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The 180 Podcast Aug 6, 2020

The 180 Podcast: Diane Tavenner (Part 1)

Diane Tavenner: How Summit Schools is Helping Students Stay on Course During the Pandemic


As schools and families prepare to head straight into the unknown – the launch of the first full school year during the COVID-19 pandemic – nearly everyone is looking for a roadmap. Not just whether to fully open or go with a hybrid or fully online, but rather how – regardless of where things go – to help kids stay connected, grow, and stay on course.

The Summit Schools are a place to look, and Diane Tavenner is one to ask.

Diane is the co-founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools, which operates 15 public middle and high schools in California and Washington State. She also serves on the board of T.L.P. Education, the organization helping schools across the U.S. to implement Summit Learning – Summit’s personalized approach to education. Before founding Summit, Diane spent 10 years as a public school teacher, administrator, and leader in traditional urban and suburban public schools throughout California.

Diane is also the author of “Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life,” which offers “a blueprint for how parents can stop worrying about their children’s future and start helping them prepare for it.”

As you’ll hear, that personalized approach – one that puts relationships at the center of learning, and leverages a continuous learning platform – was key to navigating the disruptions last spring and maintaining a productive environment. And now, Summit is prepared to do it again.


Complete Transcript

Chris Riback: One note before we start: About five months ago, I had the great chance to talk with Diane about her journey, the Summit platform, and the ideas she outlines in “Prepared.” Unfortunately, just as that conversation was about to post, COVID-19 hit, schools were in turmoil, and we had to delay. So now we’ll talk with Diane in two parts and in reverse order: First, this new conversation that gets into the nuts and bolts of teaching and learning in today’s environment, and then a second podcast, where we’ll finally release our previous discussion.

Chris Riback: Diane, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time.

Diane Tavenner: Glad to be here with you. Thank you.

Chris Riback: I hope, of course, that you, and your family, and the folks in your world are doing as well as possible.

Diane Tavenner: Thank you. We are well and very grateful for that.

Chris Riback: I was thinking really about one of your mantras, the principle that not only does every child deserve an opportunity, but that every child has an ability to take best advantage of an opportunity. And I just found myself wondering, given today’s learning and daily living challenges, does every child have the ability to find opportunities during this pandemic?

Diane Tavenner: Oh, wow. It’s such a good question. And my mind immediately goes to our students, the Summit students that we’re serving every day. And one of the key principles that we hold very dear is that we enable every one of our students to have personalized opportunities. And I feel very good about our ability to stay true to that. Even when the pandemic hit, and through the spring, and as we enter the fall, we’re along those lines. But then when I think about that more generally in our society, I guess I have a slightly different view. I’m not sure that every child is being given real opportunity. And so that is definitely worthy of a conversation.

Chris Riback: How are you doing it at Summit?

Diane Tavenner: Every Summit student from the very first moment that we began has a personalized learning plan and a mentor, a faculty member who becomes their primary adult connection, who stays with them for multiple years, who knows them well, who’s the direct liaison with their family and support network. And so we really went back in this pandemic to our core values, and our core principles, and our core structures. And so we really went back to the personalized learning plan and that mentoring relationship. And we asked every student and every family to develop a special, we called it the “Special Spring Personalized Learning Plan,” given the circumstances of the pandemic and that all of our students were very abruptly moved out of our buildings and to learning at home, into what we call virtual school.

And our students are in very different places in situations. And so it wasn’t a one size fits all approach. Really, we asked them to each go into their personalized learning plan, identify the resources they had, what they needed. And then we were able to equitably support them in getting up, and running, and engaged.

And then as the spring wore on, and it became clear that we were going to stay in a virtual environment, not return to the building, we began offering pathways for our students, that they really chose in collaboration with their family and their mentor. And those pathways included one that was just stay with the program as it was being offered. Summit was able to really convert our in person schooling experience to the virtual world pretty seamlessly.

And so a lot of our kids just wanted to stay on that pathway, finish their full year, get fully graded. They were on that. Some of our students wanted to accelerate. And so we offered an acceleration pathway where they did more of their work independently, really practicing the self-directed learning skills that they’ve been learning over the years in a more intense way and in a more real way than we can normally even approximate in the school buildings. And then some of our students needed to really focus on what was most important.

And in those cases, we really zeroed in on the cognitive skills or the universal skills that they were focusing on, zeroing in on those skills and the development of those skills, often times in smaller groups and with specific interventions and support. And so there were a set of pathways and choices that our students made that really customized their learning experience for them throughout the spring.

Chris Riback: Did it work? What were the strengths? What were the-

Diane Tavenner: It did.

Chris Riback:  … weaknesses?

