Monday, May 6, 2013

Why I love my school - and why I'm leaving

I love Summit Prep Charter School.  For seven years, I have toiled, sweated, and laughed as I have worked to get hundreds of kids into college.  I have taught algebra 1 and 2, geometry, and AP Calculus - both AB and BC.  I have been the official mentor to two different groups of students and the unofficial mentor of dozens more.  I have visited kids in the hospital, I have helped runaways reunite with their parents, and I have bailed kids out of jail.  I have spent multiple wedding anniversaries on camping trips and I have missed family dinners for expulsion hearings.  It has been the most stressful, lowest paying, and best job I have ever had.

Unless you have been a teacher, you do not understand the rewards that come from making connections with kids that aren't your own.  The love I feel for these kids, the heartache I share with them, and the joy I experience from seeing these kids grow has enriched me more than I ever imagined it could, far more than the wealth I gained from my previous career as an engineer.

I love my job.  And I am leaving it.

I came to Summit because it was an oasis in a vast desert of public schools that have lost their way.  Unions and administrators alike at my previous school were focused on their bottom lines, whether or not these bottom lines had anything to do with the best interests of the students in their schools.  Unions hellbent on protecting teachers and their salaries, administrators evangelizing about the importance of test scores; no one asking if students were really learning or really enjoying learning.

Summit has been a community of teachers and students working in common to provide the best college preparatory education possible in the the Bay Area on the pittance known as the revenue limit funding of California public schools, less than $7,000 per year.  It hasn't been easy, but for three years in a row we have been named one of U.S. News and World Report's top 100 public schools.  Newsweek magazine named us one of the top 10 transformative schools in the country.  This year, 100% of our sophomores passed the California HS Exit Exam, unheard of in a Title 1 school.

While Summit's stats are impressive, even more impressive - and more important in my opinion - is the community we have established.  Because we draw students from all over San Mateo County, our student body is incredibly diverse.  There is no ethnic majority and the socio-economic status of the student body is even more diverse than their ethnicities.  And it's important to note that, because we don't track, each and every classroom is equally diverse. This past weekend, I hosted an AP test prep party at my house for my AP Calculus students.  Twenty-one students took me up on the voluntary retreat.  For nearly twenty-four hours, students worked together on calculus, swam in my pool, did more calculus, played an impromptu game of "red light-green light", tackled even more calculus, hung around the campfire, did yet more calculus, and generally had a great time.  This group of twenty-one students consisted of  seven latinos, three asians, a pacific islander, eight white kids, and a couple of kids whose ethnicities would trip me up if I tried to guess.  It was a very special weekend illustrating the power of community on learning, learning that extends well beyond the textbooks.  These kids enjoyed each other and worked their butts off at the same time - together.  They are kids whose paths would never cross in most any other school, all working towards a common goal.  I simply cannot imagine such a scene repeating itself at any other high school I know.

And I doubt it will ever happen at Summit again, either.

You see, Summit itself has been co-opted; we have been a victim of our own success.  We are growing - we'll be opening our fifth and sixth schools next year - and as a result, we have grown into the bureaucracy I left when I came to Summit.  Even worse is that this bureaucracy is being run by "reformers" and "innovators".  The "Global Education Reform Movement" or GERM as Pasi Sahlberg refers to it, has taken over Summit Public Schools.  Well-meaning but (and I mean no offense by this) ignorant reformers are dictating the future direction of our school.  Summit is glomming on to the latest ideas in "competency-based learning" and technology in the classroom while community and enjoyment of learning are secondary.  People who focus on quantifiable results will never see what I saw happen in my backyard this past weekend.

Furthermore, Summit is being irresponsible in its implementation of these new ideas in education.  Perhaps the day will come when I am proven wrong in my estimation that this individual-focused movement does more harm than good, but until that day comes, dismantling one of the best systems known to anyone will certainly do harm in the short-term and perhaps in the long-term.  Why does anyone feel it is best to work alone?  Education should not be an individual sport.

Summit Public Schools (SPS) has been doing a great job documenting data and student feedback on their pilot program in San Jose, and they have been making nearly continuous iterations in the model to improve it over the past year.  But it isn't ready, and the quantifiable data isn't as good as the data coming from Summit Prep (the original Redwood City School that I work at).  By their own measures, SPS data indicates Summit Prep students show greater improvement and have higher test scores than do their counterparts in the San Jose schools, despite the fact that all San Jose students are working on math two hours a day.

