Main Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life

Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life

Diane Tavenner founded the first Summit charter school in 2003, developing and perfecting a personalized, project-based curriculum that puts students in charge of their own learning. The school developed a personalized learning plan for every student. They engaged the students by engaging them in interdisciplinary, real-world projects, rather than passively learning and memorizing in a classroom environment. They created mentorship groups, where students would talk through their goals and help each other solve problems, as well as meet one on one with their mentor, weekly. By internalizing a sense of purpose, self-direction, self-sufficiency, collaboration, students learn the cognitive and life skills needed to navigate the next phases of their lives. Virtually 100% of Summit's original 400 students went on to attend four year colleges. In the years that followed, Summit opened 10 more charter schools in California and Washington, to similar success, and national recognition. Today, Tavenner, and Summit Public Schools, are partnering with 400 public schools, across 40 states, and over 3500 teachers and 80,000 students, to bring the Summit Learning Program and teaching practices to school systems everywhere. With generous support from Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg's nonprofit organization, which calls Summit "the future of education," and over one hundred million dollars in contributions from the Gates Foundation, Summit is revolutionizing how our children are educated.
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Diane Tavenner founded the first Summit charter school in 2003, developing and perfecting a personalized, project-based curriculum that puts students in charge of their own learning. The school developed a personalized learning plan for every student. They engaged the students by engaging them in interdisciplinary, real-world projects, rather than passively learning and memorizing in a classroom environment. They created mentorship groups, where students would talk through their goals and help each other solve problems, as well as meet one on one with their mentor, weekly. By internalizing a sense of purpose, self-direction, self-sufficiency, collaboration, students learn the cognitive and life skills needed to navigate the next phases of their lives. Virtually 100% of Summit's original 400 students went on to attend four year colleges. In the years that followed, Summit opened 10 more charter schools in California and Washington, to similar success, and national recognition. Today, Tavenner, and Summit Public Schools, are partnering with 400 public schools, across 40 states, and over 3500 teachers and 80,000 students, to bring the Summit Learning Program and teaching practices to school systems everywhere. With generous support from Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg's nonprofit organization, which calls Summit "the future of education," and over one hundred million dollars in contributions from the Gates Foundation, Summit is revolutionizing how our children are educated.

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Praise for Prepared

“In Prepared , Diane makes a powerful argument that success shouldn’t be reserved for a lucky few. She clearly shows how all children can be successful, providing useful insights for how parents and schools can foster self-direction, collaboration, and reflection—the skills our children need to find purpose and fulfillment in their lives. I truly believe this is required reading for any parent or educator who is committed to developing self-sufficient children who can;  thrive as adults.”



, CEO of FirstGen Partners

“Prepared is for parents and students who are fed up with the high-stakes college admissions arms race. This book brilliantly shows how all kids can succeed in college, find a meaningful career, and live a fulfilled life.”



, psychologist at Columbia University and author of

Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined

“Diane Tavenner’s courageous book, Prepared, is an intimate portrait of Summit schools—their leaders, teachers, and children—putting into practice the science of learning and human development where environments and relationships drive the development of the brain. It is a roadmap by a passionate leader for anyone who sees the purpose of schooling as unleashing the potential of each and every child.”





, founder of Turnaround for Children and partner of Science of Learning and Development Initiative

“Prepared is a roadmap for teachers, principals, parents, and even students that paves the way for every child to reach adulthood and to thrive. Interweaving personal and professional anecdotes of how students navigate the terrain, Diane offers a new and engaging version of high school that prepares every child for college and for a fulfilled life.”



, Distinguished Research Professor, Teachers College, Columbia University

“Prepared is the conversation we should be having as a nation. In this book, Diane Tavenner shows us how authentic, real-world learning and the essential skills of self-direction, collaboration, and reflection can be nurtured both inside and outside of the classroom, giving all parents a valuable guide for helping their children to successfully take on life’s challenges.”



, Professor Emeritus, Stanford University, and president of the Learning Policy Institute

“Prepared tackles the question so many of us parents and educators are grappling with—how do we grow and develop our children and young people so that they can shape a better future for themselves, and for all of us? This immensely readable book pulls us along through Diane’s story as a student, parent, and educator who has built some of the most acclaimed schools in the world. It serves as a powerful resource for all of us.”



, cofounder and CEO of Teach For All

“This is a compelling and spot-on book from one of the field’s most innovative experts. Tavenner won’t rest until schools (and society) give young people what they need to thrive, and after reading this book you won’t be able to either.”



, associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas

“Getting students ready for a resilient, fulfilled, and happy life requires educators to think about more than just test scores—it requires a fundamental shift in how we think about a school’s role in preparing students for success. With over fifteen years at the helm of one of the most innovative school networks in the country, Diane Tavenner knows how to help schools, teachers, and families make this shift, and I’m thrilled that she’s sharing her blueprint in Prepared .”



, K–12 education program director of the Walton Family Foundation

Copyright © 2019 by Diane Tavenner

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Currency, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

CURRENCY and its colophon are trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to Summit Public Schools for permission to reprint previously published illustrations and charts. All rights reserved.


Names: Tavenner, Diane, author.

Title: Prepared : what our kids need for a fulfilled life / Diane Tavenner.

Description: First edition. | New York : Currency, [2019] | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2019010643 | ISBN 9781984826060 | ISBN 9781984826077 (ebook)

Subjects: LCSH: Individualized instruction—United States. | Education, Secondary—Curricula—United States. | Mentoring in education—United States. | Group work in education—United States.

Classification: LCC LB1031.T38 2019 | DDC 371.39/4—dc23

LC record available at

ISBN 9781984826060

Ebook ISBN 9781984826077

Book design by Jo Anne Metsch, adapted for ebook

Cover design: Evan Gaffney





Title Page


Author’s Note


Part I: Why Prepare

Chapter One: Because Graduation Should Mean More

Chapter Two: Because Good Intentions Aren’t Enough

Chapter Three: Because It’s a Solvable Problem

Part II: How to Prepare

Chapter Four: Real-World and Project-Based Learning: Speaking Out

Chapter Five: Self-Direction: The Fallacy of Sink or Swim

Chapter Six: Reflection: Max’s Mentor

Chapter Seven: Collaboration: Leave No Husky Behind

Part III: What Is Prepared?

Chapter Eight: Successful Habits: The Building Blocks

Chapter Nine: Curiosity-Driven Knowledge: The Tutoring Bar

Chapter Ten: Universal Skills: The Innovation Summit

Chapter Eleven: Concrete Next Steps: Life After Graduation


What Now: A Jump-Start to Bringing Prepared Home




Reading Group Guide

About the Author

Author’s Note

The stories in this book are all true. I have been fortunate to meet and work with a great number of dedicated educators and inspiring kids. To protect their privacy, I have, in most cases, altered names or certain identifying details.


I sabella arrived one morning at the start of Summit’s second year. She was petite, with perfectly straight dark brown hair, and deep, penetrating brown eyes. She was dressed modestly and carried a school backpack. I didn’t recognize her, so I asked if I could help her, and she politely asked to speak with the principal about transferring. “That’s me,” I said.

We sat down together and the first thing I noticed was her composure and maturity. I was struck that she was a sophomore in high school. Her voice was steady and firm, if quiet. She spoke intentionally and in a measured way, but there was an urgency and resoluteness underneath.

“I want to go to college,” she began. “I’ve heard this school is different and that you guarantee everyone will be ready for college.”

“That’s true,” I said, and held her gaze. That is Summit’s promise. She didn’t look away.

“I need a school like this. I won’t make it to college if I stay at my current school. In the past, I’ve been involved in things….” She paused and looked down at her hands before once again meeting my gaze. “With gangs. And with people who don’t want the future I want. I’m out of those things now, but at my current school those people from my old life are all around me, pulling me back every day. I don’t want to go backward. I want to go forward. I want to go to college.”

I felt myself tense up. I did not want gangs at Summit. And, sadly, I’d never met a student who had been able to escape them no matter how hard they had tried. The faces of kids from the previous schools I had worked at flashed through my mind. They all had sincere intentions, but in the end they were unable to change their trajectory, to escape a gang’s gravitational pull. I was skeptical that Isabella could. But I was having a hard time reconciling my experience with the young woman sitting in front of me. There was something about her, a steel to her resolve that made me want to believe she would do it.

I handed her an enrollment package and said that if she wanted to come to Summit, she needed to complete it and return it to me. She eagerly accepted it and began thumbing through the pages as I explained the process. It was pretty simple. We asked for standard information and would need a transcript from her current school. She nodded as she followed along, agreeing to complete the forms that evening and return the next day.

As she walked out the door, I made myself a bet that she wouldn’t return. I’d met too many kids who wanted a different pathway and would ask for help, only to fail to follow through.

I gladly lost the bet with myself the next morning when Isabella walked through the door. She had meticulously completed all of the forms and ordered the transcript from her school. It would take another day to get the transcript, but she wanted to get what she could to me right away. I flipped through the pages and got to the parent/guardian signature line. It was blank.

I turned to Isabella and pointed out she needed a parent or guardian signature. She looked at me with a determination I would come to know well and said, “I live with my grandmother. She gives me a place to stay. My parents are lost to drugs. I take care of myself.”

I nodded. “I understand, but then your grandmother needs to sign the form.”

Isabella returned every day that week until at last she had delivered everything required to enroll in high school. Each morning, I found myself hoping she would come back. And so, when I finally told her that she was ready to begin at Summit, I think my smile was as broad as hers. “You won’t regret this,” she promised.