Diane Tavenner: It did work. Well, one thing I will tell you is before we launched this approach, there was, as there always is at Summit, really passionate, robust conversation among all of the educators who care so deeply about our students. And like everyone, we were reading all of the headlines around how the students in America were falling behind rapidly, were suffering financially, suffering from fear, from emotional and mental health strain, all of these things. And we are, and continue to be in regular contact and communication with all of our students. And so, we had the reality of what we were seeing. That’s not to say that many of them aren’t suffering like many people in the country, but we were engaging with very direct support and all sorts of both community and school-based supports and whatnot.

So we had our reality in what we were hearing, and quite frankly, that created a healthy dose of fear and worry on the part of our educators, that if we let students choose that maybe they wouldn’t make the best choices. And I think that this is something we often do as caring educators, as parents, is we just have a hard time trusting our kids to make good choices or to even make choices and then learn from them. And I’m really proud that we ultimately landed in a place, all of us, deciding that we could really trust our kids and our families, and that if they didn’t make the best choices, there were opportunities for changing course with our support and learning from that. And that we could recover from that.

And so we moved forward with it and I am very happy to report that, I think, as always students always managed to prove to us that they are more capable than we often give them credit for. We had significantly more students choose to stay on path and accelerate than to focus what is most important. We had the kids who really did that make really smart, wise choices. And I think most importantly, we had our low income students, our students of color, our students with diverse learning needs, opt into pathways that were really aligned with their needs and not in the quote “lowest pathway”, not that it was positioned that way, but that the fear was that we would be exacerbating a gap, which we didn’t. And so those were all really exciting outcomes.

And then I think most importantly, is our students finished the year with a full year of learning, and really having demonstrated their growth, and their learning, and their expectations. We, as a set of schools and network, know where our students are. I think there’s a lot of schools around the country right now who just have no idea what their kids know, or don’t know, if there was loss, if there wasn’t. And we know exactly where our students are academically as we enter the fall. We were able to conclude the year in a timely fashion. And so, to give families, and students, and teachers a break before we reengage in what will, I’m sure, prove to be an interesting, and challenging, and unique year. And so, yes, overall incredibly successful.

Chris Riback: I love your euphemisms: interesting, challenging, and unique. Yes. It surely will be. I want to ask you more about some of these really practical obstacles that it sounds like, to the best of your ability and the family’s abilities, everyone tried to overcome. And these are the obstacles that I think so many families face. You mentioned broadband, you mentioned workspace, we all know about limited access to devices. You also mentioned family and health realities that made daily living, in some cases, close to impossible for many families.

And I found myself wondering is there a connection between the trust and the relationships that are at the center of the Summit model and the ability to address obstacles like we just discussed? So how did you execute it within Summit? And are there any lessons that other schools or environments might be able to take?

Diane Tavenner: I think the answer is yes. Let me just start by telling you how a normal Summit day begins. And this is when we’re in the building, and now when we’re in the virtual world. And this part has not changed, and I think it’s core to your question. Every morning, our students begin their day in their mentor group. And so the mentor, as we’ve talked about, is the singular adult who really stays connected to them throughout their entire time at the school, who meets with them weekly in a one-to-one check-in, who’s the connection to their family and helps them develop their personalized learning plan.

And there’s a familiar morning routine that’s really rooted in the science of learning and human development. And so this group gathers together. It’s the same group of students. They stay together for years with their mentor. They gather. They open with some being joyful and pleasant. So, usually it could be, it’s five minutes, but it could be a fun game or a fun prompt. And it’s just a way of connecting on a human level. And then they spend about three minutes doing a mindfulness, three to five minutes doing a mindfulness activity. And so we know a daily practice around mindfulness is critically important.

When we’re in the building and even when we’re in the virtual world, getting kids to settle and grounded themselves before they begin their day, lots of kids have a lot of stuff going on in their lives. And even as they’re entering the building or the day they’ve got a lot of that happening. And the ability to have a practice around centering yourself and getting yourself focused is really critical. So they do that together. And then they launched what we call the self-directed learning cycle activity, which is really about identifying their goals for the day individually, but then they’re in a supportive community. And so they’ll make those goals often public and support each other, ask for help, offer help.

So there’s a whole ritual around reflecting on the previous day and what they were able to accomplish in the team and therefore what they want to work on today. And that of course attaches to their bigger goals: week, year, quarter, multiple years. See, that is the ritual in the morning. And then they go into a practice of doing some self-directed work that enables them to set themselves up for the day, begin work on their goals and also meeting one-to-one with their mentor. One day a week, they engage in a circle activity. So this is, again, an approach that’s really rooted in the science for how a group of people can regularly engage and build relationship, and trust, and work on issues of identity, and emotional health, and growth, and development. So they do that as a community one time a week. And so that’s how our kids begin their day, every day of every year that they’re in Summit, both in person, but what was fascinating is it translated perfectly to the virtual world.

