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Reaching the summit?

Chad Frey
cfrey@thekansan.com
Summit Learning, an online learning tool created by the founders of Facebook, was first launched in the Newton School District at Chisholm Middle School in 2018 as part of a school redesign effort.

Summit Learning, an online learning tool created by the founders of Facebook, was first launched in the Newton School District at Chisholm Middle School in 2018 as part of a school redesign effort.

Implementation has been less than smooth.

The learning system drew fire from parents during the 2018-19 academic year — and some parents told The Kansan they withdrew their students from the district because of the teaching tool.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic led to the shuttering of school buildings last year, and more online learning this year. As a result, more parents have experienced Summit, first-hand.

Not all of them are happy.

“I am seriously worried if these kids that have been forced to use summit the past several years will succeed in high school and beyond,” said Amanda Buffalo, the parent of an eighth-grader. “I have done research and there is not strong evidence that this is a successful educational platform.”

She said students are taking the same assessment test repeatedly, and that some students are not getting what she believes is meaningful feedback from teachers.

And students are falling behind.

Her message was heard during the public comment of the most recent board of education meeting — and during that meeting a school building administrator from Chisholm presented numbers that backed up her assertions of kids falling behind.

“Our first quarter data showed student work completion in Summit Learning and our overall academic progress during the first nine weeks of school was lacking and not providing a quality education for our students,” said Joey Menniga, assistant principal to Chisholm Middle School.

According to Menniga, on Nov. 9 there were 1,211 incompletes out of a possible 1,835 possible grades — 65% of assignments were incomplete.

“When we looked at the end of quarter grades, and some other things like feedback from parents, we were aware that things were not going real well out there,” superintendent Fred Van Rankin said.

The first year the program was used building-wide was last year — and that year was interrupted by pandemic. With the pandemic continuing, planning for the school year focused namely on safety procedures to protect student and teacher health.

Menniga said some things — like parent meetings about Summit — were not part of the process of launching school as schools worked at a new way to deliver educational service.

“Teacher workloads increased dramatically in order to educate our students in a variety of learning modes,” Menniga said. “Before the pandemic our educational system had evolved over the course of 120 years. And now we had to try and completely change what we have done in about six months.”

Online learning has exacerbated some issues at Chisholm — and some of the changes coming down the pipeline to help students extend beyond Summit Learning.

“Not all of the issues are associated with Summit, quite frankly,” Van Rankin said. “Some of the things they are looking to do, requiring students, when they are off site, to be synchronous. That means they will log in at the same time as the class period with their teachers.”

That allows for direct instruction, rather than watching a video lesson. Students will be expected to follow the same bell schedule observed at school.

Summit Learning was implemented to help students move at their own pace to learn skills, apply those skills to real world projects and reflect on their learning. Another facet of the model is to have one-on-one mentoring sessions with teachers each week. Parents have said that was not happening on a regular basis.

“An awesome feature within the summit platform is the ability to use student performance data to meaningfully group students into workshops based on deficiencies related to their academic performance,” Van Rankin said.

That was something that was not really happening this fall.

At Chisholm, action was taken this month to change that with the creation of “Workshop Wednesdays.” The first of those days was hosted Nov. 18, the last Wednesday before Thanksgiving break.

Those workshops are supposed to be based, at least in part, on student assessments in Summit. Buffalo asked the board of education how many times a student should take a given assessment — having watched her children take the same assessment as many as six times.

Menniga said that was an area where things were not working correctly as school launched and that a student should not take an assessment more than three times — something the workshops are designed to address.

“It involves mastery learning, so we don’t just go over some fast, and if you missed it, too bad and move on,” Menniga said. “We get to go back and work on the assignment until the student can master it and learn the information.”

The goal is personalized learning, and the goal of the Wednesday Workshops is to allow students to focus on problematic areas.

“We are excited about that,” Van Rankin said. “We think these changes will make a difference, but we also know there are concerns out there about the platform on the part of parents and we are going to keep working on those issues this year,“

That first workshop day, Menniga said, was effective when coupled with other changes like synchronous logins and increased communication with parents.

That number of incompletes fell to 1,056 out of 1,832 possible grades — a 57% rate.

“You can see that in a little over a week, we have positive results,“ Menniga said.

Grades have improved as well. On Nov. 9 the school had 308 D’s, and 1,001 F grades — 34% of the grades issued at Chisholm. Ten days later, those numbers changed to 249 D’s and 874 F grades — 30% of grades issued.

“Those numbers are shocking, and that is why we are trying to make changes and adjust,” Menninga said.

Concerns with Summit Learning have been raised in other school districts as well. Parents expressed concerns over advertising and other issues to the McPherson Board of Education last year. In May, the board of Wellington schools responded to concerns about Summit Learning by eliminating the curriculum for its schools.

“We need to a better job with parents of informing you how to really engage in that content with your students to where you can help your students to ask really good questions,” Van Rankin said.

The first quarter has been a struggle, according to Menniga, due to a lack of consistency in scheduling.

The school district has moved between learning modes — students in school every day, students in school two days a week and students online only — multiple times.

“That is no one’s fault. It is pandemic. It just happened,” Menniga said. “Also, asynchronous instruction. ... We found out that did not work very well for middle school students. They struggled to stay engaged while learning at home.”

Eliminating the a-synchronous login and instruction has led to improved attendance. On Nov. 5 the school had recorded 66 unexcused absences — mostly due to missed check-ins. On Day 1 of the new policy, there were eight.

“That is an immediate change,” Menniga said.

The district will be hosting a Zoom session at noon Dec. 14 for parents to give help with Summit Learning. For links to the Zoom meeting, email info@usd373.org.