How We Led School Change at 7 Schools and Joined Summit Learning

Scott Frauenheim is the President at Distinctive Schools and serves as a member of the Distinctive Schools National Board of Directors. Amy Vracar is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Distinctive Schools. Together, they share how they led school change by introducing Summit Learning to their network of high-performing public charter schools in Chicago, Minnesota, and Michigan.

Distinctive Schools has been on a six-year journey toward school change. By integrating Summit Learning into our network of campuses, we’ve seen a profound shift: Our students now own their learning experience.

In 2012, students at Distinctive Schools campuses sat in desks in rows, facing the front of the classroom. Middle school students went from class to class with binders, were not engaged in their learning, and had little personal choice in the topics they were learning and the places and the methods they were learning through.

Teachers did the heavy lifting by lecturing in the front of the class for the majority of the day.

Ultimately, we were telling our students how to “do school,” instead of fostering an environment that allowed students to invest in their own learning by being a learning partner with their teacher, creating space for mistakes, and becoming creative problem-solvers.


The Distinctive Schools network and campus leaders recognized this and wanted to positively impact middle school students’ learning and development. We wanted to see students more engaged in what they worked on. We also wanted to see them advance their Habits of Success to ensure strong academic growth, as well as academic attainment, which is the highest level of of study that students complete.

Therefore, we explored different personalized learning options that would foster these skills.

As we looked into various tools, we were drawn to the Projects, Self-Direction, and mentoring time that Summit Learning provided.

The more than 200 Projects provided in the base curriculum provide our students with the tools our students needed to develop deeper Cognitive Skills, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication while working collaboratively together.

Teachers were also able to assign different checkpoints, which are tasks that move students toward final products and act as opportunities for formative feedback. Checkpoints can be different for each student based on where they are in their learning.

We were drawn to the self-directed learning time as well, because it allowed students to choose resources based on how they learned best, and, as a result, students were able to learn the content they needed to be college-ready. They could then plan and prioritize their learning based on their individual goals, move at their own pace, and receive support from their teachers, mentor, and peers.

Lastly, the community time Summit Learning provided allowed all our middle school students to to have a mentor who served as their coach and advocate, supporting them as they developed strong character, life, and Self-Direction skills.

Additionally, the students had the same mentor every year throughout their time in school, and had weekly 1:1 check-ins with their mentor.

As a result, Distinctive Schools chose Summit Learning, because of its focus on helping students take ownership of their goals, as well as its focus on real-world Projects and 1:1 Mentoring.

Planning and Implementation

We didn’t want student achievement to suffer during implementation, so we knew we needed teachers actively involved from day one to ensure that this was going to solve previous challenges we had.

For that reason, as we were planning to implement Summit Learning in our middle school classrooms, a team of school leaders, teachers, and Distinctive Schools network staff came together to design the implementation process.

As we collaborated, we knew that we did not want our middle school students or teachers to feel overwhelmed by the new Program. As a group, we knew it was important to provide professional development planning meetings for our teachers to learn the Summit Learning Platform and understand the support and curricula and assessments they would receive while using Summit Learning.

So, in Summer of 2016 Summit Learning welcomed 55 of our teachers to the San Francisco Bay Area for deep embedded professional development that connected the teachers’ work to the Program, as well as school visits. This ensured, from the start, that everyone would be ready and confident for the rollout of the Program.

Then, in 2016, Distinctive Schools implemented Summit Learning across all seven of our campuses. Teachers embraced their roles as mentors, and used the Summit Learning Program’s daily flow, as well as the Platform to connect with students to discuss their progress, ask for feedback, and update self-directed learning plan goals.

Immediately, our teachers and staff saw the value in receiving real-time assessments of student performance and growth via the Summit Learning Platform because they were able to make informed decisions and set realistic objectives for each student.


Before we rolled out Summit Learning to our schools, we were nervous. Could we really personalize learning to the degree we hoped? Would every student get what they need to excel?

Ultimately, we saw widespread teacher buy-in. Our teachers quickly embraced their roles and mentors and used the Summit Learning Platform to connect with each student. By using technology some of the time, we gained the ability to get our teachers to think about each individual student and what they need. Distinctive Schools’ teachers also had ample opportunity for personalized professional development with Summit Learning, and fellow colleagues, throughout the school year.

Rachael Beucher, Middle School Instructional Coach and 8th Grade English & History Teacher at CICS Bucktown, shared with us that her own trepidation about the new approach washed away as she saw a holistically better way of supporting her students.

“When we joined the Summit Learning Program, I was unsure as to what it could provide our students and how it would help them to grow more than all the other programs we were implementing and all the supports we were providing.

“After wrapping up year two, I now know that answer. The Program has allowed for us as a school to provide more real-world, more personalized, and more impactful approaches to learning.

“The Platform truly helps us to be effective teachers because of the data we have, all in one place, that can show us not only which students are struggling but also which students are excelling in areas. It also allows us to create lessons to keep everyone engaged and learning at their own pace.

“More importantly though, it has made our students and learners take more accountability for their own learning. They are calendaring, creating goals for themselves, working on using the Habits of Success, and becoming more prepared for their next steps in education and their lives beyond our walls.”

By implementing Summit Learning in our classrooms, Distinctive Schools’ teachers have the ability to respond to the unique needs of each student. Additionally, our Distinctive Schools Middle School teachers have more in-person planning time together to bring up questions or engage in small-group discussion.

We have experienced significant attainment and growth gains since leading our school change, but most importantly, our students are curious and engaged learners driving their education alongside their teachers, who serve as advocates and mentors. They are building the skills and resources they need to be successful in any environment they find themselves in.

At heart, Distinctive Schools’ success in participating in Summit Learning is best quoted by one of our recent 2018 valedictorians at Chicago International Charter School (CICS) Bucktown, “I am grateful that Summit Learning has helped me, and others, achieve spectacular things.”

Ready to learn more about school change and school leader experiences with Summit Learning? Read 10 Tips for Implementing Summit Learning at Your School on the Summit Learning Blog.

About the author

Scott Frauenheim
Scott Frauenheim is the President at Distinctive Schools and serves as a member of the Distinctive Schools National Board of Directors. He has dedicated his career to building positive learning environments for students and educators, and is a recognized leader of transformational work in charter schools. His passion for strong leadership, coupled with his drive to promote quality education, allowed him to build strong relationships throughout Distinctive Schools, an innovative charter management organization, operating K-8 campuses throughout Chicago and metro-Detroit. Through this work, Scott created shared vision, enabled leadership, and empowered teachers.
Amy Vracar
Amy Vracar is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Distinctive Schools. She joined Distinctive Schools in 2017, bringing more than 10 years of experience in communications, project management, and education industry to her role with the organization. Amy leads external affairs and grant development for Distinctive Schools, as well as supports new school start-up and various leadership projects. Prior to her current role, Amy was a product marketing manager for talent education technology solutions at TeacherMatch, a PeopleAdmin Company, leading content development and digital strategies, as well as held marketing and public relations roles at a Microsoft Dynamics ERP Partner, the Algonquin Area Public Library, and Harper College. Amy is graduate of Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, Illinois, with a Bachelor’s degree in communications, media, and theatre.