Isabella turned out to be an excellent student. Her work was meticulous, her thinking clear, her writing advanced, her oral contributions compelling. She was equally strong in math and science and quickly became a peer to another student, Jamie. By all his teachers’ accounts, Jamie was gifted. Curious and hardworking, he excelled in all subjects in a way that made it seem as if learning just came naturally to him. He was a well-liked and respected member of the class, giving of his time and always willing to help others. Years later and a few days before graduation, Jamie would share how deeply he admired Isabella. He relished her as an intellectual peer, someone whom he sought out to help him think through arguments and to give feedback on his papers. What he so insightfully recognized was that he was not her peer in so many other ways. Jamie realized how fortunate he was to live with two loving parents, in a nice, upper-middle-class home, filled with love, food, books, and support. Jamie didn’t have to worry about taking care of himself. His job was to go to school, to learn, and to do well. Isabella’s life was much harder.

From the time Isabella entered Summit she had always worked at a local retail store near the school. But while in eleventh grade she came to ask if I had any ideas for where she could get a full-time job. Her grandmother’s home was a makeshift boardinghouse, and she expected Isabella to pay rent. Isabella also needed to buy her own food, clothes, and supplies.

I offered to help with the food and supplies, but Isabella didn’t want that. She simply wanted a job. And so I introduced her to a friend at a start-up technology company just down the street. The company was struggling to hire for a marketing position because it required a fluent Spanish speaker. They agreed to interview Isabella. I wanted to do more for her, but she did everything for herself. Give her a seat in the school and she will make the most of it. Introduce her to a company and she will get the job and excel at it, which is exactly what she did, working every evening after school.

One morning about six months after she started the job, Isabella stopped by my office as she arrived at school. She was carrying two backpacks instead of one. “I’m moving out of my grandmother’s house and want to give you my new address.”

I knew things weren’t good, but this seemed abrupt. I was worried. “What happened? Where are you going?” I asked.

“I’ve saved enough to get my own apartment. I can’t live at my grandmother’s anymore. It isn’t safe. I’m paying rent, but I often have to sleep on the floor in her room because she rents my space if she can. People steal my food and my things. I can’t sleep. I need to leave.”

“How can we help?” I asked, eager to meaningfully support her.

“You don’t need to do anything. I have an apartment and I’m moving today.”

“Well at least let us help you move,” I offered with a bit of desperation.

“It’s okay, Ms. Tavenner. This is all I have.” She pointed to the second backpack. “Can I leave it here and pick it up after school today?” I nodded, feeling a bit useless and incredibly guilty that everything Isabella owned fit into two backpacks.

“Oh, and Ms. Tavenner, I finally saved enough money to remove my tattoo. I’m starting the process this weekend.” She flashed the most joyful smile I’d ever seen from her.

It was the tattoo Isabella had gotten when she joined the gang she had been in. Like everything in Isabella’s life, she had independently done what was needed to get out of her gang. It was a harrowing experience, but one she took in stride. And now she was going to remove her last connection to the past she wanted no part of and embrace the future she was creating for herself.

In her senior year, Isabella was accepted to her first-choice college, Santa Clara University, on a merit scholarship to study business. Four years later she graduated, started her career, and created a loving family. She is now planning to start her own business.

To this day, I am inspired by Isabella. I draw strength from her work ethic and determination. I admire her vision, clarity, and the commitment she made to realizing it, no matter what. I aspire to have her level of independence and confidence.

To me, Isabella embodies what all kids want—to be able to live the life they want to live. To be happy, successful, and true to themselves. Like all kids I know, Isabella wanted an opportunity—not someone to save her.

Chapter One

Because Graduation Should Mean More

T he first Summit Preparatory Charter High School class graduated on a beautiful, sunny June day in 2007 in Redwood City, California, about a half hour south of San Francisco. This graduation looked nothing like any other school’s in the nation. There was no alphabetization of graduates by last name, no valedictorian, no outside speaker, no rushing of kids across the stage while the audience held their applause until the end. Just as we’d approached the school itself over the past four years, we wanted to do graduation differently, and intentionally.

We had a temporary campus that year, situated on a portion of the twenty-two-acre Sequoia High School grounds, and we’d borrowed the campus’s Carrington Hall for the ceremony. A historic Spanish-style theater built in the early 1920 s, Carrington had traditional orchestra, mezzanine, and balcony seating to accommodate four hundred people, and a grandeur that added a sense of seriousness and importance to the occasion. We were finally living up to the promise I had made to all of these families when they took a chance on the school. One of the things that made Summit unique was that 100 percent of Summit’s graduates met four-year-college entrance requirements (the national average was around 40 percent). And 98 percent (all that had applied) were accepted to at least one four-year college.

As the school’s principal, I gathered with the eighty graduates a good block away from the auditorium so we could line up and enter the theater without parents and family seeing us beforehand, much like a bride enters a wedding chapel. Every such decision about this day had been carefully thought through.

The graduates walked in with their mentor groups. Every student had a mentor, someone who was also a teacher, as well as a group of fifteen to twenty other students they met with throughout their school career. Our mentors had developed special relationships with the students they coached and supported. Each mentor was someone the students trusted, whom they could talk to, who cared about them and their success, who met with them daily, had eaten meals at their homes with their families, and had been their advocate. Sometimes our mentors worked with their students to clarify their academic goals. But just as often, they helped them sort through a problem at home, or navigate a stressful social dynamic.

Each of the graduates was also accompanied into the auditorium by someone who had been important to their journey in life, like a parent or relative. The mentor’s efforts complemented those of the family member; together they committed to supporting the student that day, and into the future.

I stopped to straighten ties, reposition caps, to accept hugs and pose for pictures. Isabella grinned a dimpled smile as she teased, “Ms. Tavenner, are you ever going to stop fussing over us?” I poked back, “I’m going to have to. You’re leaving me.” My heart constricted at the thought, and I moved on before my emotions began to overflow.

The building was filled to capacity. Every single person rose as one to applaud as we walked down the aisle. I watched the faces of the graduates’ parents and tried to imagine how I would feel when Rett, my son, would make this walk with me. Tonight, I spied him in the front row with his father, wildly waving his five-year-old hand to catch my attention.

When at last the deep red, heavy curtain was raised to reveal the entire class up on the stage, the crowd exploded into cheers. The fragile control I’d been maintaining broke and tears began to flow down my cheeks, just as I was called upon to speak. Fortunately, everyone was used to me. “Ms. Tavenner is a crier,” the students would explain to the new class each year. “She can’t help herself. She loves us.”

I kept my remarks brief, because the day wasn’t about me. The whole ceremony revolved around seeing each and every individual student—letting them know they were all valued and important. It was part of Summit’s mission. Each of the mentors told stories about the students in their group, and then, when each graduate crossed the stage, a projector flashed pictures of him or her first as a child, then as a senior, and an audio recording played of the student sharing a quote they’d chosen to capture their journey.

I knew these children, or should I say young adults, and their families. I knew how they thought, how they wrote, how they spoke and performed. I knew what they cared about, as well as their fears, and the habits they had formed and struggled with. I knew their dreams, and what they wanted from life. And though I’d participated in countless graduations before this one, for the first time in my career, I honestly knew they were each ready to go to college, to be an adult. As the audience departed the hall they spontaneously formed a human tunnel. When the graduates emerged, they were met with a cheer usually reserved for star athletes. They walked a long, loud, supportive gauntlet. And emerged, prepared for life.

As I watched them, marveling at how far they’d come, I recognized just how far I’d come along with them.


When I was in third grade, in the late 1970s, my teacher asked me to step out of class with her one day. She was a beautiful, young, popular teacher. She had blond feathered hair, held back in tortoiseshell combs, and wore fashionable bell-bottom jeans and tall wedge heels. She loved butterflies, which adorned her classroom, and most of the girls wanted to be just like her. In my memory, she towered above me, arms crossed, leaning against a cabinet just outside the classroom entrance. I stood before her with my head down, eyes on the ground, feeling exposed and nervous .

She spoke calmly and slowly. “Diane, I’m talking with you today because you are not paying attention. You aren’t doing your work.” She paused for a moment and I felt her stare boring into me. I braced for what was to come next. She took a deep breath and continued, “And you aren’t clean. If you don’t change your behavior, your future is not going to be very bright.”

What my teacher didn’t know as she spoke those words, delivered perhaps to motivate me or at least to scare me into action, was that there had been another fight at home earlier in the week. This one was particularly bad. My mom had been hurt, and the police had taken my dad away. This time he hadn’t returned the next morning. I was afraid. And I didn’t know what would happen when my dad finally came home. I didn’t want to be caught off guard. I wasn’t sleeping because I was anxious, forcing myself to stay awake. And I wasn’t bathing because I didn’t want to be caught exposed, unprotected. My teacher was right. I wasn’t focused on doing my work. I was dirty because I was terrified. And now I was ashamed.

But I didn’t have a voice to respond to her that day. I couldn’t tell my story. I couldn’t ask for help. I didn’t have the words or the power to change my circumstances. And so I went back into the classroom, sat apart from the other students so as to not bother them with my smell, and tried my best to complete a worksheet.

Statistically speaking, I should not be writing this book. Schools aren’t constructed to support a student like me. I shouldn’t have earned the degrees I did, gotten the jobs I’ve had, or worked with the people I’ve been so privileged to work with. I got lucky. I had some key champions during pivotal moments who saw something in me I didn’t see in myself. The bad decisions I made, born from bad circumstances, were fortunately not irreparable. I tumbled my way through school and managed to land in college, where I became a psychology major, in order to try to figure out my life and myself. In an effort to earn extra credit in a general education course, I volunteered in a local elementary school. It was there where I first experienced the joy of helping someone learn. It was a feeling I’ll never forget. It was so motivating that I took every opportunity to volunteer, often staying up late into the night to prepare lessons for “my students” while my own classwork sat untouched.

