Viewpoint - June 30, 2010

Editorial: Summit Prep walks its talk

When it comes to preparing students for a four-year college, Redwood City-based Summit Preparatory Charter High School has a significant edge over the much larger comprehensive high schools in the Sequoia High School District, at least according to the recently released list of "America's Best High Schools" from Newsweek magazine.

For the second consecutive year, Summit and all Sequoia district schools, including M-A and Woodside, were among the nearly 1,600 high schools included on Newsweek's list, with Summit ranked 76, considerably above M-A at 528 and Woodside at 1,100. Two other district high schools finished in the top tier, with Carlmont (in Belmont) at 901 and Sequoia (in Redwood City) at 1,194. Nearby Palo Alto High ranked 430 and Gunn, the district's second high school, had 134.

In one measurement used to compile its rankings, the magazine compared the percentage of graduating seniors who passed at least one college-level test, such as advanced-placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB) or Cambridge tests.

Summit finished higher in this category because 75 percent of its roughly 100 graduating seniors took and passed at least one AP course, while only 52 percent of about 350 seniors passed at M-A and 29 percent of about 350 passed at Woodside.

Jay Mathews, the Newsweek editor in charge of the survey, explained on the Newsweek website that a student's willingness to take a college-level test, even if he or she does not pass, is "the best predictor of college graduation" and "(is) important because they give average students a chance to experience the trauma of heavy college reading lists and long, analytical college examinations."

(Other factors included in the ranking: the number of students qualified for federally subsidized school lunches and the "challenge index," or the number of college-level tests administered school-wide compared to the number of graduating seniors.)

The high Newsweek ranking for Summit — in the top 10 of California high schools listed — must make school officials feel particularly proud, given the all-too-frequent shabby treatment given to its parent corporation, the Summit Institute, by the Sequoia district. The Summit group has had a fight on its hands with the Sequoia board from the beginning, including a pitched battle to charter Everest, a sister school, and locate it in Redwood City, near a majority of its students.

Diane Tavenner, the chief executive of Summit Institute, said a key factor in the high ranking is the extensive groundwork laid down in the classroom. She said all Summit students (chosen by lottery with only one third to one fourth of applicants accepted) are prepared for AP tests from their first days at the four-year school and are not surprised by their difficulty. "They have this strong foundation that just continues to grow," she said.

The commitment to getting all students used to AP level testing pays off in the acceptance of virtually every senior to a four-year college. Woodside expects to see about half its graduating seniors be accepted to a four-year college, with most other seniors considering a community college.

With only 100 seniors compared to 350 for Woodside or M-A, it is much easier for Summit to stay in touch with its students, a big plus when it comes to approaching a difficult AP test. But Summit's rigorous curriculum is also a factor, as is its tight faculty structure.

Woodside principal David Reilly shrugged off comparisons of his school's performance to Summit, saying the survey is narrowly focused and is not a comprehensive look at a school's total qualities. Charters and traditional schools are "apples and oranges" he said, although he added that it is outstanding that all high schools in the district are in the top 1,600 schools in the survey.

We agree. There are many other factors that can contribute to the widely varying "grades" achieved by all the local high schools, and the Sequoia district should be proud to have all its schools among the top 6 percent in the country in the Newsweek survey.

But now Summit's model can no longer be called experimental. It is a fully vetted teaching method that is more than the equal of curriculums at large high schools, especially for students who are likely to get lost amid 2,000 or so classmates.

The Newsweek rankings, and other yardsticks, show that Summit Prep is doing an excellent job at preparing its students for acceptance into a four-year college. We hope the Sequoia district keeps that in mind in its future dealings with Summit, Everest and if they come, other charters based on the same model.

Rather than view it as the enemy, Sequoia should do all it can to collaborate and adopt some of Summit's teaching methods in its own schools. Such a partnership could improve the district's performance and greatly benefit its students in the years to come.


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