Across the Country, a New Type of Partnership Between Charters and Districts Emerges

Increasingly, I’m hearing a question that drives me crazy: “Are you for or against charter schools?”

There can only be one legitimate answer to that question: It depends.

Are you speaking of the situation in Michigan, in which four out of five charter school operators are for-profit entities? Or the overall tendency for charters to be even more segregated than their public school neighbors? Or the reluctance by some charter leaders to hold themselves to the same standards of transparency and openness as traditional public schools?

If so, thumbs down.

But if you’re talking about places like Baltimore, where all charter school teachers are unionized (and the charters themselves are almost all locally conceived and teacher-led), or if you’re pointing to the growing movement among some charters to intentionally enroll and serve integrated student bodies — by way of the National Coalition of Diverse Charter Schools — the picture takes a very different shape.

And then there’s what’s happening with Summit Basecamp — a new sort of partnership between charters and traditional public schools that may very well offer the best evidence so far of what Al Shanker first called for back in 1988, when he imagined a new kind of school in which teachers could experiment with different ways of reaching students, and then inject that wisdom back throughout the public school system.

That’s what Diane Tavenner has done at Summit Public Schools, a successful network of charter schools in California and Washington that represent the bleeding edge of innovative approaches to personalized learning.

Unlike other models — I’m looking at you, Rocketship — whose efforts to leverage technology seem to be more concerned with creating magic in the balance sheet than in the classroom — Summit Schools have created scores of “playlists” that let students navigate their own pace and path through content knowledge, in order to free up more time for project-based learning, mentoring, and community-based work.

As a result, Summit Schools are besieged with visitors from around the world, all of them eager to see how technology can be used in ways that augment, not replace, the foundational social and emotional bonds between teachers and students.

And yet, as exciting as the attention has been, Tavenner felt it wasn’t going to allow her to fulfill her school’s overarching mission, so she sought out a transformative partnership with Facebook, whose engineers have helped her perfect the digital learning platform that allows Summit’s personalized learning system to function. And then she made that platform available for free, open source, to anyone who thought it would be useful to them.

You read that right. She perfected a product that could be worth millions — perhaps even billions — of dollars. And then she gave it away.

Still, Tavenner and her team realized that merely making the tool open source wasn’t optimal educationally. Surely, there must be schools and communities out there who would benefit from integrating the platform into their schools as a cohort, and continually learning from one another about how to get better at shifting to a different way of thinking about school — one that requires the kids, not their teachers, to be the hardest workers in the room.

From that idea, the Summit Basecamp project was born — a nascent, growing network of nineteen schools (across ten states) who are working to adapt Summit’s Personalized Learning Platform, or PLP, to their own needs and norms.

Two of those schools are located near where I live in Washington, D.C., so I set out to visit both of them — Truesdell Education Campus and Columbia Heights Educational Campus, or CHEC — and see what all the fuss was about.

What I wondered was this: Is it possible that a charter school 3,000 miles away can exert a positive influence on the growth of a neighborhood school just a short walk from my home? Or is the reality of this transcontinental game of Telephone such that most of what makes a school special will get lost in translation somewhere along the way?

Truesdell and CHEC offer good test cases for the Basecamp idea, albeit for different reasons.

CHEC is located on a busy corner of one of D.C’s most racially and socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods. Its students, who are overwhelmingly poor, Black and Brown, mulled about in their school uniforms the morning I visited, awaiting the start of the school day, while white-collar professionals passed hurriedly by on their way to the nearby subway.

When you enter the building, you must first pass through metal detectors that are staffed by a uniformed school resource officer. The halls of the school are wide and deep, evoking memories of an archetypal American public school. And while the 6th and 7th graders can still expect a rather traditional school day here — 65-minute classes, one after the other, divided by subject — for the 8th graders, Basecamp has meant the beginning of a very different school experience.

The day begins with individual goal setting — each student must establish daily and weekly learning goals, as well as a long-term aspirational goal (i.e., “to be the first in my family to go to college”) to which their daily decisions are pegged. It includes consistent time with an adult mentor. And it is anchored by personal learning time during which students must self-direct themselves through a series of content-specific playlists; and by group project time, during which kids and teachers can directly engage in more hands-on work together.

“The key,” Tukeva explained to me, “is to target the kids who are not ‘buying what we’re selling’ in the old model. We have a lot of kids who are already thriving, but we also have a lot of kids who need different ways to get them engaged.

“Overall, this project represents a pretty intense jump for us. Before we signed up for Basecamp, we weren’t a 1-to-1 school; now, every student has his or her own computer. That’s a big jump. Before Basecamp, we didn’t have an integrated digital platform, so that’s a really big jump, too. We’d also never allocated time before for a mentor to work with each student intensively. So all of these steps are making our approach to personalized teaching and learning more comprehensive — it’s taking the different pieces we’d been working on and making them all more integrated.”

It’s true — it’s a big jump — and yet CHEC has also been piloting new approaches to teaching and learning for years. Consequently, it had already established an internal culture of experimentation. “We’ve been piloting different things for a while now,” she added, “so this doesn’t feel as foreign as it might in a different school. Our entire 8th grade team went out to Summit together this summer, where they worked as a team for two weeks. And so far, our kids are really liking both the technology and the increased levels of freedom.”

