Tacoma’s 1st charter high school has students feeling free, well-rested

Math teacher David Dolata, center, helps Tyler Roberts, second from right, and Razel Smith, right, Thursday during an orientation project at Summit Olympus High School in Tacoma. Luis Garcia is at far left.
Math teacher David Dolata, center, helps Tyler Roberts, second from right, and Razel Smith, right, Thursday during an orientation project at Summit Olympus High School in Tacoma. Luis Garcia is at far left. Staff photographer

They like the food. They like the start time of 8:35 a.m. — about an hour later than many public high schools.

But what kids at Tacoma’s first charter high school seem to like most is the self-determination they’re given at Summit Olympus High School, which opened Monday with 125 ninth-graders inside an old pickle-packing plant on Puyallup Avenue. (Grades 10 through 12 will be added in subsequent years.)

“You get a lot of freedom, compared to other schools,” said Julian Sams of Puyallup, who moved here from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where he attended schools operated by the Department of Defense. “At other schools, it’s ‘do this, do this, do this.’ Here, you have more choice.”

Classmate Lillian Thompson, a University Place student who attended Curtis Junior High last year, said her new high school’s self-paced learning “will teach us independence.” And that, she says, will make her better prepared for college.

Summit Olympus is one of three charter schools opening this year in Tacoma. SOAR Academy for elementary-age kids also opened to students this week. And Destiny Charter Middle School held orientation for students this week, with the first full school day set for Monday.

Tacoma has more charter schools opening this year than any other city in Washington. The publicly funded, privately operated schools were made possible by a state initiative approved by voters in 2012.

Here’s what self-paced learning looked like at Summit Olympus on Thursday:

Math teacher David Dolata moved through his classroom helping students sign in to the correct assignment on their laptop computers. Every student gets one of the Internet-connective devices to use. The laptops will play an integral role in their learning.

“Close your computer at half-mast (with the lid partly open) when you’ve got it,” he tells the class, creating an instant visual that tells him which students are ready to proceed and who needs an extra assist.

He explains some of the upcoming projects students will do: infographics, stock market analyses and population studies. Final projects are a written paper or multimedia production.

“Nowhere does it say ‘Take notes for 45 minutes on the quadratic equation,’” Dolata tells students.

Students will learn to solve equations, as well as other basic math concepts. But they’ll work at their own pace, through online lessons, coached by teachers. They’ll have opportunities to go back and relearn what they don’t get with one pass through the material. Then, they’ll take what they learn and apply it to real-world situations.

For the first week, as an orientation to the Summit way of learning, students were asked to interview fellow students and solicit ideas on how to improve their school environment. They also will brainstorm in small classroom groups and share documents with classmates online. They’ll present their ideas to the entire class.

Each of five classes will vote on the best idea in their class, then those five students will present to the whole school. The entire student body will choose from among the five ideas. Projects must fall within budget parameters.

So far, ideas have ranged from collecting board games to play on rainy-day lunch breaks, to soliciting donations of used couches to fill in blank spots in their newly remodeled building.

Summit Olympus Principal Gina Wickstead spent 10 years as a classroom teacher.

“I would teach a lot of things, telling them, ‘You need this,’” she said. “But students would lose their engagement when it wasn’t applied in the real world.”

Diane Tavenner, CEO of the Summit charter management organization based in Redwood City, California, said project-based learning is designed to provide that real-world tie. But she said the concept is only as good as the foundational learning that underpins it.

“The (core) content is online, and you have to show competency to complete the course,” she said. “We break it down into micro-subjects, which allows students to work at their own pace, with individual support.”

And while groups of students work on parts of the projects, each student must complete tasks for which they are held individually accountable.

The school uses projects that have been designed by groups of Summit teachers working together. Projects are done at school, “where learning happens,” Tavenner said.

The Summit organization, which began with a single school in 2003, brings experience from its seven California schools to Tacoma. Another Summit high school, Summit Sierra, opened in Seattle this year. And the state charter commission recently approved a combined Summit charter middle and high school, which will open in Seattle next August.