Summit Learning Program: Helping to Jumpstart Personalized Learning

14 January 2016


The Summit Learning Program is a free program that provides teachers and schools across the U.S. with the resources they need to bring personalized learning into the classroom.

JORDAN ARBUCKLE’S MATH STUDENTS IN PASADENA, TEXAS ARE ONLY IN SIXTH GRADE, but they’re already taking charge of their education. This year, Arbuckle and her colleagues at Carter Lomax Middle School are implementing a personalized learning model that allows students to become self-directed learners.

For these students, the daily experience of school has changed. There’s more time for collaboration between students and more one-on-one support from teachers. To demonstrate their skills, students work together on deeper learning projects that tap into their interests across subject areas.

Instead of a lecture at the beginning of each class, students participate in Personalized Learning Time, where they work at their own pace through playlists of online videos, practice problems, and assessments. Arbuckle and the students see real-time data on how they’re progressing and areas where they need more practice, which allows her to provide individualized support on the spot.

Arbuckle still guides her students along their learning paths, but they are in the driver’s seat. “The teacher is always the facilitator. This format lets us use the best practices that we know are effective,” she said.

For educators, the shift to personalized learning has helped them form stronger connections with their students. “The teachers and administrators in this program have changed their way of thinking to approach this new model of learning,” said Vickie Vallet, director of instructional technology at the Pasadena Independent School District. “Teachers are driving the program; they are invested in its successful execution and are essential to helping students to build the habits and skills required to excel in school and in life.”

Carter Lomax Middle School is part of the Summit Learning Program pilot—a collaborative effort led by Summit Public Schools to bring personalized learning to more schools across the country. In 2015, teachers from three schools in Pasadena ISD (one high school, one intermediate school, and one middle school) volunteered to be part of the Summit Learning Program. And, last summer, teachers from Pasadena and other schools around the country joined us at Summit for two weeks of free summer professional development to ensure their schools were set up for success with the program.

Throughout the school year, educators at the 19 Summit Learning Program schools receive support and resources for free to explore or expand personalized learning and adapt it to meet the specific needs of their individual school communities. These schools reflect the diversity of American education and include district and public charter schools from rural and urban communities, in small and large school districts.

At Summit, we’re learning from participating schools, as well. Educators are sharing their personalized learning experiences with us as part of a dynamic community of practice. This feedback reinforces what we have seen over the past decade—that personalized learning helps students reach their fullest potential.


Students explore their personal passions as an authentic part of their core school experience and go deep on the issues and questions that matter most to them.

Summit’s Journey to Personalized Learning

Summit didn’t intend to start a program like the Summit Learning Program. When our first school opened in 2003, we offered outstanding teachers, a college-prep curriculum for every student (no tracking), and high expectations with high support.

Several years ago, we noticed that while nearly all of our students were accepted into a four-year college or university, few completed their college education on time. The biggest barriers were remedial courses and students’ inability to drive their own learning without the supports of our Summit schools.

This insight caused us to rethink our approach, creating a richer learning experience that empowers every child to realize his or her highest potential. Across Summit’s schools today, our students participate in deeper learning projects—where they apply content to solve authentic problems, work in teams, develop strong communication skills, and think critically. And, they work at their own pace and demonstrate competency in content knowledge through teacher-created playlists and assessments, peer-to-peer tutoring, and one-on-one coaching.

For example, instead of just solving algebra equations in math class, our ninth grade students use mathematical models to predict growth in the stock market. In science class, our seventh graders become chemical engineers and design innovative products that prevent heat exhaustion in athletes.


Our journey to personalized learning wasn’t always easy, but it was worth it.

Each student plans, organizes, and prioritizes their work in their Personalized Learning Plan (PLP) based on their individual needs and goals. The PLP tool helps students connect their long-term goals and aspirations to their daily decisions, actions, and behaviors. Developed initially by Summit educators, we’ve partnered with a team of engineers from Facebook to build out this platform and make it even more powerful for students, teachers, and parents.

The end result: Students explore their personal passions as an authentic part of their core school experience and go deep on the issues and questions that matter most to them. And, teachers have the tools to tailor their instruction to the students they know so well, freeing them to spend more one-on-one time mentoring students and facilitating deeper learning experiences.

Our journey to personalized learning wasn’t always easy, but it was worth it. It’s a journey that many schools—both district and charter public schools—are beginning. Many schools have asked us to help them bring personalized learning into their classrooms. That’s why we decided to create the Summit Learning Program. We believe personalized learning can have as meaningful an impact in other schools as it has had at Summit, and our partner schools are already showing us what’s possible when educators work together to customize instruction to students’ individual needs and interests.

Early Signs of Progress

Schools in the Summit Learning Program have just finished their first semester. While it’s too early to review assessment results, we have heard from teachers and students about how personalized learning has changed their approach to teaching and learning. Teachers are changing their practice, and students are taking greater responsibility for their learning while also building the skills to become strong leaders, collaborative partners, and creative problem-solvers.

One partner school, Oakland, CA’s Urban Promise Academy, is already seeing how teachers are better able to customize instruction to meet their students’ diverse needs, while still holding everyone to rigorous standards. Teacher Julia Lehman explained that students are much more engaged in school than in years past because they’re working together on projects they feel invested in, have choices, and are challenged every day. They “appreciate being the owners and directors of their own education.”

Thousands of miles east of Oakland, at Venture Academy in Minneapolis, MN seventh grade English teacher Dex Summers has used the PLP to create a data-driven culture in his classroom. He begins personalized learning time by leading his class in discussions about learning styles and preferences—for example, the students share methods that have helped them learn. Mr. Summers also shows class-level data from the PLP so that his students can gauge their overall progress, which in turn increases their motivation and accountability.


We remain inspired by just how far students go when they can take hold of the wheel and drive their own education.

Reflecting on learning has also been a key part of the experience at Columbia Heights Educational Campus (CHEC) in Washington, DC. As part of an activity to introduce them to personalized learning, the students created paper airplanes, reflected on the learning strategies they used to make the planes, and planned how they would apply them during their deeper learning projects. CHEC teachers designed the activity with their student population in mind, and they continue to adapt Summit’s personalized approach, learning resources, and tools to their school’s unique context.

And, at Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, teacher Caitlin Ross has created a goal-setting document to guide her students through self-directed learning and allow her to provide feedback on each student’s goals and plans. The document has caught on with other teachers as well, and now students consistently use the time management and goal-setting tool across their subject areas.

We’ve also seen schools collaborating closely to share lessons learned. In Rhode Island, three schools (two district and one charter public school) are working together on professional development to ensure that personalized learning is successful.

These experiences—and the inspiring work happening in all 19 Summit Learning Program schools—demonstrate that personalized learning can work in a variety of school settings. We’re thrilled to be able to expand the Summit Learning Program to more schools in the fall of 2016.

At Summit, we are energized to see personalized learning catch on across the country. What was once a collection of individual schools trying new approaches has coalesced into a community of practice where educators across the country gain insights from each other. This dynamic collaboration within the education community has been incredibly exciting, and it is helping us continue to improve the Summit Learning Program to meet schools’ ever-evolving needs. We remain inspired by just how far students go when they can take hold of the wheel and drive their own education.

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