In that sense, early returns suggest that for a school like CHEC, which was already well on its way to becoming more student-centered and tech-savvy, a project like Basecamp is an effective accelerator. “We’ve had some small technological glitches,” she added, “and we have a much more bilingual population than Summit, so we have dual language needs they don’t which has forced us to do a lot of translating. But mostly it’s enabled us to go farther faster, because we can take everything that Summit has already done — from their playlists to their insights about how best to use the PLP — and modify it to our own purposes.”

By contrast, at Truesdell, Basecamp provided the impetus to start from scratch. “We’ve had crazy turnover here,” said Adam Zimmerman, a former classroom teacher at Truesdell and the school’s first-ever Director of Operations, Culture & Innovation. “But there’s a group of us that all arrived together about four years ago and feel some real continuity with one another and a desire to build something together. We’re all trying to find ways to keep growing as professionals. We also knew that if we just kept doing what we’d been doing, we weren’t ever going to effectively reach every kid. So we said, let’s bring in something that’s exciting that we can all get behind as a team. Basecamp is a retention tool for our teachers as much as a new learning strategy for our kids.”

I saw evidence of Truesdell’s upstart energy everywhere. One class I visited had been looking at injustice in the U.S. After spending a few weeks exploring topics together — police brutality, wealth inequality, etc. — they were able to choose their own for a culminating project. And as their teacher, Leah Myers, explained to me, “They’re allowed to decide if they want to work alone or in groups. The project is a public awareness campaign — either on social media, or in the local community — which they’re going to have to track the success of and then present a civic action project based on their findings.”

I asked Adam what was most exciting and most challenging about this new way of thinking about school — whereas, for example, organizing student projects had happened at Truesdell before, providing intense mentoring and unleashing kids to be the lead drivers of their own content acquisition had not. “It’s a new set of muscles we’re all trying to develop,” he explained. “Many of the teachers you’re seeing here were rated ‘Highly Effective’ before we ever brought Basecamp into the picture. That’s an important title to have in D.C. So how do you get teachers working towards something totally new and not merely reverting to what has worked best in the past whenever it gets challenging? We’re still figuring that part out.”

To be sure, both campuses still have plenty to figure out. Giving kids more freedom and authority over their own learning sounds great; but if what you’re giving them authority over is still not that interesting to them, there are limits. In one class, for example, I spoke to a group of students who were working on a project around percentages and figuring out how much a product might have been marked up.

“So you guys are using these rubrics all the time now to evaluate yourselves, huh?” I asked them.


“Is it better than what you did before, or worse, or do you not really care?”

“We don’t care,” they replied flatly.

Fair enough.

Yet for every exchange like that, there were ones like the kind I had with Diana, Leslie and Dania, three eighth graders who had decided to work together on a campaign about xenophobia.

I asked them what they thought about the new approach to learning. “It’s our choice now if we want to work together or alone,” Diana offered, a slight smile of embarrassment breaking across her face as she spoke. “It doesn’t really feel the same because last year we were used to having the teacher stand up and teach us but now we have this new program so we’re using the computer a lot. It’s hard, but I get to do it at my own pace so I can learn it more better and if I don’t understand it I can go over it again and I don’t get frustrated if other people are ahead of or behind me.”

Leslie nodded her head in agreement. “It just changes the way we interact with the teacher,” she explained in halting English. “Now she don’t stands up there teaching the whole class about migration. Now everybody’s doing different things and so she walks around answering questions. It’s given us more freedom. When a teacher stands up there she sometimes moves too fast and we’re behind. But now we can go at our own pace.”

Before I left, I spoke to another student — a young man named Kyree — who Zimmerman said embodied the potential of what schools like Summit, CHEC and Truesdell were trying to bring about. Kyree had been a Truesdell student, and then left — the result of instability at home — only to return after a rocky, violent tenure at another school. He spoke with a slow deliberateness, his eyes focused both squarely on me and on a distant horizon in which he was actively imagining the possibilities of his future.

“I have a strain to be perfect at everything I do,” he began, “but sometimes it doesn’t actually come out to be what I want it to be. So I just strive to do more than usual, and do better the next time.

“I like this school better than my last one. At my old school, there wasn’t much learning or motivation to learn. But this school helps me learn faster than usual — I can go beyond the class or if I need to catch up I can catch up. I like that. You can find your own pace. But mostly I like hand work and there’s a lot more of that now.”

I love the way Kyree describes what he likes — that there’s more “hand work.” And we wonder why so many kids are so bored in school!

I also know, because I get to visit schools all the time, how many Kyrees there are out there — young people with heavy burdens, great potential and a set of needs that have not been well met by the traditional classroom approach. But the good news is that there are a rising number of schools that are taking positive steps to support and inspire them more. So while it’s early, and the future is still a little murky, projects like Basecamp suggest to me what’s possible in the future of public education — and what type of standard we should establish for both the charter community and cross-sector collaboration.

As Summit founder Diane Tavenner has said, schools like hers — and projects like these — are “fueled by a deep dissatisfaction with the status of even our best schools, but also an extraordinary optimism that we can and will change them. We know that students are capable of so much, and so are our schools.

“Despite our hard work, we are far from realizing our full aspirations: classrooms, schools and systems where every student is joyfully realizing his or her potential. But we are optimistic that there has never been a better moment to harness this potential. We know more than we ever have about how people learn, what motivates them, and what drives success and satisfaction in life and work. We have access to technology that can help students and educators create and pursue knowledge more effectively than ever before, technology that can even bring communities together. And we are beginning to see glimpses of what’s possible when schools embrace the challenge of entirely redesigning the way they meet students’ needs and interests.”