College Bound in 2020: Summit Charter Schools Deliver College-Preparatory Programs That Work, Even During COVID-19

Aug 14, 2020 | Blog

Founding Summit

Summit Public Schools was founded 17 years ago by a passionate group of parents who believed that zip codes and test scores should not determine who is ‘successful’ after high school. Established first in California, Summit has grown to include three charter public schools in Washington – high schools Summit Olympus in Tacoma and Summit Sierra in Seattle, and Summit Atlas in West Seattle which serves middle and high school students.

In its earlier years, Summit featured a traditional, highly rigorous academic college-prep program. It used advanced placement curriculum with all the supports necessary for every student to achieve success and be academically prepared for college. Indeed, Summit’s early graduating classes saw nearly all students accepted to at least one four-year college. 

What Summit was not prepared for was their graduates’ reflections on college after leaving the high school program – 55% of their students graduated from college after 6 years. At the time, that was twice the national average and nearly eight times greater for low-income and minority students. But it wasn’t enough–the vision is that all students succeed. 

One of the things Summit heard from their alumni was that we held their hands too much to get them to the finish line. That realization led Summit to redesign the student experience to actually help them develop the habits and skills they needed to persist in college and in life. 

Pivoting to Support Long-Term Success in College and Life

With this feedback, Summit made critical pivots in how they engaged students in building positive habits that helped them succeed while preparing to learn independently in a college setting. Summit students must not only meet academic standards, they need to master Habits of Success – establishing goals, building perseverance, delivering clear communication, and using self-reflection to plan and achieve goals. These changes have made a huge difference for students.

Now, Summit’s new model takes into account the learning science for the whole child. This supports the school’s mission of ensuring every student is equipped to lead a fulfilled life — one with purpose, financial independence, community, strong relationships, and health. 

The rigorous academic model is still in place: small classes, all kids take AP classes, and all kids have mentors to guide theirlearning experience in both the middle and high school programs.

But Summit has added a critical component: Habits of Success. Summit is more deliberate in building important life skills – communication, adaptability, goal-setting, and building plans to achieve those goals. Students refine skills, practice them, and get feedback from mentors during their Summit journey. 

Summit proudly shares its own learning curve with students because it demonstrates how important it is to adapt and be flexible when working towards one’s goals.

The Summit Process Worked for College-bound Ndalo Mwamba 

Each Summit student leaves having developed a plan toward their personal goals after graduation. Students along their path can say “this is what I want to do, and this is how I get there,” because of the skills they learned at Summit. And if a plan needs to change, they know it’s okay because they can pivot. And, they’ve practiced changing their path toward a goal many times before.

Ndalo Mwamba

Building these skills helped Summit Sierra student, Ndalo Mwamba. 

Ndalo came to Summit Sierra after a very difficult middle school experience. “I was prepared to drop out,” said Ndalo.

She came into high school with expectations that school would be like the movies and TV.

“I saw that there were certain social standards that teenagers had to meet – Getting a license, an invite to parties, cliques, clubs and sports – American media is very misleading,” said Ndalo. “At Summit, it was 75% work, 25% fun.” 

This was a lesson in resilience – a core practice for all students as part of Summit’s 16 Habits of Success.

Ndalo settled into her rigorous coursework. It was harder than she thought, but she had to work through it. Ndalo was grateful that Summit provided her with the tools and people to help.

For Ndalo, learning good studying habits was an important challenge. Because the Summit program allows students to go at their own pace, Ndalo had to regularly plan her study time to meet her goals. This process allowed her to sit down and really focus on what she was learning, so not to race through coursework and miss critical information. 

Goal-setting was one of the most effective tools Ndalo learned at Summit Sierra. Every day, she – like all Summit students – set a goal before classes. It had to be clear, concise, and explanatory of what you were doing. Oh, and it has to have a time limit. “Goals are meaningless without a time limit,” said Ndalo. 

Goals and time limits are important tools for Ndalo, who describes herself as a social butterfly. These tools keep her grounded and focused on the task at hand. It’s also what she hopes will serve her well in her college years.

When COVID-19 shuttered in-school learning, Ndalo experienced another lesson in making a pivot during her high school learning journey. She was now prepared with adaptive skills to spend the last months of her senior year in Virtual School. Summit was also well positioned with much of their curriculum already built in technological tools. For Ndalo, the preparation made learning in quarantine easier. 

She graduated this Spring and heads to the University of Washington for fall of 2020.

How Summit Adapted to COVID-19 

“What’s interesting about Summit – we pivoted to virtual and we didn’t have to compromise parts of our student experience,” said Malia Burns, Summit Public Schools Senior Director of Schools: Washington. “Because shifting based on student needs is part of our DNA, our community was able to shift well.”

So well in fact, that Summit schools started hearing from families. 

Parents love the philosophy behind Summit’s program, but in quarantine they got to see it in action at home. When families first set up a learn and work from home space, they often co-located so parents could oversee their kids schooling activities. What parents quickly discovered was that their Summit students were able to self-regulate and lead their own education. 

For the Class of 2020, it was a success. Students completed their high school curriculum and a majority were accepted into college. Summit Olympus in Tacoma had a 100% college acceptance rate; Summit Sierra in Seattle had a 97% acceptance rate. 

Summit also recognizes that a student may choose a different path after high school. What they want is for every student to leave prepared to live their lives to the fullest. 

“Summit’s graduating class has chosen to not only persevere to finish high school strong, but they also leave with plans to fulfill their dreams despite the current uncertainties of our daily life,” said Malia. “They’re proving that goals don’t need to change simply because the path to achieving them does.”    

Ndalo Prepares for College during COVID

Headed to University of Washington this fall, Ndalo is looking forward to exploring a possible major in psychology. 

“I’m actually pretty nervous about college right now. I did well in high school, but college is another ball game,” said Ndalo. “I am trusting in my abilities and hoping to develop the best study methods I can.”

With COVID-19 keeping her from an in-person college experience, she is also making another pivot in her expectations for college life. Much like her expectations for high school were quickly re-routed, so too has her idea of college. But, Ndalo has developed the resilience to know that a change in circumstance does not have to stop her from achieving her dreams. 

“At the end of the day I’m looking forward to getting my degree and starting my career,” said Ndalo. “I am preparing for the same intensity and academic rigor I had in high school. I’m on task and ready for 95% focus on school.”

In the meantime, Ndalo is taking this summer to relax and recharge before the fall semester. 

Looking back on her experience at Summit Sierra, Ndalo was happy to have built valuable friendships and bonds, including with several of the staff and teachers at the school. She refers to many of her friends as her brothers and sisters. She is also deeply grateful to school leaders Dr. Gore, Ms. Burns and Mr. Effland as well as her mentor Mr. Irvan

“It was an amazing struggle – in the best way possible,” said Ndalo.