March 14, 2016

How This Bay Area Charter School Network Is Reinventing Education

By Transcend

Diane Tavenner scanned the list of names a staffer at Summit Preparatory Charter High School had just handed her. She began to cry. They weren’t happy tears.

Where many would see signs of success, Tavenner saw failure.

“I taught those kids,” Tavenner said of that moment in 2011. “I was their principal, I was their mentor. I knew everybody personally — and their families.”

Tavenner had founded the award-winning Silicon Valley school in 2003. With its nontraditional approach to teaching, it quickly grew into a network of seven privately run, publicly funded charter schools across the Bay Area. The Summit network also has two schools in Washington state.

Every student is assigned a mentor from Day One, and they meet weekly to talk about school and home life.

All students, not just those teachers deem creative, can take art, yoga or film classes, and get involved in learning “expeditions,” often taught by experts in community orchestras or museums.

And teachers don’t rely on the rote drills that can take up so much classroom time when schools in poor neighborhoods fixate only on improving test scores.

By 2010, this approach had led to impressive test scores, even among children who typically struggle in school. National education experts singled out Summit’s teachers and administrators for recognition. And in a state where many view the high school dropout rate as scandalous, virtually every Summit student graduated.

But the list of names Tavenner scanned about five years ago told a fuller story. Almost half of Summit students who went on to college failed to make it all the way through.

“I knew it wasn’t because they didn’t want a college degree,” Tavenner said. “Or because they had some other fabulous opportunity.”

Many of the schools’ funders and supporters were thrilled with the numbers, Tavenner said. “We were like, ‘Whoa, stop. We need to go back and figure out what we can do to set those other 45% up for success.'”

So, less than 10 years after opening its first school in Redwood City, Calif., with the goal of reinventing high school, Summit set out to reinvent itself.

By: Nichole Dobo


Transcend supports communities to create and spread extraordinary, equitable learning environments.

Stay Connected

Transcend is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit that operates nationally.