I became a teacher because I thought I could make a difference for kids like me. I thought I could know them and their stories. I imagined defending them so they wouldn’t have to experience the fear I had felt. More important, I thought I could take my degrees and training and help to change their circumstances, to break the unproductive cycles I’d learned all about and thought I understood.

In my first few years of teaching, I realized how lofty and unrealistic my goals actually were. I simply couldn’t get to know each student. So many kids came through my high school classroom in fifty-minute intervals that for every student I got to know well outside of class, there were ten that I didn’t. And when I did get to know my students and learned of their problems, I couldn’t help them in a meaningful way. What’s more—they didn’t necessarily even want me to. What they wanted was a voice and the ability to help themselves, just as I had wanted for myself .

Those early teaching years were frustrating—heartbreaking, even. I worked with kids to barely get their diploma. In the moment it felt like a huge achievement, but of course “barely” isn’t good enough to get into college, or to get a job. I encountered kids who I knew would not graduate at all, and what lay ahead for them was, to me, all too clear. Kids who drop out of high school are less likely to find jobs, less likely to earn a living wage, and more likely to be poor. They’re more likely to rely on public assistance, and more likely to suffer from health problems. 1 I knew this, and I didn’t see a way I could do anything meaningful to help. I was disillusioned. And it wasn’t just the impoverished kids who struggled. I worked in a summer reading program and encountered affluent kids who fell through the many wide cracks in the traditional teaching model. I met hyperdriven kids who it was clear to me had no interest in actually learning the material and just wanted the grade. I saw high school seniors about to leave home who I knew would flounder because they were so dependent on the adults in their lives that they couldn’t stand on their own. It seemed we were losing kids left and right. Why couldn’t we figure out how to get them ready to be adults, to thrive?


There’s a lot of finger-pointing when it comes to education. Parents are blamed for sending kids to school who are undisciplined, hungry, tired, depressed, addicted to their phones or worse. Schools are blamed for not holding high standards, not getting all kids to meet them, and not keeping kids safe. The government is blamed for not spending enough on education and causing the societal conditions that lead to poverty and the breakdown of our communities. I’m not writing this book to add to the negativity. In fact, I look at what has been accomplished in America with a sense of awe. I wonder if we are victims of our own success.

For the greater part of our country’s history, most Americans lived in poverty. I can tell you from personal experience, anyone who has ever been poor knows no one wants to be poor. When you are poor, your entire life is about surviving and trying to get yourself, or at least your kids, out of poverty. Early in the twentieth century, for the first time many Americans were offered a solid value proposition—prepare your child for the industrial economy and pull your family out of poverty. Employers needed skilled workers to fill jobs, and high school–educated workers could get jobs that moved them into the middle class. Everyone won.

One-room schoolhouses led by the most educated member of the town were replaced by a disciplined approach to ensure the basics were covered and students were prepared for factory life. The same subjects were taught the same way and for the same amount of time. Textbooks, a newer invention, were used to standardize knowledge. Bells, inspired by factory life, were meant to keep everyone on schedule, industrial lockers housed all that was personal, tests were given one time and one time only to sort and rank students. Yes, it looked like an assembly line, but most people were graduating to take just that type of job.

The trade-offs were obvious. Conformity trumped individuality. The high-performers and the low-performers on the discrete skills valued in this system didn’t get what they needed from high school, because it wasn’t really designed for them, but rather for the “majority” in the middle. Acculturation superseded cultural history and family values. The parents’ role in all of this was to ensure their child’s compliance: go to school, sit down, and shut up—or else. That child might not have been able to bring his whole self to school, but what he was getting in return—a ticket to the middle class—was worth it. They were counting on him to support the family, and perhaps someday even buy a house. That was the dream. It was real and valuable.

Not everyone would make it through high school, and that was okay, too. Even if the middle class was off limits, the farms still needed people to work them. If a high school diploma and a factory job weren’t available, another honorable path was. Society needed a system to sort out who should have which job, so “tracking” kids through school wasn’t a drawback—it was a win. Those few who were on the more elite track would sometimes go on to college, and ultimately become the managers of those who worked in the factories.

Around the later part of the twentieth century, though, the value proposition changed. We began the shift from an industrial economy to a more global economy. It wasn’t enough to get a high school degree and qualify for that factory job, because the economy became more service- and information-based. Employers changed what they wanted in workers. In the 1950s, the top skills employers wanted were: 1) the ability to work rapidly and for long periods of time, 2) memory for details and directions, and 3) arithmetic computation. 2 But according to Forbes, the employees of 2020 need: 1) complex problem solving, 2) critical thinking, 3) creativity, 4) people management, 5) coordinating with others, and 6) emotional intelligence. Employers want innovative thinking, independence, initiative. 3 These were not coveted skills in our grandparents’ time.

The impact of these economic changes reverberated. The solid American option of living off the land and farming was quickly disappearing, replaced by industrial and high-tech farming and global competition. You had to finish high school. What’s more, since it became much harder to get a good job with the skills built in high school, it was no longer sufficient to just pass—one had to do well for the chance to go on. And so began the nuclear arms race for college admissions. The highest priority became not to graduate, but to get accepted to a good college. The standard formula required good grades, good test scores, and lots of activities and extracurriculars. Be the same as everyone else, only better.

As the economy changed, we changed, too. Between 1949 and 1969, the real median family income grew by almost 100 percent. 4 For years, kids grew up to do better than their parents. Today it’s an expectation. We dream very different dreams today than we did seventy years ago, because we can—and that’s something to celebrate. It’s nearly impossible to dream of wanting a fulfilling life when you are focused on food, shelter, and clothing. But as soon as people are able to meet their basic needs they start wanting more, dreaming bigger. The factory job and home ownership aren’t enough anymore. Now we want work that’s meaningful, so we spend our days doing things that matter to us and that we like. We want to live longer, and to be healthier and more active along the way. We want close relationships with people we care about. We want to be a part of communities with people who understand and accept us. We don’t want to trade off financial stability—no one wants to take a vow of poverty in order to be fulfilled—but we’ve come to think we shouldn’t have to choose, that we should be able to have both.

Our country was founded on the premise that every American has a fundamental right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The nation has yet to live up to that promise for many of its citizens. And, while the work is unevenly distributed, parents and our education system did work together time and again to prepare kids to pursue the life they wanted. But when things changed, we didn’t adapt. In my first decade of teaching, I bore witness to the repercussions. Now, even in the “good schools” kids had to be lucky to get accepted into a top college, emerge unscathed, and feel prepared to enter the next phase of their life. For the schools that already weren’t working for kids and families, the odds were impossible. It was clear to me that luck was not a smart national strategy. There had to be a better way.


From Summit’s beginnings, we didn’t want to build something just for our children. We believed in a new version of high school to prepare every child for college and for a fulfilled life. And part of that “good” life was a world they wanted to live in. We envisioned preparing our children to be contributing members of their community, of society. We wanted to answer questions like: What skills does someone need in a rapidly changing economy? How does one prepare for a life that has financial security and meaning? How does a high school student figure out who they are and what they want out of life? What does it mean to engage in work that feels purposeful?

We knew we would first need to build a school that could do all of these things. Whatever we built couldn’t be a specialty school—it had to be both unique and totally replicable, and all done on the public dollar. We weren’t just designing a school, we were putting a stake in the ground to show what was possible in educating our kids. We were determined to create an environment that looked at the whole student, a school where every individual was known and belonged to a community. We wanted to teach kids not just what they needed to get into college, but what they needed to live a good life.

Just as important, we knew this had to be a partnership between the school and parents. Parents had to believe in the value proposition offered by the school for their child. It wasn’t okay if some kids didn’t make it. We had to create a school that focused on every single student.

Our approach was often scrappy—we learned to take advantage of free technology expertise that our home in Silicon Valley had to offer. We took notes from entrepreneurs. We worked with academics who study motivation and mindset, many of whom we cold-called or fan-stalked to make sure we were on the right track. We applied what we learned to the real, everyday work of educating students. We figured out how to help students build and practice everyday habits that support a definition of success that includes college but does not stop there. We showed that if you change the way you look at education, you can both prepare kids for admission to college, and prepare them for a good life. It is both revelatory and common sense: you actually don’t have to trade one for the other.

These ideas were great in theory, but my peers thought I was a lunatic. I would go to conferences and gatherings of school leaders in the growing movement of “college for all” and be called The Crazy Lady. After all, you didn’t get kids into college by ensuring they had a sense of purpose. There’s a tried-and-true formula for getting into college—grades plus entrance exams—and many believed our job was to simply scale it to as many kids as we could. But at some point, my peers became curious; our success at Summit was hard to ignore.

Our schools—we now have eleven in two states—have seen truly remarkable results. Again, 100 percent of our graduates are eligible for a four-year college, and 98 percent are accepted. Summit grads finish college at double the national average, and that rate is much higher for our minority students. College completion is what got everyone’s attention because that is what provides the best opportunity for economic security. But what mattered most to us was how we prepared our students for this success: by equipping each of them to live their own, unique, fulfilling life.


Summit’s success attracted national attention. We were one of five schools featured in the documentary Waiting for “Superman ,” and have over the years been recognized by both Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report in their national best high school rankings. We’ve attracted the support of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We’re often asked, “What’s your secret sauce?” I find myself at social events falling into conversations about schools and parenting. Often people are looking for tips and tricks on how to hack the system to give their own child a leg up. I think they assume because of Summit’s success, we must have figured out how to beat the college admissions game, or crack the SAT code. When people begin to spell out the problems of their schools and how they spill into their family lives, looking for me to share a silver bullet answer, I start to squirm. Over the years my husband, Scott, has become adept at softening what can sound like tough love advice, or finding creative ways to exit me from these discussions. But on one occasion I was with a handful of my closest girlfriends and he wasn’t there to intervene.

