Building the 3.0 High School: How Summit Basecamp Schools Pairs Teaching With Technology
The documentary Most Likely to Succeed, released in 2015, focuses on the educational revolution of High Tech High, a charter school in San Diego that was established in 2000 and has since expanded to 13 schools, including those for elementary and middle school students.
An early indicator of High Tech High’s potential was the school receiving a grant from the NewSchools Venture Fund.
Larry Rosenstock, the founder, has created a truly unique vision for education. The classrooms do not adhere to traditional subjects, teachers have annual contracts, and there are no bells to signal the beginning and end of periods. The entire learning experience is project-based, with the aim of developing important skills such as collaboration, time management, resourcefulness, and resilience. In essence, High Tech schools are a pioneering example of student-directed learning, predating the adoption of similar approaches by other schools. The documentary is highly recommended, and visiting one of Rosenstock’s schools is worthwhile.
Although there are now numerous school models that have caught up to and even surpassed High Tech High in terms of promising visions for education, some of these models may be easier to replicate. Many of these schools receive support from Next Generation Learning Challenges, which is funded by the Gates Foundation and focuses on next-generation philanthropy.
To provide insight into the future direction of charter schools, my book The Founders: Inside the Revolution to Invent (and Reinvent) America’s Best Charter Schools profiles four charter schools that qualify as next-generation schools. More information about these schools can be found on The Founders microsite. In this text, I will specifically discuss Rhode Island’s Blackstone Valley Prep.
Blackstone Valley Prep in Rhode Island may seem like an unusual place to catch a glimpse of the future of education when you observe a 15-year-old student working on a laptop in a converted parish school.
However, this moment represents the culmination of various factors. Firstly, Blackstone Valley Prep is already recognized for its success in attracting a diverse student body, including both middle-class and underprivileged students. Secondly, the school received a significant grant from Next Generation Learning Challenges to explore innovative approaches to high school education. Lastly, one of the most forward-thinking charter groups in the country, Summit Public Schools in California, contributed their Summit Basecamp software to the program. The software, developed with the assistance of top code writers from Facebook, offers personalized learning opportunities. Blackstone was chosen as one of the early adopters of this learning program, and although it is relatively new, it shows great promise.
The story comes together with Ray Varone, the 15-year-old student, proudly demonstrating the Basecamp program. As anyone from a certain generation who has witnessed a teenager showcasing software can attest, the initial reaction is usually, "Wait, slow down! Show me that again!"
Blackstone’s charter high school represents the cutting edge of the search for the next version of high school, referred to as Version 3.0. This school will lead us into the future of education, but where is it, and what does it look like?
Locating such a school should not be a difficult task. For the past few years, some of the brightest minds in technology and the most influential foundations in the United States have collaborated with the White House to address one of the most challenging issues in education: high school is boring.
Yes, this is not news to anyone with first-hand experience. However, the situation has only worsened over time.
While efforts to improve elementary and middle schools have shown results in test scores, the same cannot be said for high schools. High school is where many students drop out, particularly in ninth grade when they first encounter it. Obtaining a high school diploma often proves to be of little value when students attempt college placement tests. The situation has become so dire that movies are being made about it.
While it is true that there are private and affluent suburban schools where the quest to gain admission to prestigious colleges creates immense pressure, these cases are exceptions that attract significant media attention.
For the majority of high school students, the problem lies on the other end of the intensity spectrum. Low-income and minority students, who now make up approximately half of the student population in the nation, either do not attend college, quickly become ineligible for credit-bearing courses, or drop out before completion.
So, what do these brilliant innovators in high-tech school reform have in mind? There are a few places across the country where one can catch a glimpse of their ideas, and Blackstone is one of them.
In simpler terms, charter schools that focused heavily on their unique culture and significantly improved K-12 education discovered that once their students moved beyond the boundaries of that intense classroom culture, they struggled to thrive independently. To put it briefly, they lacked resilience and determination. This research prompted many impactful changes in charter schools, with KIPP leading the way. The charters concluded that a complete shift to personalized learning was necessary in order to develop the necessary independent learning skills that would guide students through their college journey, which can often be a solitary experience. The term used to describe this approach was self-directed learning.
The software called Basecamp, which Varone is currently using, completely changes the traditional approach to learning. The students have control over when and where they learn, whether it be at school or at home. Classroom time is primarily used for projects, group work, and receiving guidance from teachers on how to manage their "Personalized Learning Plan" (PLP). Unsurprisingly, Basecamp originated in Silicon Valley. Summit charter schools, which were already at the forefront of personalized learning, caught the attention of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during his visit in 2013. Zuckerberg provided a team of code writers to Summit, resulting in the creation of Basecamp, a PLP designed for students in grades 6 through 12 across all subjects.
So, what does this new learning style entail? Basecamp offers approximately 200 "deeper learning" projects and 700 playlists consisting of videos, articles, and any resource that enhances knowledge on various subjects. Basecamp is also adaptable, allowing schools to add or remove content they deem important. Blackstone made considerable changes to the math curriculum using this flexibility. For this school year, 19 schools, including Blackstone, were chosen as early adopters of this approach.
As Varone demonstrates his progress in different subjects, everything seems to blend together. His projects are color-coded to indicate whether they are still pending or completed. The core feature of the software, agreed upon by everyone, is the vertical "pacer line" that runs through all the projects. This line shows students where they stand on each assignment and whether they are ahead or behind schedule, providing a benchmark even as students are allowed to work at their own pace.
Varone proudly displays his progress on each subject, claiming that this independent approach will prepare him for college. "We’re getting used to doing this on our own, so we’ll be prepared for college. In college, teachers won’t be there asking us questions all the time, so we have to learn independently."
I agree that his response seems rehearsed, but there was nothing rehearsed about his demonstration on the Basecamp software. This was self-directed learning, which is the ultimate goal of any high school reinvention in the next generation.
When Jeremy Chiappetta, the Executive Director of Blackstone, and other educators set out to design a high school program for Blackstone students, they drew inspiration from the lessons learned at KIPP. They wanted to reshape the curriculum around developing skills that would help students succeed in college. They realized that their middle school model, while providing a strong foundation in academic skills, discipline, focus, and habits, would not be sufficient for the high school level.
Blackstone’s quest for a new model led to a $450,000 grant from Next Generation Learning Challenges and their decision to participate as an early adopter of Basecamp. This status ensured support from Summit, including training sessions and guidance from a former teacher.
As a result, Varone reviewed his PLP and felt confident that he was on top of his work and ready for college. And he didn’t seem bored at all.
According to Diane Tavenner, the founder of Summit and the chief engineer behind Basecamp, this is how the system is supposed to work. It’s about giving students ownership and responsibility while the role of the adults is to facilitate learning and act as mentors and guides.
Blackstone is one of 24 partner schools across the country involved in piloting the Basecamp platform. However, it’s important to note that Basecamp is not the exclusive model that all charter schools will adopt. According to Tavenner, there is no one-size-fits-all model. Education is constantly evolving and adapting.
This perspective aligns with the innovative mindset of Silicon Valley and the charter school movement.
This excerpt is taken from Richard Whitmire’s new book, "The Founders: Inside the Revolution to Invent (and Reinvent) America’s Best Charter Schools." More excerpts can be found at . You can also watch videos, download the book, and explore the Founders Oral History at The74Million.org/TheFounders.
Receive stories like these directly to your email inbox. Subscribe to Newsletter.