I like the idea of students working on what they need to best help them learn each and every day, as competency-based learning offers, but there are larger issues that competency-based learning misses out on.  In my AP Calculus class, there are students who honestly would never get to that level of a class in a competency-based model - at least not in a four-year high school program - and that is what makes my class so special.  There are students discussing high-level analysis problems that can't really factor a quadratic equation consistently.  But think about it - what's more important to these kids once they get out of high school - analyzing the rate at which a graph is changing or factoring a quadratic?  Which are you more likely to encounter and need in the "real world"?  These students will unlikely become engineers, but they will be able to see a graph of a stock's price and argue intelligently about the rate of growth of that stock.  They can describe inflection points and local versus global maximum values.  Would they have been able to do that if they had been locked in a competency-based program which forces them to master each and every Algebra 2 standard before they move on?

But I haven't gotten to the real reason I'm leaving yet.

Believe it or not, I feel if there is a school that can pull off competency-based learning and maintain some aspects of a community-focused - rather than individual-focused - program, it's Summit Public Schools.  They are very thoughtful, intelligent, and experienced educators.  Most are former classroom teachers.  My primary objection to what is happening to Summit, and reason I am leaving, is that I have next to zero say in how this transition takes place.  When I started working at Summit, teachers developed curriculum, hired other teachers, developed school calendars and policies, reviewed budgets, and generally ran the place.  Now, decisions are made from on high, consensus is lip service, and dissent is silenced.  When I spoke up in January that I felt there is no compelling evidence to make a switch to the SPS competency-based model, I was nearly fired. That is not an exaggeration.

Teachers have somehow lost the respect of our society, and this is the number one reason teachers leave the profession before five years.  It is why it has become harder and harder to attract highly-intelligent, highly educated people to the profession.   It can hardly be called a profession; we aren't treated as professionals.  Competency-based and online education seem to be dedicated to taking the teacher out of the equation.  But it's through my relationships with my students that I find my greatest joy and my greatest successes.  There is research to back-up my own observations as well; my students learn because I know them and I know what they need - both in the classroom and outside the classroom.  I spend time with them and I get to know them.  And I grow to love them.  This will not happen in an individually-based, online-centered system.  And Summit will be making the transition to this system regardless of what the teachers at the school believe is best.

I have been depressed ever since I announced I was leaving.  Every time I think of the current Summit kids who I will not get to teach I get choked up.  I am moving on, but I feel like I am turning by back  on the school I love so much.


  1. To steal a line from Pete Rose, I'd walk through hell in a gasoline suit to keep Julian Cortella at our school teaching our kids.

  2. Go Mr. Cortella!
    You worked so hard to get my difficult brother through his classes and now he is doing well at a state school.
    Having gone to Summit myself, I can say that the community model was not for me, as I was not as prepared for the UC system's rigorous programs in science.
    But, for a kid who has trouble focusing on schoolwork or who would otherwise never have the option to take AP classes, Old Summit was probably the only way he/she could get to college.
    I wish you all the luck in the world at your next job.

  3. Please stay, Mr. Cortella - speaking selfishly, but from the heart, I was looking forward to my kids having your passionate dedication to teaching in their lives.

    If there is anything a Founding Family who has loved Summit from its beginning can do to help the situation so you'll stay, please let us know!

    And whatever the future holds, thanks so much for ALL you've given to Summit and to all your students over the years.

  4. This bothers me deeply. I left my traditional public school for Summit midway through my sophomore year because I was so completely convinced in their educational model. My parents weren't so convinced and it took months of research and arguments to get them to finally relent and transfer me.

    To be completely honest, the community model wasn't even the main draw for me - it was the amount of control the individual teachers had over their classrooms. It felt like a school built by educators, not bureaucrats. If this has really happened, the Summit I went to, the Summit I believed in is gone.

  5. Mr. Cortella, you are a teacher that I really wish that I had the opportunity to study under. It pains me to hear about this happening to a program that gave me so much and prepared me both academically and as a person.

    Summit Prep without input from the teachers is completely backward from everything I had experienced as a student. And the standardized class environment with a focus on groupwork developed my ability to work with others. The most valuable asset that Summit Prep had was its community. What a shame.