Chris Riback: It sounds it would. It sounds like the type of process that that would translate.

Diane Tavenner: It did. And it was the anchor that ensured that we did not lose connection, that our students never felt alone. I’ll tell you  something interesting. The country called the move home “distance learning”, and you haven’t heard me say that word yet. And I won’t, because that we refuse to call it distance learning. The last thing kids need in this moment is to be distanced. They need to be connected. They need to be in relationships. They need to be seen. And so we never wanted to use the word distance. And so we literally said the only difference is between if we’re in the building or virtual, that’s it. There’s no distance there between us. We can still be connected and we’re going to find different tools and ways to do that.

But like I just said, some of our routines translated perfectly. And in fact, kids are so creative. What mentors started discovering is they have these invites to join these virtual rooms. And on days when one of the kids was celebrating a birthday, the mentor would show up and the whole group was there early with balloons and banners to surprise the student whose birthday it was, or the mentors would discover they started using the links of the rooms just to have lunch together. So they’ve logged back in at lunchtime and just hang out in the room. When you build connection like that, it doesn’t go away when you’re physically separated. And humans are really creative in their way to stay connected and really feed that need to be part of a community.

Diane Tavenner: I think it really illuminates what is possible with a pretty simple and efficient routine and approach. That when we went into the virtual world, we never lost track of a student. If they would enter the space in the morning and someone wasn’t there, part of what the group would do would start g-chatting them and start texting them. “Where are you? We miss you. We want you here.” And next thing you know the student would pop on.

The next piece about that is moving to the virtual world, one of the things we didn’t anticipate is how personal it was. Suddenly you’re in people’s homes in a way that you’ve never been before. And rather than shy away from that, we really, I think thoughtfully embraced that. And we anticipated that that was going to happen. We talked about and instructed our kids in like how to be thoughtful about that. Where do you set up? What do you wear? How do you appropriately engage? And, it’s okay if your cat climbs across the screen, because we’ve heard about your cat, and it’s kind of fun to see your cat and your dog. And if your mom comes in and hands you a glass of water, we want to wave hi to your mom because we’ve heard about your mom.

And so there became this culture of extending and deepening the relationship, believe it or not, even though we were virtual. And I think in that process because the mentor has built such a close relationship, the mentor was really able to observe when it looked like a student might need support on some level and or to be in relationship close enough where the student was able to directly articulate that. And that was our first line of being able to offer the supports that our students needed.

And so a couple of good examples: a lot of our kids just live in homes with a lot of family members. And when they suddenly were all in the home, there just really wasn’t a space for them to work that was quiet or that was not distracting. And so there were some simple solutions to that, noise canceling headphones that we were able to send to those students. We were able to locate some movable barriers that they could put up to build a little bit of a workspace, even in a crowded apartment. Certainly, the bandwidth issues, we were able to deal with. And one of the interesting things we learned is, we did that right out of the gate. We anticipated that before we even closed and got kids hotspots and or signed up for free Wi-Fi, etc.

But then one of the things that happened is a lot of their siblings or family members didn’t have that. And so then they were all piling onto this bandwidth and it was going down. And so we needed to increase that. So we had a second round of support on that. Certainly, was a big part of our support and continues to be. And in some cases with our families that are really, have insecure housing situations, we’ve been able to do direct support on that front, as well as a variety of miscellaneous needs that again are identified because of these close and trusting relationships.

Chris Riback:  As I hear you talking the terms, relationships, preparation, and you talk so much about the importance of preparing. And I wonder to what extent this was a pleasant surprise, but indeed surprising that this new learning environment almost sounds like it was potentially built or accelerated based off of those core principles of yours. So one, I’m wondering did that surprise you? And two, which came first? Did the realization that those core capabilities were indeed working in this new technology learning environment, did that come first? Or did you guys go back and say, “Okay, what are our core principles and how do we integrate our core principles knowing who we are in this new environment?”

Diane Tavenner: I think I definitely was surprised. I’m very accustomed to people assuming that we are an “online school,” and people assume that because we have built a platform and we do have a heavy use of technology as a tool, although we’ve never been an online school. And so I’m accustomed to that kind of misconception. But I have never viewed us, we didn’t design our school to be an online school. That has never really entered my consciousness. And so I was truly surprised when we were confronted with, I guess the challenge and the opportunity, is the nice way to think of it too, to literally within a week, convert our schools to a virtual space.

