new book, Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life, Diane shares the story of how she designed a new kind of charter school with a simple but very ambitious goal: “We wanted to teach kids not just what they needed to get into college, but what they needed to live a good life.”
A few years ago, I had a chance to visit one of the Summit schools to see how Diane had turned this vision into reality. I was blown away. It was unlike any school I had visited before. Some students worked on their own, moving at their own pace through their courses. Others worked together on projects. Instead of lecturing at the front of a class, teachers acted like coaches, providing one-on-one guidance to students. Everyone was engaged.
Summit schools are rooted in the unshakeable belief that all students have the potential for success. This belief fuels the staff’s relentless drive to test new approaches to continuously improve the student experience, so they graduate prepared for college and life.
As Diane explains in her book, Summit’s unique model is built on three key elements:
Self-directed learning: With the support of their teachers, all students are responsible for setting their own learning goals, developing learning plans, testing their knowledge, and assessing their performance. The personalized learning approach allows students to learn at their own pace. This is an incredibly important skill that will benefit them throughout their lives.
Project-based learning: Summit schools emphasize hands-on project-based learning, allowing students to dive deep into a topic and collaborate with other students, building skills that employers are looking for in today’s workplace.
Mentoring: All students have a dedicated mentor. More than a guidance counselor, these mentors meet regularly one-on-one with their students, building a deep relationship that can help students achieve their personal and academic goals.
What I love about Summit is that its vision of success is bigger than getting students to master skills in reading, writing, and mathematics. Those skills, of course, are incredibly important, but there are also other, very necessary skills that will serve them their entire lives, such as self-confidence, the ability to learn, ability to manage their time, and a sense of direction to help them determine what they want to do with their lives. I think the kids who get to attend one of the Summit schools are lucky to go there.
Like everything in education, Summit’s schools are not without controversy. Some parents and educators are wary of Summit’s focus on computer-enabled learning, a key tool for the school’s personalized-learning approach.
Since opening its first school in 2003, Summit now operates 11 schools in California and Washington state. And I expect many readers of Diane’s book will wonder how their kids can have the same extraordinary learning experiences as Summit students. That’s also a question we have at our foundation, where we are working with Summit to help share some of its most innovative practices, like tailoring instruction to meet students’ individual needs, with other schools in the country.
“What’s so striking about Diane is how incredibly modest she is about what she's accomplished.”
What’s so striking about Diane is how incredibly modest she is about what she’s accomplished. And she doesn’t make any grand claims that she has all the answers. Much of the book is deeply personal. Diane shares stories of her childhood, growing up in a troubled family. She recounts her years as a young, idealistic teacher and administrator. And she opens-up about her own experience as a parent, raising her teenage son, Rett, as he navigates his path to adulthood.
Many of the most memorable parts of the book focus on Diane and her husband wrestling with challenges all parents will appreciate. Diane shares the story, for example, about their struggle to get Rett to do his homework. You can find out how she found a solution in the free book excerpt above.
In the final section of her book, Diane offers some parenting advice she’s developed over the years at Summit, guiding thousands of students to graduation. I expect many parents will flip to the end of the book to read this brief but useful list of tips. Much of her advice is based on her belief that parents should support their child’s independent growth. Parents need to mentor, not direct. They should seek out their child’s opinions, encourage them to be self-directed learners, and expose them to as many new ideas, people, places and things as possible.
I know from my own experience as a father that I’ve enjoyed watching my children get curious about a topic and then seeing how their knowledge deepens and grows. And the most rewarding part is when they can teach me about what they’ve learned.
Preparing our kids for college, a career, and life is a long journey. And as any parent or teacher will tell you, it’s not always easy. Diane has written a wonderful guidebook to help all of us make the most of the adventure.