Having heard a number of complaints from parents around USD 373 regarding the implementation of Summit Learning at recent meetings, the Newton Board of Education tackled the topic head on this week — with a discussion on Summit being presented as an official agenda item and input being heard from district administration and building staff.
Over the past two meetings, parents have voiced concerns over the educational atmosphere being created following the adoption of the Summit Learning model. Some of those parents (i.e. Jessica Taylor, Elisha Blount, etc.) were back to raise additional points this week. Taylor pointed to the state assessment scores in particular, having found (based on the most recent data from the Oklahoma State Department of Education) that one of the schools — Oklahoma's Adams Elementary — USD 373 teachers visited while researching Summit tested well below state averages, finishing in the 27th percentile in math (versus 65th), 30th percentile in ELA (versus 70th) and 26th percentile in Social Studies (versus 69th).
New voices were also raised in the outcry against Summit. Some — like Brenna Haines, a parent of a Santa Fe student — were concerned about the clear communication of progression as far as parents, students and teachers being on the same page. Others, like Melody Christin, pointed to flaws in the overall structure.
"It was sold as a bill of goods that sounds excellent. If it was genuinely student-based and student led, then my student wouldn't be waiting on the teacher to give him the go ahead," Christin said. "I really wish he could find a way to communicate with his teachers and be on the same page as them."
Among the concerns raised about Summit, there was also some support voiced by one family (both student and parent) who saw value in the structural change — with the student ownership also sparking more investment from the parent.
"Now you have to be focused because you are in charge of your learning," said Santa Fe sixth-grade student Abram Wall. "I am feeling like I am learning more than I was last year."
"It has been a big learning curve I think — for teachers, for parents, for students — but I feel like I'm more in touch with what my student is learning than ever before," said Karin Kaufman Wall, Abram's mother. "I believe that we as parents need to be actively engaged in our students' education and this platform has improved my ability to do that."
Speaking to the concerns raised during the official board discussion, Superintendent Deb Hamm first wanted to point out the similarities between both parents and teachers when it comes to education — notably that both parties are heavily invested in the success of the students.
"They (parents) want our staff to recognize that each student who comes to them is an individual and that we need to look at the individual needs of the student. ... Guess what, teachers want that, too," Hamm said. "We have those things in common."
While there were some areas highlighted where the implementation of Summit could arguably use some fine-tuning (i.e. communication with parents, understanding data privacy, pacing of instruction, etc.), Hamm noted that is an ongoing learning process for all involved.
Mentoring, for example, has been brought up in multiple concerns raised by parents — with the current model, it has been stated, not allowing for the one-on-one mentoring time promised. Hamm pointed out that class size may be impacting that (noting that schools successfully implementing one-on-one mentoring had classes of about 20 students), while Santa Fe assistant principal Brandon Cheeks said staff has been trying to adapt to get that time in where possible — like among interest-based groups or at check in/check out during the school day.
Board member Jennifer Budde also expressed concerns about the mentoring commitment not being met and asked about spreading that out among the entire building staff.
"I don't think that it's fair to just throw everything on a classroom teacher," Budde said.
Screen time and direction from teachers have also been common complaints brought up to the board, but multiple teachers from both Santa Fe and Chisholm Middle School noted the model is pretty fluid in how they choose to adapt in in their classroom.
Teachers said they are getting one-on-one time with their students (some more so than in the past) and can decide whether to utilize online resources or get their classes involved in more hands-on projects. The experience has not been much different than other curriculum implementations, according to Santa Fe sixth-grade math and science teacher Nick Sisson.
"Ultimately, it's pretty similar to what I experienced when we used Engage New York or what we used before that," Sisson said. "It is a challenge, it's new, but it's not as different as what everybody thinks it is. It incorporates a lot of the same stuff that we've done in the past."
Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services Sheila Wendling also made note that Summit Learning is not the "curriculum," which has been a point of some confusion (especially regarding complaints that the curriculum does not meet state standards, which administration noted is not the case).
USD 373 has a district-wide curriculum and Summit ties into that, but Hamm made clear that it does not supplant that.
"We use it as a resource," Hamm said. "Teachers are encouraged to use supplemental materials as needed in order to make sure that we are addressing our district curriculum first and foremost."
Questions were again raised on whether the middle school model was the most effective atmosphere in which to implement Summit Learning, but board member Toby Tyner pointed out this was a model the building staff got behind with confidence — and there is ongoing professional learning to help continue integrating Summit Learning more seamlessly.
Tyner shared some potential trepidation about having the handful of concerns voiced become the narrative, given that they are coming from a small sample size of parents. Conversely, parent Jennifer Rose left a note on the door before leaving the BOE meeting warning the board of doing the same with the educators' perspectives, stating "you're only getting a few stories from the teachers."
Continued communication is something Tyner, board president Matt Treaster and other BOE members agreed will be key moving forward, with Treaster noting he expects this to be a back and forth dialogue as the district continues to work through the implementation of Summit. Board members encouraged the district, building staff and parents continuing to work together (i.e. meeting with site councils, building leadership, etc.) to help make the educational atmosphere the best it can be.
"Our educators have to go through a learning process and increase their skills in doing that process," said board vice president Carol Sue Stayrook Hobbs, "so I'm hoping that we can give our buildings and educators that grace to go through it knowing that they share that same goal of doing what is absolutely best for each child in the classroom."
"Right now, I feel like we're trying to address questions as they come rather than a collaborative approach," said board member Angela Becker. "I think we could work together to really fine tune this and get the best out of this for our district."