I was surprised how well they converted, quite frankly, and how, I hate to say the word easy, but relatively speaking, how easily the conversion, how easy it was, because I had never thought of it. I had never thought to do that. And so then upon reflection, and we’ve done a lot of reflection at this time point of why was that easy? And a couple of our conclusions are one, Summit has a very defined model. And it includes both of the things you’re talking about. Includes a very clear vision and a clear point of view about the purpose of education. It very clearly includes the science of learning and human development and what we know about that. It includes the principles and the designs of learning experiences that are aligned with that science, and that vision, and that purpose. It’s a very defined and coherent model that is codified on a support platform and in the tools that we use.

And so if we have to point to one thing that made the transition relatively straightforward, it is that really codified, defined science-based model that we have, and that we have tools to support, that made that possible. And I would just briefly contrast that with what I think a lot of families and teachers experienced, which was there aren’t codified models in lots of schools or places. There aren’t mechanisms whereby students have built in relationships with identified adults. They’re a little bit more random, or haphazard, or not planned for. There’s not a common set of principles around instruction and a common set of tools that people use for a coherent user experience.

And so what you saw was just poor teachers trying to scramble to find anything and everything. And then families being bombarded by all those different things that aren’t coherent and don’t make sense, and were completely overwhelming. And I think what you saw in that moment was the stark difference between an aligned coherent model that’s really grounded in science versus one that just isn’t a model, and doesn’t really exist, and isn’t grounded in science.

Chris Riback: I want to close in a moment by asking you about this fall and what’s upcoming for you, but on the point that you were just making on the Summit platform and connecting it to something that you said earlier in this conversation, which was that, “We know where our students are academically at the end of this school year.” How did you do that? How do you know that? Is measurement a part of the platform that’s understandable? Or do aspects of the platform allow for the regular understanding and recognition of where students are?

Diane Tavenner: It’s a great question. And the platform certainly captures the data and facilitates the knowing and the assessment, if you will. But the key there, the key concept is we have assessment embedded and ongoing in the learning process. And so it’s not a separate event. We don’t rely on an annual standardized test or benchmark assessments that happen every six to eight weeks that are disconnected from the learning experience and the daily learning. We actually have both the formative assessments, so the sort of daily ongoing assessment, as well as the summative assessment, which is happening a little bit less frequently, but nonetheless consistently embedded in the project-based learning experiences that our kids are engaged in every day.

And it’s just a natural part of the learning process and cycle. And because that’s all aligned to a common set of universal skills and knowledge that is captured in the platform and facilitated by the platform, we constantly know where every student is every day of their learning, whether we’re in the building or out of the building. And that very easily translated from the physical world to the virtual world.

Chris Riback: What do you anticipate this fall?

Diane Tavenner: Well, what we know at this point is that, given where we are geographically and our local health guidance, we will not start school in the buildings at all. We will be 100% virtual when we launch. Like everyone, we are in a position where we’re constantly monitoring and we’ll wait and see when we could potentially return to the buildings. I’ll be honest. We’ve planned for and anticipate a full year of virtual school and we feel better planning for that, and then being able to transition back into buildings, if that option becomes available, than always planning on the short term and waiting to just see if we’ll be able to go back into the buildings.

Our focus is really on taking everything that worked well and that we learned in the spring and continuing to improve it and make it even better. There’s the added challenge of we’re now launching a year with students who we’ve never met before, and haven’t built a relationship with, unlike in the spring when we had done that work and then relied on it as we exited. And so a lot of our thinking is around, “Well, how do you start a relationship in the virtual world? And how do you build those connections and bonds I was just talking about when you’re not in person?” And so that is where our energy and attention is right now. We’re feeling very good about it.

Again, it’s not about changing who we are or what we do. It’s about thinking about how you achieve those same goals, and those same outcomes, and the same design elements, just in a different medium, quite frankly. And we’re discovering pleasant surprises, and opportunities that exist in this world, and really trying to remain hopeful, and optimistic, and take advantage of those things.

Chris Riback: And Diane, I know in having had the privilege to talk with you, there is no way that your expectations of what children can achieve, there’s no way that those expectations have lowered or changed.

Diane Tavenner: Absolutely not.

Chris Riback: Are-

Diane Tavenner: No, no, no, no, no, no.

Chris Riback: Does that remain realistic?

Diane Tavenner: Yes.

Chris Riback: Is it fair for you to have those expectations still?

Diane Tavenner: I would argue not only fair, but imperative. Our kids deserve the opportunity to achieve all that they want to achieve. They only get to do ninth grade once. They only get to do 10th grade once. And we really fundamentally believe it’s deeply inequitable if we are not providing them a full, rich opportunity at this moment in their life. For us this is the twin pandemic of both COVID, but also the racial inequity reckoning we’re having in our country. And we are very committed to ensuring that all of our kids have every opportunity they deserve.

Chris Riback: Diane, thank you. Thank you for your time. And thank you for the hard work that you continue to do for and with children and their families.

Diane Tavenner: Thank you. It was great to be with you.

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