The conversation that night had revealed that many of my friends’ children were required to complete hours and hours of rote homework. The problems were the same for every student in the classroom. The kids were unmotivated, frustrated, feeling disengaged. Some of them cried, and most of them didn’t like school. Even those doing well were bored. And these kids were still in elementary school ! The moms felt exasperated. On the one hand, they knew their kids had to excel, even at this young age, if they were to have a chance at good colleges. But on the other hand the trade-offs pushed these moms to their limits. They couldn’t reconcile that their kids would have to spend their childhood hating school and the work it involved. Furthermore, these parents didn’t want to be the enforcers of things they didn’t genuinely value, just to stay ahead in the system .

When they turned to me for advice, I couldn’t hold back. “I don’t know where to begin. Everything is wrong with what you’re describing. It just needs to be completely rethought,” I said. These moms weren’t confused about the size of the problem, though. They had diagnosed and dissected it with expert precision. That’s when my friend Julie turned to me with a level of frustration and concern only a mother can have for her child and said, “Well, what am I supposed to do, Diane? I don’t know how to start a school for my child, and he can’t go to one of your schools. I bought a house in the best district we could afford, I’m spending all my time working with the school and this is what I’ve got. So what am I supposed to do?”

I was stunned. They weren’t looking for me to affirm all that was bad—they were looking for what they could do about it, right now, for their child. I felt embarrassed that I had been so insensitive. And surprised that someone would want to do what we were doing, and felt they couldn’t . The work to open our schools had been incredibly hard, with roadblocks every step of the way. So many people thought we were crazy, and were happy to tell me that. It didn’t occur to me others might not think we were crazy.

I think about what Julie said every day. How many moms are like Julie? How many parents feel the drive to ensure their child’s success is filled with trade-offs that simply don’t feel right? How many hold their breath, hoping their child will make it? And what is the cost of that anxiety, stress, and worry, on both parents and our kids?

In that moment, the only thing I could think to do was to make it an option for Julie’s school to rethink its approach. If her child couldn’t attend one of our schools, maybe his school could at least be like one of our schools. We created a program called Summit Learning, in which other schools could have access to the resources, curriculum, and tools we use, for free. Over the past four years nearly four hundred schools in forty states have taken us up on our offer. We’ve formed a community of over four thousand educators, working together to support nearly eighty thousand students. But that doesn’t seem like enough. It feels like we’re moving too slowly.


As I write this book, my son, Rett, is sixteen years old. Soon the day I could only imagine when he was an audience member at Summit’s first graduation will arrive. I think constantly about what I’ve done to prepare him for the world he’ll enter after graduation, and how Summit has helped me do so. I think of my friends in similar situations who don’t yet have a school that is partnering with them to prepare their child for college and life. What do they do? How do I answer Julie’s question?

This book is the best answer I have right now. The journey we have been on for the last sixteen years has been a quest to design a school that can truly prepare our children, all children, for the life they want to live—to be the best versions of themselves, to be successful in the fullest way possible—so they can live a fulfilled life. A life filled with financial security, purposeful work, strong relationships, meaningful community, and personal health. While what we have learned is directly applicable to how to “do” school, I believe it is also incredibly informative for how to parent.

In 2015, the magazine Fast Company named Summit Public Schools one of the most innovative education companies of the year. I find this funny, because first, we aren’t a company—we are a network of public schools. And second, we don’t think we’ve really invented anything. What we have done is take everything we collectively know about what it takes to develop whole, healthy human beings in our society today and put it all together in a coherent approach that actually works. I guess if there is any secret sauce to Summit, that is it.

This book is the story of our journey so far. What we’ve discovered from the world’s experts, but, more important, how that translates into everyday actions and choices that lead to our children being successful. It is a story of people who are searching for and finding a way to have it all—financial security, stability, and a fulfilled, meaningful life, on their terms. I also share my own journey, as a child, as an educator, and as a parent whose son is navigating his last years of high school. My hope is that through reading this book, you will connect with a community of people who believe in a new, broader definition of success, and you will know how to better prepare to reach it.

There’s so much at stake here, whether you are an educator, a parent, or just a concerned citizen. A strong and thriving democracy requires citizens who are well informed and engaged, who understand the weight of their vote and the value of their voice. In all of the partisan and ideological fights about whether America is great, we often lose the thread of what’s most important to our society—its people. In all of our concern about what the role of government assistance should be, we forget that when an individual is self-sustaining and fulfilled, they don’t need a lot of assistance. We forget that when an individual is able to live a fulfilled life, it’s good for the entire community, for our entire society. In all of our hand-wringing and fear about a nation that is spiraling down, we forget to look at what can spiral us up. My hope is that you will use this book as a handbook, as a guide, a road map, to take stock and take action. As a means to remember how much we all have to gain when a graduation ceremony celebrates our young adults, who are, in every sense of the word, prepared .

Chapter Two

Because Good Intentions Aren’t Enough

L ike many beginning teachers, I was set up to fail.

Hawthorne High School in Los Angeles felt like a prison, with ten-foot iron fences around the gigantic perimeter and a railroad track running through the middle of the campus. The entire place was physically and emotionally unsafe, marked by daily violence and regular chaos. During the five years I taught there, I became so disillusioned I wondered if there was any hope. I was assigned forty students per class in an aging and dirty facility. I taught the entire day without a break due to chronic understaffing. On my first day I was handed one ream of copy paper, a box of No. 2 pencils, and a one-inch three-ring notebook filled with handouts for which there were no directions or explanations. That was it .

Our students were set up to fail, too. They lived in a low-income community where they rarely saw healthy, happy, and financially stable people who looked like them or shared their backgrounds. Hope for a future in college and career was rationed for very few of the four thousand zoned to the school, and so it was no wonder many didn’t brave the dangerous walk to campus, and only a fraction ever graduated. And yet, a lot of students and parents still tried every single day. They didn’t have any other opportunity, so they had to make the best of this one. They needed jobs and the ability to make money if they were going to have any chance at life, and they didn’t know another way.

I chose to teach here because these kids were a lot more like me than it might seem. South Tahoe High School, where I’d gone as a teenager, was far from the large, urban Hawthorne. South Tahoe had only one thousand students and was tucked into a small mountain town. The three wings of the school were separated by a forested landscape, which was picture perfect, but cold and snowy for a good part of the year. The harsh weather and complete dependency on tourism led to a different type of primarily low-income community. For the most part people didn’t feel poor, except in contrast to the visiting wealth that came for the skiing. However, the school itself wasn’t much safer or more nurturing than Hawthorne. Fights were common, and bullying was just a part of life. I went most days without ever using the bathroom because it was crowded, smoke filled, and felt dangerous. Our lockers were the only place that felt like our own, and even those would get broken into and vandalized. During my junior year an undercover narcotics officer broke open a drug ring. There was only one honors class per grade so participation was capped.

I thought often of South Tahoe High during my time at Hawthorne. As a high school student, I felt the challenges, but I didn’t think about them. I was too busy trying to graduate and get out of town and on to a better life. I came to Hawthorne because I resonated with the students. I chose to work at a tough school in a tough neighborhood, because I thought I could help kids who were like me find a way out. I gave everything I had to my students, my classroom, and my dedicated peers. During the week I was up at dawn. I taught my heart out all day, supervised afterschool activities, and spent the evenings planning and grading. On the weekends I took classes and workshops, and later even began teaching them for others. I was constantly searching for a better way to serve my students.

On Friday afternoons, the teachers would gather at a local Mexican restaurant after what was inevitably a long, hard week. Sometimes teachers from other local high schools would join us and I started to notice a pattern emerging in the conversations. It sounded like we worked in a war zone. Our dialogue was peppered with words like “front lines,” “battle,” and “hand-to-hand combat.” I couldn’t deny it felt true and even found myself falling into describing administrators as the “enemy.” Later, I would catch myself and feel ashamed. It seemed wrong. High school is where we prepare our children to be adults. How could we do that in a war zone? And how could teachers who cared so deeply about kids become so desensitized to the horrible experience they were having each day ?

Perhaps the most disturbing thing of all was that the expectations people had for our students seemed to be lowered each week. The conversation went from preparing all kids for college, to hoping they would graduate and get a job, to wishing they could just learn to read and write a simple three-paragraph essay, to finally just praying they would survive.

I got married during my fifth year of teaching and for the first time started thinking about the prospect of my own family and children. Scott was drawn to move back near home and family in Northern California. As we dreamed and planned I said out loud for the first time what I had been thinking for a while: “Maybe when we move I’ll try something other than teaching.”

Scott looked at me quizzically. “What do you mean? You love teaching. Why would you stop?”

I hesitated. I often hid the details of my day from him. He worried about my safety and had repeatedly seen me come home devastated when one of my students to whom I’d given so much was pregnant or in jail. “I just don’t know how long I can keep doing this,” I said.

He chose his next words carefully, knowing I was sensitive when people made judgments about my kids. “Why don’t you look for a slightly different type of school when we move? A school that’s a little more…functional. Why don’t you give that a try before you leave teaching altogether?”

I nodded, but deep inside I wasn’t sure I could do it.

By May, Scott already had a job and had moved to our new home. I was finishing up the school year at Hawthorne and was scheduled to follow him in a month. I still hadn’t decided if I was going to teach or not. And then everything changed.

After a particularly demoralizing day, I walked into our apartment as the phone was ringing. It was my mother, saying she had news of my father. I immediately knew something was wrong. She had finally divorced my dad many years earlier, and he’d remarried and moved to New Mexico. I hadn’t spoken to him in years. As she talked, I sank to the floor. Her voice was shaky as she told me Laurie was dead. My stepmother, who was five years older than me and a high school dropout, had been killed in a domestic dispute with my father.

