10 Tips for Implementing Summit Learning at Your School

What better way to approach a big project than with the insights of others who have already been there?

Across multiple sessions at the ISTE 2017 EdTech conference in San Antonio, Texas this year, teachers and leaders who have implemented Summit Learning in their schools shared insights on making the best of the transition from a traditional school setting to a personalized learning environment.

For school leaders looking for insights into how to lead through change during Summit Learning implementation, here are insights from those who have been in your shoes. Gathered from Summit Learning’s seven ISTE 2017 sessions, the following 10 tips were the top insights shared for school leaders on implementing Summit Learning.

1. Align on a multi-year, strategic vision for implementation.

Over the past two years, more than 100 schools have implemented Summit Learning through the free, comprehensive Summit Learning Program, and this coming school year, more than 200 will do the same. What we’ve learned from early cohorts is that having a long-term vision matters. Most schools start with a grade-level team of at least four core teachers and expand from there, but those that connect the first year to a larger strategic plan tend to meet implementation milestones faster and more thoroughly. “In order for this to work, it has to be collaborative, and everyone has to be aligned behind the same vision,” says Patty Suquilanda, Summit Learning Manager of New School Partnerships.

2. Engage teachers early in the process.

Speaking from experience, Narda Black, a middle school teacher at Dexter Community Schools in Dexter, Michigan, says her top implementation advice for school leaders is to get teachers on board and excited for the program as a catalyst for student and community enthusiasm. “It’s important that it’s a staff voluntarily committing to participate and not something they’re being assigned to do,” she says. Having teachers be a part of the decision-making process not only enhances their enthusiasm for change, but also is an important litmus test on how personalized learning could work in your classrooms.

3. Kickstart mentorship efforts early and with great intention.

“If I could give one top implementation tip, I would say to really value the mentorship portion,” says John Lyons, principal at Frankfort High School in Frankfort Kentucky. One of the three key pillars of Summit Learning is 1:1 mentoring, in which students meet weekly with a mentor to discuss short-term goals, reflect on progress, and align with long-term goals. “It’s something I’ve always believed in, but it’s the least academic part of the program, as it’s not one that shows up on your school’s scores,” says Principal Lyons. “But I really think the mentoring aspect is what transformed the culture of our school.” Early implementation of mentoring too, gives teachers a means for checking in with their students on how the transition is working for them.

4. Thoroughly explain the key changes to all stakeholders.

“Everything about Summit is so different from traditional school, and our school was about as traditional as they get before I got there,” Lyons says. “It was communicating to parents that this wasn’t some independent study course where their student was going to be sitting by themselves on a computer all day; what their classroom looks like and how they’re graded is going to be different.” The first semester is prime time for over-communicating every aspect of the program. Panelists suggested open house nights, morning principal chats during drop-off time, frequent newsletters, and student-led discussions, among other communication strategies.

5. Sync early and often as a team.

Build in time to sync with your teaching team, Principal Lyons advises. He organized an early release day every three weeks where students left after lunch and the teaching team came together for three hours to collaborate on what was working and what tweaks were needed. “That consistent collaboration time was huge for us,” he says.

Summit Learning also provides free Summer Training and Regional Convenings to Summit Learning Program participants — Lyons described Summit’s training as “the single-best training I’ve ever had, and I’ve been in education for 24 years.” These trainings can be used to rally and energize your team.

ISTE 2017 Summit Learning Personalized Learning Session
Panelists Melanie Wightman, Tyler Sussman, Kourtney Bauswell, and moderator Amy Sandoz present at ISTE 2017.

6. Choose a schedule and classroom setup that works for your school.

Not every school is built the same, so not every bell schedule or classroom schedule is going to look the same within a personalized learning environment. Summit Learning can share sample bell schedules and classroom setup resources to help your school choose the right setup for your context.

7. Train teachers to use real-time data for their daily lesson planning.

With the Summit Learning platform, curriculum and assessments are pre-loaded into the platform, either ready to roll or ready for adaptation and customization, depending on a school or teacher’s preferences. In either case, data plays a big role in making sure that students’ learning truly is personalized.

“In the classroom, data is really helpful,” says Justin Duncan, an English and Language Arts teacher at Thompson Intermediate School, of the Pasadena Independent School District in Pasadena, Texas. “It lets you see what a student is struggling in, what they’re doing well in. It lets you pinpoint instruction, so we need to do a small group instruction, you know exactly where to go. You know exactly who needs what.” With real-time data, teachers needn’t live in whole-group instruction world. They can stage one-on-one interventions and small-group powwows daily to make sure every student is progressing appropriately.

8. Share best practices and learn from other schools.

The Summit Learning Program is a national movement with a growing community of teachers, students, parents, and school leaders across the nation. One of the biggest assets of the program is the collaborative spirit our community shares. Whether you’re early in implementation or have hit a snag, you can be sure there is someone in the Summit Learning family who can be of help — they might even be right down the road. Geographic constraints aside, Summit Learning also has an active Facebook community where teachers share resources and ask questions, often getting answers from the community in a matter of hours.

9. Set student expectations about their responsibilities as self-directed learners.

“We spent a lot of time up front teaching students how to be learners,” says Principal Lyons. “That was time that was previously used to disseminate content. But we more than made up for it in the backend.” At Summit Public Schools, for example, teachers facilitate student-to-student discussions between existing and new students to help newcomers understand what the learning environment will be like. Setting expectations up front will help students make the shift from day one.

10. Cultivate a growth mindset within your team.

“The toughest transition for teachers is the mindshift,” says Kourtney Bauswell, Director of Personalized Learning of Milwaukee Collegiate Academy. “They are no longer on stage for the majority of time. They are putting the learning into students’ hands and letting students be self-directed. Sometimes that means students are failing and learning from failing, and you’re not always there to swoop in and save them.” Instead, she says, teachers are looking at data to strategically plan whole-group, small-group, and targeted interventions.

That shift in roles can be jolting for some teachers, but it’s attainable. Tyler Sussman, Director of Partnerships within the Summit Learning Program, says Summit Public Schools now hires its educators for mindset. “We look for people with a growth mindset — those who believe that the brain can grow, that learning can happen, that students are capable of rising to challenges.” As a leader, you can not only hire for, but also cultivate talent around a growth mindset.

About the author

Erica Swallow
Erica Swallow is a storyteller at Summit Public Schools, dedicated to sharing informative and inspiring stories from around the Summit Learning community. Erica's thoughts have been published in Forbes, Fortune, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. A first-generation college student, she believes education is the key to opportunity. Erica holds degrees from New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.