Columbia High School’s Class of 2021 will always hold a special place in Cory Woolstenhulme’s heart.
Most of those seniors were freshmen in the fall of 2017 when Columbia first partnered with Summit Learning to introduce a mastery-based educational approach to its students.
“It’s been awesome to watch them grow in confidence,” said Woolstenhulme, the principal at Columbia in Nampa, Idaho. “I think back to those early days where we were allowing groups of students to iterate and try things. They’ve come to understand how it works and how it helps them as a learner.”
Woolstenhulme was prepared for his school to endure plenty of growing pains during the first couple of years with Summit Learning. But what Woolstenhulme saw instead surpassed even his own high expectations. As he walked in and out of classrooms each day, he became inspired by what was taking place.
Teachers and students worked through a new way of learning together in ways more accurately described as “growing challenges” rather than “growing pains.”
“The challenges that we faced, especially early on as we implemented, have become some of the reasons why people are here and have stayed,” Woolstenhulme said. “When you work through change together, it forces you to be really honest about whether you’re desiring to have change. It forces you to work together, roll up your sleeves, and actually accomplish some things.
“We have had plenty of challenges, and continue to. We relish in those. It’s actually helping us to have problems to solve and to come together.”
Those feelings are echoed by Columbia senior Zachary Dent, who said collaboration with others has been a key part of his success. Dent, who spent the first 10 years of his educational journey in home school, credits the many projects he’s worked on with his Columbia classmates with increasing his overall confidence in life.
“It’s changed over time in the way that I’ve become more of a manager on the team,” Dent said. “Originally, I started as an ideas kind of person (and) would sit off to the side in the meetings. Eventually, it got to the point where they were like, ‘Okay, we would like you to take charge on some of these things.’ And so that’s what I did.”
Another huge part of Dent’s learning experience over the last two years at Columbia has been the relationship he’s developed with his mentor. Each student at Columbia is assigned a mentor they regularly meet with in a one-on-one setting to support their success in and out of the classroom.
Dent said the mentoring component of the Summit Learning program was a “very immersive and interactive experience” and he enjoyed that the weekly chats with his mentor extended far beyond a simple check-in.
“I would not be where I am today without my mentor, that’s for sure,” Dent said. “My mentor helped me a lot because they were able to point me in the direction of resources I didn’t have before. They were also very supportive, very helpful, and very caring about the whole situation.”
English teacher Janette Stephenson, who has taught for 13 years, said the last four years of mentoring combined with a mastery-based educational approach has given her valuable perspective about her students.
“Before I started (with Summit Learning), I thought I knew my students really well,” Stephenson said. “Now I know them on a completely different level.”
Stephenson has mentored the same group of students for the past four years, allowing for more authentic conversations and tangible evidence that the individual connections lead to profound growth—for students and teachers alike.
“Ultimately, our goal was to have students be independent, confident, and powerful in their learning, and to really just take that and fly away,” Stephenson said. “Those relationships are so key in their success. That makes me a better teacher, too. I’ve learned a lot from my students.”
Gina Davis, an Instructional Coach at Columbia, was excited about partnering with Summit Learning because of the focus on helping students take ownership of their learning. Davis also believed that empowering students would help them work through challenging moments and keep progressing toward mastering skills rather than give up.
“We believe strongly that students should be able to make mistakes, be able to learn from those mistakes, and to be able to keep going without feelings of judgement or failure,” Davis said.
There’s been noticeable growth in several areas of learning at Columbia since the school partnered with Summit Learning. Woolstenhulme said Idaho Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) scores have improved, safety and wellness reports have improved, graduation rates have improved, and project-based skills have improved over the past four years.
Columbia, which is located 20 miles west of Boise, also received recognition from Idaho Education News this year for its success in maintaining or improving grades, regardless of the learning environment. The article referenced low grades in some school districts in Idaho because of the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but wrote that “the drop in grades was not universal. At Nampa’s Columbia High, some students flourished through remote learning.”
“It really broke the trend,” Nampa School District Assistant Superintendent Gregg Russell told Idaho Education News. “It might be that they transitioned a little bit easier to a hybrid or online environment.”
Yes, Woolstenhulme acknowledges that his students transitioned to remote classrooms “without skipping a beat” because of their familiarity with the Summit Learning platform. But he said the main reason for his students’ success was the self-confidence they had gained from the program and their ongoing access to adult mentors who provided social-emotional support in a challenging time.
“We were able to just continue to use the systems that we had become accustomed to,” Woolstenhulme said. “We were all feeling the stress and the pressure of all the changes and uncertainty, but we were so grateful to have something that was already in place that continued our drive forward. There was a lot of gratitude from parents, students, and staff.”
As the first Columbia students to grow all four years with Summit Learning prepare to graduate in 2021, Woolstenhulme and his staff now eagerly look forward to the next four years. They know they can’t predict the future, but they’re confident that their relationship-based learning approach will prepare students and teachers for whatever challenges come their way.
“Summit Learning is not just a platform,” Stephenson said. “It’s a new way of thinking and a way of helping our kids buy back into their own education, and just really take off and become independent, amazing, incredibly deep, thoughtful humans.”
About the school:
Columbia High School is a 9-12 public school that serves 1,401 students in Nampa, Idaho.
● 64% Free or Reduced Lunch
● 2% English Learners
● 8% have an Individualized Education Plan
Watch this video to learn more about Columbia High School.