Those next few moments are among the most shameful of my life. The first thoughts and feelings that came to me as I tried to take in the news were so raw and so not the person I want to be. I was shocked, but not surprised. I had seen my father’s uncontrollable rage too many times. I was relieved. Maybe now people would believe what it had been like for me growing up. I was disgusted that I could even think such a thing. I hung up quickly.

Laurie’s life shouldn’t have ended up this way. She’d grown up in an upper-middle-class family in Connecticut. She had a beautiful home, two loving parents, and two very successful older siblings. But for some reason, school didn’t work for her. In the little time I had spent with her, she had not shared much, but said she never felt she belonged at school; she always felt stupid and bored and as if nothing she learned was relevant. Over her parents’ protests she dropped out and moved to California to find a more meaningful life. Sadly, she ended up finding my dad before she found herself .

As I walked numbly around the apartment, I wondered, what if Laurie had had a different kind of school or a different teacher? Would things have turned out the same way? I realized then there was no way I could leave my work.


When I accepted a position teaching English at Mountain View High School, in the Bay Area, I was hopeful many of the problems from Hawthorne wouldn’t be an issue on this sixteen-hundred-student suburban campus that was economically, ethnically, and racially diverse. What I wanted most was to be an effective teacher, not just for one or two kids, but for all of my students. I needed a school where there was at least a chance it could happen.

The campus was open, with kids coming and going at lunch, making their way through the surrounding neighborhood on foot, on bikes, and in cars. People calmly moved from class to class, and lazed on the grass during breaks. There was plenty of teen angst, a large and impressive marching band, and lots of sports and activities. The “typical” American high school has been represented in film time and time again, and at first blush Mountain View could have been source material for The Breakfast Club, High School Musical, or Pretty in Pink .

Many parts of my job at Mountain View were positive. For starters, I wasn’t breaking up fights between classes and the restrooms were clean and functioning. I taught classes of between twenty-five and thirty students and had access to colored paper in the copy room, which felt like an absolute luxury. Unlike Hawthorne, this place was physically safe and so free of the palpable stress that comes with trying to make it through the day unharmed. However, I quickly started to realize that when it came to opportunity for students, the two schools had much in common.

Even at Mountain View, where the school test scores were significantly higher and the academic reputation much stronger, honors and AP classes were still reserved for relatively few. The school brochures claimed 90-plus percent of graduates went on to college, but when I dug a little deeper, I discovered those statistics were based on students self-reporting their plans in the fall of their senior year. The reality was that only about 40 percent of graduates were even completing the coursework required to qualify for admission to a four-year college or university. Most of our students simply weren’t prepared for college, even though all of them entered high school wanting to go.

As a teacher I didn’t think I had the power to change these things, and it seemed obvious they needed to be changed. They were clearly impacting my students’ ability to succeed. It seemed to me the people who ran schools had that power, and so I decided I needed to become one. I enrolled in the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and simultaneously took a vice-principal intern role at Mountain View. I didn’t want to get to the place of wanting to quit again, and I also didn’t want to become complacent, so I set out to become the best principal I could be.

Everything I learned I tried to implement. But it was much easier to read about imagined and ideal systems, schools, and classrooms in a book than to create them in practice, especially as people stopped seeing me as a teacher. I walked into the faculty room one day and a group of teacher leaders asked me not to keep a desk there any longer. They explained that even though I was still teaching half-time, now that I was part of the administration they didn’t want me eavesdropping on their conversations. I was crushed. The teachers whom I had taken this job to serve now saw me as part of the problem, and everything I was trying to do to set them up for success didn’t seem either to stick or to matter much.

After my internship year I became a vice principal, and at the close of my first year in that role, our superintendent called a meeting with all of the administrators. I was the youngest and newest of the group and it seemed pretty clear people expected me to listen and not talk. The issue at hand was parent concerns about district-wide changes. The superintendent opened up a discussion about ways we might address these parents. I got caught up in the moment and blurted out, “We could have a town hall meeting and share all the reasons for the changes. Everything we’re doing is in the best interest of kids and we have good reasons. Parents probably don’t know all of this, so we just need to share it.”

The room was silent and all eyes focused on me. Without hesitation, the superintendent looked at me and said, “That is the dumbest idea I’ve heard.” He moved on. The satisfied chuckles and knowing looks from my seasoned peers were unmistakably clear in conveying the message that I had no idea what I was doing. I was embarrassed and angry. Bringing parents in and working with them wasn’t a dumb idea. After all, didn’t we all want the same thing?

A few days later the superintendent asked me to lunch to apologize. As we sat in the booth of a local sandwich shop he explained it was time for him to retire. He was frustrated and disillusioned, and there wasn’t time in his career to take a new path. He said, “If I were young and starting out again now, I would do it differently. The system is broken. It isn’t made to help all kids develop the skills and knowledge they need for the future.”

He took a bite of his sandwich, chewed thoughtfully, then said, “If I could do it over, I would start from scratch.”


Very early one morning the following fall, I headed to work as usual. I typically made the short drive around 6 a.m., because I liked arriving when the campus was quiet and still dark. I could get so much accomplished in those early hours and feel ready for a day that, once it got going, was nonstop. I planned to run an errand on the way in, but I became engrossed in the news. Before I realized it, I was in the school parking lot. I hustled into my office, pulled out a small cassette radio I still had, and plugged it in. As I tuned in, I called Scott, who was just out of the shower. “Turn on the TV. Something bad is happening,” I said. Over the next hour, we listened in shock and horror as the twin towers collapsed. It was Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

That night Scott and I huddled on our couch watching the illusion of our safety and security crumble. Like the rest of the country we were trying to process the horrific tragedy unfolding. We were also trying to make sense of what it meant for our family, as I’d ultimately run my errand—a trip to the drugstore—and a home test had just confirmed I was pregnant. We were going to bring our first and only child into an entirely different world. On what should have been a joyous occasion, I held our puppy and wondered what it would be like to hold my child and know I couldn’t protect him.

America went to war and the weeks of my pregnancy ticked away. I would click off the evening news and go to bed wondering what the world would look like the next day. People kept asking me if my nesting instinct had kicked in. The truth was I had no idea what they were talking about, but I kind of hoped there might be a magical moment when, like a mother bird, I would suddenly know exactly what I was supposed to do as a mom and just start doing it. It was clear I needed to prepare for my child, I just didn’t have any idea where to start when I couldn’t even imagine what the future would bring.

I was only going to be pregnant for nine months and that seemed to be flying by. Maybe I should focus on figuring out what I should do in those first days after my child was born. Or maybe I should just skip ahead and try to figure out the later years when kids seemed to get screwed up. Everywhere I turned I got different and conflicting advice. It seemed clear to me every decision I was now making, down to the food I ate at each meal, was going to impact my child, but I wasn’t at all clear as to the “right” decisions. One night we had dinner with a few friends who were also pregnant and the complexity and confusion became apparent when an impassioned argument broke out about if the fish dish on the menu was safe to eat. I stayed quiet, realizing I didn’t know half of what these other pregnant women did. I wondered how I had become a bad mom before I even was a mom.

I vowed to do better. My work was busier than ever and on the weekends we tackled nonstop house projects. Nesting, I suppose. I decided I would at least try to be knowledgeable about something I knew would matter in my child’s life. For obvious reasons, I picked education.

We had really stretched to buy our house in a neighborhood with “good schools.” As I started to ask around and dig a little deeper, I learned that to get into the preschool I drove past every day I was going to have to camp out overnight and hope to secure a coveted spot. And the moms in the neighborhood told me if I wanted to make sure my child got the good teachers in elementary school I would need to start volunteering now for the fundraising committee so I would have influence with the principal. There were tips and tricks about getting into the right playgroups and music classes. Everything was whispered and shared secret club–style because there were only so many spots and everyone was vying for them.

I burst into tears over dinner with Scott. At first he thought it was the hormones, which it partly was, but he quickly realized it was more as I unloaded all of the stories and advice I’d been getting.

“It just seems crazy to me,” I said. “Every parent wants their child to succeed. I want all of my students to succeed. How is it good for anyone when kids fail? Why do there have to be winners and losers?”

Twenty miles away in Portola Valley, a dad named Chris Buja was having the exact same thought.

Chapter Three

Because It’s a Solvable Problem

C hris Buja didn’t think about the state of his neighborhood’s high schools very often. It was the late 1990s, and he had plenty else on his mind. He and his wife had relocated to Silicon Valley from Washington, D.C., and he worked at Cisco as an engineer while his wife worked at Oracle. The couple had a young son, Spencer, who was just about to start kindergarten.

Chris—an Illinois native with a tall rower’s build, reddish hair, and a fair complexion—had become close with their nanny’s teenage son, Swain. Swain loved to write and, based on what he’d shown Chris, was pretty good at it. He wanted to attend San Jose State after he graduated from Menlo-Atherton High School in 2000. Chris felt a sense of responsibility for Swain, whose own father had died, and offered to help him with his college applications.

As Chris dug in and helped Swain apply, he realized the high school senior hadn’t taken the classes he needed for admission to the California State University school system. When he explained this, Swain shook his head. “That can’t be,” he said. “Most of my friends aren’t graduating. But I am —so why can’t I go to college?”

“Wait,” Chris said, “let’s stop there. What do you mean, most of your friends aren’t graduating?”

Though Chris had already heard some rumblings about parents not being happy with high school options, it hadn’t loomed large on his radar because his son was so young. But he was appalled that Swain—a good kid who was working hard in school—hadn’t even realized he wasn’t taking the classes he needed to be eligible for a state college. And if what Swain said about his friends was true, the situation was even worse than Chris realized.

