"My brain is tired": One family’s experience with 4 months of Summit Learning Platform

A little over 4 months ago I engaged in a struggle I had not expected. My eldest son, now in 6th grade was faced with a drastic change in curriculum which has not been announced until after the year had already started. All of us have been very excited about his transition from Elementary School to Junior High, which had a good reputation, and did not anticipate the challenge we were about to face.

He had sensed the problem right away, the day the program was presented and, when I asked him how his day went, the answer was short: “horrible”. That is atypical for him and I asked him to elaborate. He told me that he cannot give me all the details because the program is so new that nobody knows exactly what they are expected to do, but that he has a bad feeling about it and that he will spend most of his time in school in front of a computer. This is a child who is quite computer savvy and I would have expected him to rejoice in the fact that the school seemed to legitimize his constant quest for more computer time. But he did not. I decided not to jump to conclusions, although I know that his instincts, when it comes to his studies, usually serve him well.

Over the next 6 weeks, I became familiar with the Summit Learning Platform, and I went to every presentation the school offered, including the option of observing a class in session. By then, I had also started to review the resources provided for each subject and I became extremely angry when I realized what a travesty of education these children were offered without any possibility of recourse. The videos were so poor, that some of them were eventually taken down, but that was after the parents started to complain. Nobody actually reviewed and properly vetted the content. There was no cohesion in the material. The so called “resources” represented a potluck of factoids and soundbites pertaining to the subject, which did not provide any background or real understanding of the issues. Many teachers were essentially becoming glorified proctors and were only there to “open” the tests. Many of them did not even open them when requested, which made many students fall behind. Suddenly, my son did not have any homework anymore and was less and less able to tell me what he was learning about. I realized how alone he had become. He had no guidance or support from his teachers and I, with a full-time job and another son, in third grade, who required my attention, could not compensate for the loss at school. I offered him the option of transferring him to one of the few private schools in our area, or being cyber-schooled, but he refused both options. He did not want to be separated from his friends. Eventually, the children already versed in video-games started to “play” the system and continued to have decent grades. The other ones, suffered.

I am not an “activist” by nature and I did not need “a second job”, but when my son’s education had been attacked and undermined by the very people who were supposed to promote it, what could a mother do? Luckily, I was not the only one who felt like that and, with a group of dedicated parents, we started the fight against this unfortunate experiment which was forced upon our children. The struggle included a lot of research, letters to the School Board, and many hours spent in meetings where our complaints were initially dismissed and belittled.

In the meantime, I have seen my son, previously extremely engaged and seeking out knowledge and information on his own, becoming extremely disinterested even in reading fiction. He would just come home and often did not really want to do much of anything. In his own words: “my brain is tired”. He started getting headaches and was clearly less patient and more irritable. He admitted that he was not happy and 3 months into the school year he told me that, if I still wanted to cyber-school him, he would not be opposed to that. I knew his social life was not the problem, but rather Summit. His grades had not suffered either, but his personal satisfaction in his own work had. He has seen his colleagues taking tests over, and over again, being taught to the test when they continued to struggle, and he missed a real, meaningful communication with his teachers. He is a very intelligent and resourceful 11 year-old, but he was not ready to become his own 6th grade teacher.

The idea of allowing students to take the tests numerous times brings back the video game theme: in a game, when you “die”, you “respawn”. In Summit, when you fail, you just take the test again. And again. The teachers, now known as “facilitators”, act as puppeteers who make sure no one fails. No one seems to be bothered by the fact that failure has its uses. It is a red flag, for the teachers, for the parents and a painful, but useful tool for the students themselves. Failure allows us not only to improve ourselves, but to develop the emotional strength to pick ourselves up and find a better way to succeed. If we do not learn that when we are young, we may fall apart later in life when we are inevitably confronted with it and there are no more puppeteers around.

After months of arguments and meetings, our pleas eventually could not be ignored any longer and the administration decided to reduce the use of the Summit Platform from 4 core subjects, to only 2. I was disappointed. It meant that the program stayed in the school district, which means other students will be affected by it. At least, next year, it will be an “opt in only” option. For my son, this was “something”. I voiced my concerns and he answered practically: “still, it is better than nothing”.

Once Social Studies has been removed from the Summit Program, my son was exposed to the normal curriculum and textbook.  The first day he saw his Social Studies textbook was the first day I had seen him excited in months. “I can’t believe how much we missed! There is so much stuff we have not even touched upon!” It is not clear if they will go back and try to compensate for it, but he can at least read through some of the material. His own estimate is that during the time they used the Summit Platform they learned about one quarter of what they learned last year in the same time span.

It is still too early to decide if and how much of this school year can still be salvaged, but he is already happier, he has restarted reading and his sense of humor is surfacing again.

I have promised both my sons that they will never be faced with this program again, regardless of what I have to do to keep that promise. And if the administration of this district finds another way to push this agenda, home-schooling and even relocation are options still on the table.

Mihaela Nowak