Brooklyn Students Are Protesting Silicon Valley’s Favorite Education Program

Photo: Edin Mejia

The revolt over the Summit Learning Program, an online learning system partially bankrolled by Mark Zuckerberg and implemented in schools nationwide, has come to Brooklyn. Last week, a group of high-schoolers at Park Slope’s Secondary School for Journalism staged a walkout in the middle of the school day to have the “personalized learning” regimen removed from their classrooms.

Summit’s leaders say the school’s administrators botched the rollout, introducing it to all the grades at once and not putting all of their teachers through training. But this isn’t the first time Summit has earned the enmity of the communities it’s meant to help. Parents in many other districts throughout the country have also complained, generally with mixed success; in one Connecticut district, parents of middle-schoolers were able to get the program jettisoned after a months-long campaign. (You can read more about the Cheshire revolt against Summit here.) But Brooklyn’s student-led charge is a new phenomenon — perhaps because the program has been concentrated until now in middle schools, not high schools. As it continues expanding to higher grades, more teens may well become the faces of their local opposition.

Summit was designed roughly six years ago by a network of West Coast Charter schools, and developed later with software help from Facebook engineers. It’s now funded by Zuckerberg and several other billionaires and foundations. The idea is to help kids take charge of their own education, in part by working independently on the software instead of listening to teachers lecture. Some families love it, and the leadership says the dissenters make up a small minority, magnified by their presence on social media. It’s impossible to get an objective overall picture, because there are no empirical studies on satisfaction rates, and the data on outcomes is limited.

At SSJ in Park Slope, some of the students’ complaints echo those that have arisen in Cheshire and elsewhere. “I didn’t like that it was a more self-taught kind of thing,” said Akila Robinson, a senior who helped organize the protest last week. “A lot of kids are more comfortable learning the more traditional way.” Other students have said it leaves them feeling stranded and requires an uncomfortable amount of screen time.

One teacher, who asked to have her name withheld, said most kids using Summit clearly haven’t been able to concentrate. “I’m walking around thinking, This is absolutely insane. They’re not learning,” she said. “I tell the kids to come off that Walkman, tell them to come off the phone, tell them to come off the website they’re on and go back to their modules.”

Parents also complained that the program was rushed in without much input or review — a familiar complaint if you’ve followed Summit’s implementation in school districts across the country. Annette Renaud, Robinson’s aunt and part-time caretaker, believes SSJ’s principal, Livingston Hilaire, intentionally brought it in before the school leadership team — a consortium of parents, teachers, and administrators that makes decisions about school policies — had been formed for this year. This, too, is a direct parallel to the situation in Cheshire, where administrators said Summit wasn’t subjected to the traditional curriculum-review process because it relied on the same “courses and standards” the schools had already been using — to local parents’ dismay. In Brooklyn and in Cheshire, students and parents said they were blindsided when the school year began.

But SSJ’s implementation of the program was hastier than in most cases. Summit’s leaders recommend starting small and expanding incrementally. In a letter to Hilaire, which Summit shared with New York, the organization’s chief program officer criticized the principal for not following this advice. “What I’ve heard from your team is that while that was your original intention,” the program officer wrote, “the level of enthusiasm and passion you felt following summer training led you to roll out the Program to all of your students without full consideration of the program requirements nor [of the] onboarding recommendations from the Summit team.”

The quick rollout also meant there weren’t enough laptops to go around, which sometimes left kids waiting around with nothing to do. Kelly Hernandez, Robinson’s co-organizer, also said the building’s unreliable Wi-Fi has often stopped them from logging on. And due to the limited number of teachers, the students said, Hilaire replaced certain AP classes with basic courses the seniors don’t need in order to graduate.

SSJ students said they tried repeatedly to explain the problems they were having. “We didn’t feel our voices were being heard,” Hernandez said in a phone interview on Monday. SSJ has about 270 students, most of whom are minorities from low-income families. The teacher I spoke with wondered why Summit isn’t being adopted by Millennium Brooklyn High School, which shares a building with SSJ and has an extremely competitive admissions process.

Renaud emailed the Department of Education’s chancellor and the area’s executive superintendent in early November and informed them that the students were planning a walkout. “A number of them have firmly concluded that their needs are being deliberately and conveniently disregarded,” she wrote. She urged the chancellor and the superintendent to intervene and broker a compromise. A superintendent met with a group of students on Monday of last week, shortly before the protest was set to begin, but the teens weren’t satisfied.

So during their fourth period, roughly 100 of them went outside to chant and wave signs that bore slogans like “SUMMIT WILL PLUMMET.” Their demonstration forced the issue onto the agenda at meetings of the parents’ association and the school leadership team later that week. Summit itself also urged Hilaire, in the letter, to drop the program for its 11th and 12th-graders. Otherwise, the program officer said, “we will need to have an immediate conversation with you about the status of our partnership.” By Saturday, the Department of Education said, SSJ had taken that advice. The DOE said the Bronx Writing Academy, a middle school near Yankee Stadium, has also dropped Summit.

One question following debacles like the ones in Brooklyn and Connecticut is whether schools that adopt Summit in the future will be more scrupulous about the program’s rollout, and whether they’ll seek more input from parents and students in the process. Unhappy students, on the other hand, might also take a page from SSJ’s example. Hernandez, for her part, says the students’ work isn’t done. “We don’t want to leave behind the 9th and 10th-graders,” she said, many of whom participated in the protest.“It’s people in all grades who don’t like it,” Robinson said. “We want to get it out of the schools permanently.”

NYC Students Are Protesting Zuck’s Favorite Teaching Program