Soon after the conversation with Swain, Chris attended a meeting the local paper had called with the community. The Almanac wanted to hear what residents cared about that the paper wasn’t covering, and a woman stood up and said, “You’re not covering the biggest issue, high school. People are leaving this community in large numbers because they’re unhappy about the schools.” Inspired, Chris placed a meet-up ad in a middle school newsletter to see what might be done about “the high school problem.”

Thirty parents showed up, and another thirty or so responded to say they couldn’t attend the meeting but were worried. In no time, the group swelled to more than two hundred parents. They were concerned about overcrowding, safety, and boredom, but it was more than that. A majority of parents felt school on the whole was missing the mark, that it wasn’t preparing kids for the world they’d enter. They wanted their kids to get into college, of course, but they also wanted them to have good lives. And school didn’t seem equipped to teach them the necessary skills.

Chris and the other parents wondered why. Companies were so desperate to find qualified people to fill good-paying jobs, they were lobbying for more visas to be issued for foreign workers. Why couldn’t Menlo-Atherton prepare kids from their own community for these roles?

The group of parents who had now formed the Community High School Foundation weighed many options. A public charter school would be the least expensive and the fastest to implement. Even though they hadn’t set out to start a school, this was the clear winner.

The Foundation recognized they had no idea how to design or run a school, and so the first step was to find someone who did. They sought advice from the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and one of my former professors put them in touch with me.

We so rarely get to start from a place of wondering what might be possible. As educators, as parents, as human beings, we most often stay within the confines of what is. But in graduate school, my favorite teacher of all time, Larry Cuban, invited me to ask, “What if there were no constraints?” In an assignment for his class that would forever change my thinking, I had to write a paper to answer the following deceptively simple question: “What is a good school?” For years I had been pointing out and trying to fix all of the problems I so clearly saw in the schools where I taught. But never once had I stopped to think, what would these schools look like if they were just good? From a blank piece of paper, I got to design—not fix—a school. The opportunity was exhilarating, the responsibility overwhelming.

The vision I shared with the Foundation came from my “good school” paper, which was grounded in my own experience, and incorporated the science and research I’d learned at Stanford. While we were coming from different experiences, the parents who formed the Foundation and I wanted the same things. We shared a common vision.

When I got the offer to lead the Foundation’s school, I wasn’t able to contain my excitement and fear. Scott and I had agreed that though I wanted the job more than anything, I wouldn’t accept it if the community was uncomfortable with my pregnancy—which they didn’t yet know about. I understood why it would give them pause—they were taking a huge chance on me, and they also expected much of me. I didn’t know what it meant to be a new mother. What if I couldn’t do it?

I met with three Foundation representatives at a Starbucks near my house, and told them I was expecting. I said it would be okay if they wanted to rescind the offer. I deeply respected all of the work so many had done and I didn’t want to undermine it. I’ll never forget the looks on their faces. At first, a furrowed brow—was it frustration or confusion?— and then glances among them. Finally Chris said, “It’s even better you’re pregnant. Now you’re a parent. Congratulations and welcome!”

The direction of my life was about to change.


In May 2002, I delivered my first child, Rett. And on July 1, I launched what I have come to consider my second child, Summit Prep. We had just over a year to find a building, design the program and curriculum, hire the faculty, recruit students, and secure start-up funding. It was going to be a race to finish on time.

As I recruited families to our new school, I promised a lot. I started by guaranteeing every single graduate of Summit would be accepted to a four-year college. And every student would be known and known well by a mentor who would work with them and guide them for all four years. I promised all of our students would be equipped with academic skills, and with the real-life skills they would need to be successful and to contribute to society.

My cell number was the only official contact for Summit, and so I fielded calls at all hours from families who wanted to ask me questions or set up a time to meet with me. I quickly realized most parents willing to engage with me had children for whom school really wasn’t working. “My child is different,” they said, “and I want to know how your school can help.”

Ryan’s parents told me they worried he would become just a number and get lost in a big school. Ryan was a bright, sensitive kid who had always been an excellent, curious student at his Montessori school. His parents just couldn’t imagine sending him to a crowded, tiered high school where he’d be run through what they thought of as a mill. They worried it would squash his spirit—he was a whole human being and they wanted him to be seen that way. I promised there was a place for him at Summit. We would challenge him academically but never lose sight of the fact he was more than just a grade.

Maya’s mom’s concerns were completely different. Maya was a tiny girl with thick glasses that magnified her already large eyes. Her family was middle-class, and Maya had gone to a fairly good elementary school. She had always struggled in school, and when she was diagnosed as dyslexic, her mom enrolled her in Charles Armstrong, a private school specializing in dyslexia. “Maya is smart and funny, but no one knows what to do with her. I don’t think anyone really believes she can be successful,” her mom said as Maya looked on knowingly. The family was very open, so nothing her mom said came as a surprise to Maya. “Is there a place for her at your school?”

“Yes,” I said. “Absolutely.” Every student would have a Personalized Learning Plan, or PLP, I explained. We would look at what Maya needed and wanted and we would make sure she got it. “You will not have to fight to get her into the right classes,” I promised. “We will be able to support her throughout high school.” This mom had been through the wringer. She knew she had an amazing kid, but one who struggled. She knew she wanted the best education for her child, and had sent her to Charles Armstrong at great financial cost. And now here I was, telling her, “Don’t worry. I will make sure Maya gets into college.” It was a promise she accepted with a healthy dose of skepticism and not one I took lightly.

I met with families who looked at the graduation track record of the school their child was set to attend, and knew their kid had no chance to go to college if they took that route. They could take a risk on Summit because they had nothing to lose. One parent I met with in this category was a single mom of two daughters, and her oldest, Jennifer, struggled mightily. Jennifer was extremely heavy, socially awkward, and had some clear cognitive challenges. She pulled a rolling backpack around everywhere with her, and when she got excited, she would pump the handle. Any teacher would have immediately recommended her for testing, but her mother made clear she would have none of it. Unsurprisingly, Jennifer had struggled in school, and every time it got too difficult academically or socially, her mom—who was intensely protective—removed her and enrolled her in a new school. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I will make sure Jennifer gets into college, but, more important, that she is socially safe.”

Miguel’s mom worked three jobs and, while too overextended to know much about what public school had to offer her son, she knew it wasn’t enough. She herself had little education. Miguel’s dad wasn’t in the picture. Miguel was quiet—he had a really hard shell and I couldn’t pierce it to begin to understand his story. His middle school had been rough—that I knew—and later I would learn he’d been a heavy drug user while a student there. I looked at his mother and told her I would get him into college.

Then there was Eric. He had been diagnosed with leukemia, and no one knew what his future held. The diagnosis had turned the world of his family upside down, and changed what his parents wanted for him out of high school—as well as what he wanted. Eric was an only child, and faced with the real prospect of losing him, his highly educated parents decided they didn’t want him to be miserable for the next four years as he fought his way through the Advanced Placement track in his big high school. I promised Eric’s parents they didn’t have to choose. Eric could get a quality AP education without spending six to eight hours a day doing homework. They didn’t have to trade their son’s happiness now in order to secure his future success.

In the end, on paper our initial class of eighty freshmen wasn’t the group a school would traditionally place in their college track. But unlike at my previous schools, I already knew every single student and family. I had spent countless hours talking with them and so I knew their hopes, dreams, worries, and fears. They were just regular teenagers, each with unique interests, needs, strengths, and challenges. I had looked into their parents’ eyes and said, “Trust me. They’ll be ready for college and they will be good, happy people.” And I believed they could be.


Throughout the planning year, I worked closely with Kimberly, a parent on the Community Foundation Board. Kimberly’s three boys were younger, but like many, she was planning ahead for high school and had invested nearly two years of work into bringing the school to life. I talked to Kimberly daily—sometimes multiple times a day. I spent hours at her house working on timelines, plans, and budgets. She had emerged as the leader of the community and understood business and operations, but she wasn’t an educator. Much of the time we spent together was in conversation about my plans for the school.

Kimberly was a Stanford business school graduate and seemed particularly concerned with getting her kids accepted to top colleges. I worked hard to help her understand that the best way to get her kids accepted to selective schools was to help them develop their sense of purpose and to really understand who they were as unique individuals. I made the argument that, contrary to her experience, this could be done while developing the skills they needed for college, work, and life. She remained skeptical, and I grew worried she didn’t believe in what we were trying to do.

One night Kimberly called me to share a “deep concern” she had been stewing over for several days. She wanted to know exactly how I was planning to make Summit a college prep school when so many of the students I was recruiting were not college prep material. We talked late into the night and for hours and hours over the coming days and weeks. That call was the beginning of the unraveling of our work together.

As we got closer to opening our doors, it was becoming real—and scary—for everyone. At her core, Kimberly didn’t believe all students could be prepared for college. She believed students had to have a certain level of preparation and ability in order to be college-bound. If they didn’t have it by the time they were in eighth grade, they either didn’t have the talent, or the work ethic, to succeed in a college prep school. In Kimberly’s mind, we had to find a way to accept only students who had what it would take to be college-bound, or the school would fail.

I was stunned. I felt like I was back in the Mexican restaurant on a Friday afternoon with teachers from Hawthorne High, surrounded by expectations of kids that sank lower with each passing day. But this time, I had guaranteed eighty families I would prepare their child for college. I had given my word. The prospect of going back on that felt unacceptable. I don’t make promises I can’t keep.

At 10 p.m. the night before the first day of school, Kimberly sent an email to me and the board. She said the school was “doomed to fail” because I’d recruited a class of kids who would never be college-ready. They would hold back the kids who could otherwise make it. Implied, though not explicitly stated, was that she would not want her child to go to Summit. How could we serve the needs of her child while dealing with the others?

