By Julian Cortella

Why I love my school - and why I'm leaving 

I love Summit Prep Charter School.  For seven years, I have toiled, sweated, and laughed as I have worked to get hundreds of kids into college.  I have taught algebra 1 and 2, geometry, and AP Calculus - both AB and BC.  I have been the official mentor to two different groups of students and the unofficial mentor of dozens more.  I have visited kids in the hospital, I have helped runaways reunite with their parents, and I have bailed kids out of jail.  I have spent multiple wedding anniversaries on camping trips and I have missed family dinners for expulsion hearings.  It has been the most stressful, lowest paying, and best job I have ever had.

Unless you have been a teacher, you do not understand the rewards that come from making connections with kids that aren't your own.  The love I feel for these kids, the heartache I share with them, and the joy I experience from seeing these kids grow has enriched me more than I ever imagined it could, far more than the wealth I gained from my previous career as an engineer.

I love my job.  And I am leaving it.

I came to Summit because it was an oasis in a vast desert of public schools that have lost their way.  Unions and administrators alike at my previous school were focused on their bottom lines, whether or not these bottom lines had anything to do with the best interests of the students in their schools.  Unions hellbent on protecting teachers and their salaries, administrators evangelizing about the importance of test scores; no one asking if students were really learning or really enjoying learning.

Summit has been a community of teachers and students working in common to provide the best college preparatory education possible in the the Bay Area on the pittance known as the revenue limit funding of California public schools, less than $7,000 per year.  It hasn't been easy, but for three years in a row we have been named one of U.S. News and World Report's top 100 public schools. Newsweek magazine named us one of the top 10 transformative schools in the country.  This year, 100% of our sophomores passed the California HS Exit Exam, unheard of in a Title 1 school.

While Summit's stats are impressive, even more impressive - and more important in my opinion - is the community we have established.  Because we draw students from all over San Mateo County, our student body is incredibly diverse.  There is no ethnic majority and the socio-economic status of the student body is even more diverse than their ethnicities.  And it's important to note that, because we don't track, each and every classroom is equally diverse. This past weekend, I hosted an AP test prep party at my house for my AP Calculus students.  Twenty-one students took me up on the voluntary retreat.  For nearly twenty-four hours, students worked together on calculus, swam in my pool, did more calculus, played an impromptu game of "red light-green light", tackled even more calculus, hung around the campfire, did yet more calculus, and generally had a great time.  This group of twenty-one students consisted of  seven latinos, three asians, a pacific islander, eight white kids, and a couple of kids whose ethnicities would trip me up if I tried to guess.  It was a very special weekend illustrating the power of community on learning, learning that extends well beyond the textbooks.  These kids enjoyed each other and worked their butts off at the same time - together.  They are kids whose paths would never cross in most any other school, all working towards a common goal.  I simply cannot imagine such a scene repeating itself at any other high school I know.

And I doubt it will ever happen at Summit again, either.

You see, Summit itself has been co-opted; we have been a victim of our own success.  We are growing - we'll be opening our fifth and sixth schools next year - and as a result, we have grown into the bureaucracy I left when I came to Summit.  Even worse is that this bureaucracy is being run by "reformers" and "innovators".  The "Global Education Reform Movement" or GERM as Pasi Sahlberg refers to it, has taken over Summit Public Schools.  Well-meaning but (and I mean no offense by this) ignorant reformers are dictating the future direction of our school.  Summit is glomming on to the latest ideas in "competency-based learning" and technology in the classroom while community and enjoyment of learning are secondary.  People who focus on quantifiable results will never see what I saw happen in my backyard this past weekend.

Furthermore, Summit is being irresponsible in its implementation of these new ideas in education.  Perhaps the day will come when I am proven wrong in my estimation that this individual-focused movement does more harm than good, but until that day comes, dismantling one of the best systems known to anyone will certainly do harm in the short-term and perhaps in the long-term.  Why does anyone feel it is best to work alone?  Education should not be an individual sport.

Summit Public Schools (SPS) has been doing a great job documenting data and student feedback on their pilot program in San Jose, and they have been making nearly continuous iterations in the model to improve it over the past year.  But it isn't ready, and the quantifiable data isn't as good as the data coming from Summit Prep (the original Redwood City School that I work at).  By their own measures, SPS data indicates Summit Prep students show greater improvement and have higher test scores than do their counterparts in the San Jose schools, despite the fact that all San Jose students are working on math two hours a day.

I like the idea of students working on what they need to best help them learn each and every day, as competency-based learning offers, but there are larger issues that competency-based learning misses out on.  In my AP Calculus class, there are students who honestly would never get to that level of a class in a competency-based model - at least not in a four-year high school program - and that is what makes my class so special.  There are students discussing high-level analysis problems that can't really factor a quadratic equation consistently.  But think about it - what's more important to these kids once they get out of high school - analyzing the rate at which a graph is changing or factoring a quadratic?  Which are you more likely to encounter and need in the "real world"?  These students will unlikely become engineers, but they will be able to see a graph of a stock's price and argue intelligently about the rate of growth of that stock.  They can describe inflection points and local versus global maximum values.  Would they have been able to do that if they had been locked in a competency-based program which forces them to master each and every Algebra 2 standard before they move on?

But I haven't gotten to the real reason I'm leaving yet.

Believe it or not, I feel if there is a school that can pull off competency-based learning and maintain some aspects of a community-focused - rather than individual-focused - program, it's Summit Public Schools.  They are very thoughtful, intelligent, and experienced educators.  Most are former classroom teachers.  My primary objection to what is happening to Summit, and reason I am leaving, is that I have next to zero say in how this transition takes place.  When I started working at Summit, teachers developed curriculum, hired other teachers, developed school calendars and policies, reviewed budgets, and generally ran the place.  Now, decisions are made from on high, consensus is lip service, and dissent is silenced.  When I spoke up in January that I felt there is no compelling evidence to make a switch to the SPS competency-based model, I was nearly fired. That is not an exaggeration.

Teachers have somehow lost the respect of our society, and this is the number one reason teachers leave the profession before five years.  It is why it has become harder and harder to attract highly-intelligent, highly educated people to the profession.   It can hardly be called a profession; we aren't treated as professionals.  Competency-based and online education seem to be dedicated to taking the teacher out of the equation.  But it's through my relationships with my students that I find my greatest joy and my greatest successes.  There is research to back-up my own observations as well; my students learn because I know them and I know what they need - both in the classroom and outside the classroom.  I spend time with them and I get to know them.  And I grow to love them.  This will not happen in an individually-based, online-centered system.  And Summit will be making the transition to this system regardless of what the teachers at the school believe is best.

I have been depressed ever since I announced I was leaving.  Every time I think of the current Summit kids who I will not get to teach I get choked up.  I am moving on, but I feel like I am turning by back  on the school I love so much.