I felt angry, undermined, and unsupported. I also felt determined. Don’t tell me I can’t do something, I thought. I will prove you wrong . The battle lines were drawn for the future of Summit. The stakes had never felt higher and I didn’t intend to lose.

I also felt baffled by Kimberly’s perspective. Why was it so hard to do something that seemed undeniably good? Why would people and institutions try to block us from treating and preparing every kid in the way their parents would want them to be treated and educated? Why was it okay for Kimberly to expect her own kids would go to college, but not other people’s children? I would encounter many more people over the years who shared Kimberly’s mindset and I felt the same confusion every time.

Luckily, the board felt differently. Kimberly’s concerns prompted six long months of meetings and discussions before the board finally put a stake in the ground and officially affirmed the design and direction of Summit. Kimberly was their friend and neighbor. Their children played together and they socialized on the weekends. It wasn’t easy to rupture these relationships over a school none of their children were yet attending, in defense of me, a woman they hardly knew, and for eighty students, many of whom were really struggling in their first semester. The fact that they did gave me courage and validation I’ve drawn upon for the last sixteen years.

Kimberly resigned immediately following the board action. “You can win the battle and lose the war,” my mom often said. As I stood reading Kimberly’s resignation letter, my mom’s warning played on a loop in my head.

During our most recent board discussion, one of my board members had said, “Diane, you have a vision for a school community that is different, and much better than what we have today. I can see your vision. It’s like a beautiful carriage and it’s perfect and everyone wants to ride in it. But the reality is, the school we actually have is a start-up and right now it isn’t a beautiful carriage at all. It’s a rickety wagon that doesn’t look very safe for travel. No matter how beautiful the picture you paint is, most people aren’t going to risk putting their child in the rickety wagon. So build the beautiful carriage as fast as you can. ”

We had won the right to build the school we envisioned. Winning the right to align the work I loved with my personal values felt incredible. The opportunity to build a school that valued and supported every child in the way I would value and support my own child was exactly what I’d been searching for. But we hadn’t built it yet. I would soon realize the work to get this far, while hard, would pale in comparison to what we would face in the coming months and years. The real work had just begun.

I don’t know much about the invention of GPS. I just know how much it changed my life for the better. First with a little device I could put in my car, then built into my car, and now on my phone and in my pocket wherever I go, GPS is a game-changing improvement over paper maps.

Growing up in a small town like Lake Tahoe meant that all of the places I was going were familiar. I’d been going there most of my life and if something was new, it was pretty easy to get verbal directions: “Drive a few minutes past the dump and look for the yellow house on the right. Turn left there, then make an immediate right.” When I moved to Los Angeles everything changed. Not only did I not know where anything was, but now I was confronted with a gigantic, sprawling city that made absolutely no sense to me. I was late and lost often. I didn’t like being late or lost, and I really didn’t like it when I would explain to someone how I had arrived at my destination and they would say, “Why didn’t you…?” There was always a smarter route if you understood traffic patterns and side streets.

The first time I used GPS it seemed to be a bit of a miracle, and it’s improved dramatically since. I still tell it where I’m going, but now it incorporates all types of information about traffic and road conditions to help me figure out the best routes. It also gives me a lot of choice and control. It will share different pathways and show the difference between them, it will adjust to changing conditions, and some GPS apps allow me to contribute information to help everyone using the system. By helping one another we actually each find better pathways to our respective destinations.

The chapters in this section—covering real-world projects, self-direction, reflection through mentorship, and collaboration—are the route Summit uses to prepare kids for adulthood and a fulfilled life. They are our core pillars. While each makes sense on its own, they also build on one another. Real-world projects lose their impact without the skills of self-direction. The self-directed cycle—a process by which students set a goal, make a plan, implement the plan, and then show what they’ve done—isn’t complete without the ability to reflect, with the guidance of a trusted mentor. Collaboration makes each of these possible, and all of the other chapters make true collaboration possible. Used together, they are like the most up-to-date version of GPS, creating the smoothest passage for students to the ultimate destination of the prepared adult.

Chapter Four

Real-World and Project-Based Learning: Speaking Out

I walked out of my office and almost tripped over the orange cones lined up in the hallway, only to have to quickly scurry out of the way so as not to collide with a student. Lailah, a slight ninth-grade girl with hair pulled back in a messy ponytail, had her eyes trained directly forward. She wove her way through the cones while reciting what sounded like a speech. “For instance,” she said, “while many people think they know what’s in their food, few people actually do.”

From around the corner, the ninth-grade-English teacher, Adam Carter, called, “Lailah, Ms. Tavenner is a real-life obstacle. You need to be mindful of her, without losing focus.” As I made my way to Adam, wondering what in the world was going on, he issued four loud beeps from a bullhorn and closed a door, putting up a blockade and forcing the students to reroute.

“What are you guys working on?” I asked Adam, after giving him a hard time for calling me an obstacle.

With a sly smile and in his disarming southern drawl, Adam said, “Sorry, Diane. No time to talk right now, but feel free to ask one of the kids. They’d be happy to share.” And he was off.

I scanned for an option. Every student seemed to be completely engrossed, so I hated to interrupt. But Adam was intentional—he wouldn’t have suggested I talk with a student unless it really was okay.

“Hey, James,” I called, gesturing to a tall, slim, studious boy. “Is it okay if I interrupt to ask what you guys are working on?”

“It’s fine, Ms. Tavenner. We’re practicing staying focused when there are interruptions and obstacles, so talking to you is good for us.”

“What are you focusing on, exactly?”

He explained they were working on Speaking Out, which Adam had designed with our history teacher, Kelly Garcia. It was a multipart project: First, students had to choose how to use their voices to make a change in their community. What did they think could be different or better? Then they had to really research their topics, to become subject-area experts. The third and final step was to develop and give a persuasive speech to convince other people to change.

“So what’s your topic?” I asked.

“I’m trying to convince people they should end farm subsidies. ”

“Whoa! Why did you pick that?” I wondered with a bit more surprise than I should have shared. Why would a ninth grader in Silicon Valley be interested in farm subsidies? How would he even know about them?

“Well, I started out thinking I really wanted to change taxes. My parents are always complaining about taxes and, I mean, what are we really getting for our taxes? But then when I researched I saw how a ton of tax money is going to pay people not to grow food. I couldn’t get it out of my mind and I couldn’t believe anyone who really understood it would support it. We could be spending that money on so many more important things and using that land to feed people. So I decided I really had to do something about it.”

“How are you going to get your friends to care, though?” I asked. It seemed a reach to me. “And even if they do care, how are you going to convince them to act?”

James gave me a slightly confused look that held a hint of condescension (something you get used to when you work with teenagers). “Ms. Tavenner,” he said, “just because we’re young doesn’t mean we don’t care about things. We really care when things aren’t fair—especially when we have to pay for it. I’m just going to show them how to follow the money and when they find out where it’s going, they’ll care.”

I let James get back to his speech and carefully made my way through orange cones and down the rest of the hallway. Though I went on with my day, James came back to mind when, just a few hours later, I had a completely different conversation with another ninth-grade boy.

This time I sat in the back of a classroom at a local high school. It was hiring season, and I wanted to observe a history teacher in the running for a role at Summit the following year. I’d been in the room for about forty-five minutes and so far I had seen the teacher take attendance, collect the homework, and give a short lecture on the causes of World War II while students took notes. He then walked around the classroom, monitoring students, who read from their textbooks and started to answer a series of questions they would finish as homework.

The class was calm and compliant, and people looking in would say most of the kids were doing their work. But from my angle in a back row, I noticed several students doodling and others passing notes during the lecture. Others seemed to just be zoned out, and one had his head down the entire time. The student I decided to talk to sat in front of me and had spent the bulk of the class period drawing a very elaborate battle scene in his notebook.

I tapped him on the shoulder and whispered, “Hey, I’m a principal from another high school. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

His eyes darted to the teacher, but then he shrugged. “Sure.”

“What are you learning today?”

There was that look, like Are you serious, lady? “Uh…history.”

“I’m sorry. Yes, obviously history, but I mean, what specifically are you really learning and why?”

He stared at me a bit blankly and then said, “I have to pass this class to graduate and I need it if I want to go to college.”

Sensing I wasn’t going to get any more on why it might be important to learn about WWII, I asked, “What do you think of this class?”

He loosened up a bit. “It’s fine. It’s normal. Mr. Rogers is pretty cool. I mean, he seems to care and he tries to make it interesting by telling some cool stories sometimes. Sometimes we have discussions and those are okay,” he offered.

“One last question and I’ll stop bothering you,” I said. “How do you feel about school?”

He leaned back and paused for a moment. It seemed he was weighing how honest he wanted to be. “It’s pretty boring, but that’s school. Everyone hates it, but it’s what we all have to do.”


I drove back to Summit Prep thinking how starkly different the two conversations were, even though the two boys had a lot in common. For that matter, the experience and training of the teachers was similar. The big difference was the approach to learning. Could this teacher believe another way was possible? Could he let go of his experiences and training enough to learn a different approach? It was the number one thing I weighed in hiring.

Most high schools still follow a mostly traditional approach to learning. Students learn information about a subject through “units” like “The Industrial Revolution” and “The Life Cycle of Plants.” Units are made up of lectures, and the students take notes, read textbooks, and respond to questions or solve math problems. The unit might include film clips or presentations with more notes, followed by teacher-led discussions and reviews of the questions, and ultimately a multiple-choice or short-answer final test. Sometimes an essay is assigned. There are quizzes along the way, lots of homework, and students are expected to make flash cards and study. It all sounds familiar because it’s how most of us were taught.

Great teachers work hard to make their lectures entertaining and to include small-group work. Science teachers offer labs, and English and history teachers assign papers. Sometimes a teacher will assign a final project, but for the most part, these are the dessert, not the main course, and generally only happen a few times a year.

Since our goal at Summit is for kids to develop the skills and habits they need to be successful in life, our learning is designed to be focused on the real world every single day. Well-designed projects are the most effective learning approach to achieving this goal, so this is how we’ve organized everyday learning. Projects begin with a problem, question, or challenge that is relevant to the student and his community and life. They end with the student performing a task that directly addresses the problem, answers the question, or meets the challenge. As the student moves toward a solution, he gets timely and actionable feedback, so he improves as he goes. It’s not that students don’t learn about the industrial revolution or life cycles—they do. But they learn about them through a project that makes the connection to their life, and gives them the space to problem-solve. A history project might be “The Industrial Revolution: The Story of a Product,” wherein students trace a product from its invention to how it’s used today. In building a deep knowledge of the product’s journey, they come to understand the larger industrial revolution. A science project might be “The Electric House,” where students learn how engineers apply scientific knowledge to make predictions, create accurate designs, and achieve engineering goals. Acting as engineers, students design physical models of buildings and the electrical systems that power them. In the “Dear Editor” project, students are asked to consider how writers and media outlets utilize logic and logical fallacies to convince or distract their audience by actually assuming those roles.

These projects aren’t wedged in, but rather are the day-to-day work of the students. Lectures are replaced with deep discussion, planning, research, model making, writing, and lots of critical thinking as student and teacher work side by side. These projects aren’t relegated to the wee hours of the night before they’re due, and look nothing like a poster board with hastily written paragraphs and home-printed pictures. The final products are high-quality presentations, models, simulations, websites, campaigns, building plans, and businesses. Projects aren’t dessert—they’re the main course.

I was at Michaels craft store looking for birthday cake supplies when I stumbled upon the California Mission Project kits. They caught my attention because of my extreme distaste for the California Mission Project. As a mom, I had spent one very long weekend searching for every Lego Rett had in a shade of brown so he could construct a mission for his fourth-grade project. The assignment was the epitome of a dessert project. The kids had been given several handouts with a picture of a mission, labeled by part, and a short passage on what it was like to live in a mission. They had “studied” this information and taken a vocabulary and short-answer test about their knowledge. They concluded their study of missions with an assignment to construct a mission and label its parts. They could make their missions out of whatever they wanted, which was billed as student choice. The only redeeming part of the experience for Rett was that he loved Legos and so at least got to build with them. The California state standards require every student in California to study the missions. The mission assignment has become so common that a company saw a business opportunity in it—to manufacture a kit to fulfill the project requirements. Just go to Michaels, buy the kit, and follow the step-by-step instructions for assembly, just like putting together a piece of IKEA furniture. There is no real learning involved. Rather, it just requires a parent who can afford to go buy the kit and help the child to follow the directions or, in many cases, do it for them. While it’s important to learn about California history, I found the “project” to not only be a waste of time for kids, but counterproductive, in that it created an expectation in people’s minds of what a school project was. A real-world learning project entails something much different. Quality projects can be developed for any age group, and become more advanced with each grade level.

Our seniors participate in a project called Sim City—created by a group of science teachers who were striving to attract their teenage audience with a title straight out of the video game world—that starts with some big questions: How can we design a more sustainable city? What kinds of decisions do people, companies, and governments have to make regarding the use of natural resources, pollution, and waste management? How does the cost-benefit analysis influence these decisions?

Students get to choose if they want to assume the role of a city planner and redesign a real city facing sustainability challenges; or if they want to respond to a contest challenge to design an entirely new city from scratch. For two full months, the students work in teams, and their design must consider agricultural, energy, industrial, and residential tensions. They have to justify their decisions with research and evidence. And they also need to balance personal beliefs, environmental impacts, financial and societal costs, and the beliefs and needs of the city’s citizens. What are the trade-offs of their decisions? How do they justify their choices? What complaints are they likely to receive, and how will they defend their plan?

I recently brought a group to observe the students at work on Sim City. The final presentation was just a week away, which students would give in front of several local city planners and a few executives from design companies.

After I explained the project to the visitors, one looked at me with exaggerated skepticism. “I never did anything this hard in college . You’re trying to tell me all of your high school seniors are doing this?”

I had to admit, Sim City was challenging. Every time I read the project description, I gulped and wondered how well I would do. That said, I’d seen this project plenty of times before, and I knew what our seniors were capable of. They had been practicing this type of critical-thinking work every day for four years, and slowly but surely, they had grown and developed so they could take on a project this complex. Not to mention, it felt relevant to them. They were graduating soon, and starting to think about where and how they wanted to live. Urban, rural, or more suburban? What were the repercussions of this choice, as far as their transportation budget, impact on the environment, and culture? The Sim City project allowed them to really dig into what they were naturally grappling with anyway.

I swung the classroom door open and with a welcoming wave of my arm said, “Let’s see.”

Each group had a model of their city. In some cases it was a physical model that could rival those I’d seen in the windows of architecture firms. In other cases it was computer-generated. Every building, road, structure, and plant had a purpose behind it. I asked questions about item after item and got thoughtful response after response.

“It’s a living roof garden that can feed people with hundreds of gallons of water per day. It also doesn’t pollute,” said Andrea, a girl from one team.

“Wait, what?” a visitor asked. “How does it do that? And what do you mean it doesn’t pollute?”

“Because it’s an ecosystem. The living things and nonliving things are all part of a system and get used in it; they cycle through each other.”

As we spent more time with Andrea’s group, I noticed that while she fielded questions about the environmental science, another of her teammates answered questions about demographic issues, and another fielded more-mathematical questions. I asked them to explain why.

“There was a lot to learn,” Andrea said, “so we divided up and became experts in different areas. We would bring everything together and then make decisions.”

“But how did you decide who became expert at what?” I pressed.

One of her teammates, Michael, explained that they picked what matched their interests and strengths. They didn’t shy away from what they needed to get better at, but were intentional about pairing up accordingly. “I’m really good at mathematical modeling,” Michael explained, “so I teamed up with Carlos, because it’s one of his growth areas. But he’s really knowledgeable about genetically modified foods because he did his tenth-grade Passion Project on it.” The Passion Project is a sophomore tradition at Summit, wherein students get to choose an area to dive into and research deeply. “So,” Michael continued, “he led on food sources and agriculture.”

“We all needed to learn from each other to make good decisions,” Andrea said, “so you had to have your area down, you know? So you could teach it to everyone else.”

“Hey,” Michael said suddenly, “can you guys help us prepare for our presentation next week? Tell us what questions or objections you have. We need to get ready for pushback from the city planners.”

When I finally led my group of visitors out, I knew the first assumption I’d hear, because I heard it all the time. And sure enough, before the door had even shut behind us one of the visitors said, “Those must be your top students. They were amazing.”

I explained that every single one of our seniors was doing this project, regardless of what skills or habits they’d come to Summit with. Their ability to perform so well was not happenstance but the product of years of their hard work, and the careful planning and coordination of all their teachers.

I think of what happens at Summit like an inspirational sports movie montage. Sports movies always have them. The movie opens with a team that for whatever reason isn’t able to win, but has heart, passion, or purpose. At some point, something clicks and then you see the athletes busting their butts over what is really just a couple of minutes but is suggested to be months and months. Just like the coach who stands on the sideline pushing and inspiring the athletes, our teachers create really hard and interesting experiences that simulate the big event. In the same way the athletes work all the muscles they’ll need in the movie’s climax, our kids work all of the skills and habits they’ll need when they leave us.

What happened in that senior class was the result of four years of real-world “workouts,” with constant feedback from dedicated coaches, and tons of hard, push-them-to-their-limits practice on issues the kids cared about and were interested in. Those years weren’t exactly cinematic or set to music, and they felt long and often messy. But the result was that by their senior year, those kids were in shape for the main event.


Summit is by no means the first school to adopt Project-Based Learning, or PBL. These kinds of projects go back to the early twentieth century in the United States. A book called The Project Method was published in 1918, and in the 1920s an Illinois superintendent had first graders create a school post office so they could understand how one worked. 1 In formal terms, PBL works as “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.” But the vast majority of schools don’t do PBL at all, and the relatively small number that do—and even tout their adoption of it—often still use it as a “nice-to-have,” like the cherry on top of a sundae. PBL is not what most kids are doing every day, day in and day out. But when you consider the evidence in favor of learning this way, it’s hard—at least on the surface—to understand why.

Research has shown that when students learn through projects, they retain what they’ve learned for longer, and they understand it more deeply. 2 The project approach doesn’t compromise test scores, either; on high-stakes tests like the APs, PBL students perform as well as traditionally taught students—or better. 3 Research also shows PBL students are stronger problem-solvers, and better able to apply their learning to real-life situations. 4 They score higher on skills related to critical thinking, and—this might be the most compelling of all—they care more. 5 For any parent or teacher who has struggled to motivate a teenager to do their work, what projects can do to inspire them is huge. PBL classrooms have better attendance, and students who are more engaged. Students who are struggling are also more engaged by project-based learning, making it a promising strategy for all students, not just those who are already thriving. 6 Teachers, too, are more motivated by PBL, describing themselves as more satisfied with their jobs. 7 It does not require a study to show that having happier teachers is a good thing for kids.

Preparing our kids to be adults means preparing them to make good decisions when they’re out in the world, which research shows is PBL’s strength. A group of researchers out of the University of Chicago conducted a study of fifth graders where some were taught the material by direct instruction (with their teacher orchestrating a class activity, plus independent work at their seat), and some worked on a project using the exact same course materials. When the unit was finished, the students were given a completely unrelated, complex problem about whether to tell the teacher about another student’s dishonesty. They were asked to write an essay about wh