    You've given so much to the students of Summit and every ounce of that love is appreciated.


    SPCHS Class of 2010
    Cal Poly SLO Class of 2014

  6. Mr. Cortella thank you for sharing. I aways want to be kept updated with what's happening at Summit. It is so hard to think that the strong community I had the opportunity to be a part of might not be there for future students. Especially for my younger brother who is the fourth kid in my family to attend Summit. I'm so sorry to hear that you're leaving.


  7. Julian,
    It is with a saddened heart I read your exit letter, yet it is with much appreciation for all you have done for the Summit students and community over the past seven years. Our son, Jack, was a beneficiary of your guidance and all the other great teachers and mentors we experienced during his 4 years at Summit Prep. Because of dedicated people like you, he is now just completing his Sophomore year at university of Colorado at Boulder.
    As in business, entrepreneurial aspirations often experience a paradigm shift when success stimulates growth. It seems clear that this is what has now morphed the original Summit Preparatory High School model. I am sorry to see you go and wish you all the best in your future endeavors. Thank you so much.
    Jay Gertridge

  8. Mr Cortella,

    I was shocked to read that you are leaving. You were the first teacher to make me interested and even like math. I am so sad to hear about what is happening at Summit and that you are leaving. I am honored to have had you as a teacher for two years during my time in high school and I wish you nothing but the best.
    Julia Eng Godburn
    Summit Prep Class of 2011

  9. hi mr coachella,

    i never hade you as a teachere, but whenevre i get made or sad i just think abot the sun!

    one coll thing bout the sun is that it come back for more every day even when thinges on this planet get very bad

    remeber today that were all under the same sun


    have a grate day im tom

  10. Mr. Cortella,

    I'm sad that I never had the opportunity to have you as a teacher as, from this blog and all I've heard, it sounds like you're exactly the kind of teacher that our school system needs. Having worked with the Occupy movement down here at UCSB, I had the opportunity to directly experience the Consensus process that Summit's staff seemed to operate on (from what I remember at least), and I can say that it's very disappointing to see them move away from it. Personalization, and not bureaucratization, is what the public school system needs and that's exactly what a Consensus model promotes.

    I wish you the best of luck, and I will give you one request as a Summit Alumni: if you are going to leave SPS, then please do your best to promote what you have learned elsewhere. It is sad for you to leave, but it'd be a travesty if you didn't take those "Summit" ideals with you.

    Best Wishes,
    -Stephen Szczurko

  11. Wow! This is very upsetting to hear. Like you Mr. Cortella, I love Summit, my family loves Summit. And, when asked the reason, my first response is always – it’s the teachers! They know our kids - their strengths and their weaknesses - and they help them, often going above and beyond. The common thread with all of Summit's teachers is that there is buy-in - with the mission, with their engagement- and there is empowerment. These attributes clearly pervade the Summit culture, and our kids feel it every day.

    So what has happened that you (and maybe other teachers?) feel like your voices are no longer being heard? I can only hope that you are being heard now.

    I also feel like Summit’s recipe for education thus far has also been very successful. I am not an educator, and I don’t know exactly what Competency-Based Learning is. But what I do know is that Summit’s past methods have worked. I have two Summit graduates, and both would say that Summit prepared them for the academics of college. They would offer a few critiques (for example a greater focus on writing college-level papers senior year vs. AP level papers which unfortunately are not really college-level), but these are minor. They would be mere tweaks to the great recipe that Summit cooks up every day. Overall, they loved Summit, they keep in touch with their teachers, and they are doing very well in College. Thanks to Summit.

    Meanwhile my Summit sophomore only wants what his sisters had – passionate, engaged teachers who feel empowered to teach as creatively as they can.

    Mr. Cortella - you are an amazing teacher and mentor, and this is a huge loss to the school. I only hope that your blog generates the full discussion that it deserves.

  12. To everyone - Thanks so much for the overwhelming support. I truly did not expect the reaction this post has received.

    I think I may have given a false impression in how changes will come about at Summit and perhaps what the scope of those changes are. There will continue to be caring, dedicated teachers and the changes will not come about overnight. Certainly, I disagree with the path Summit is taking at this time, as there is not sufficient evidence to change, but I trust they will move at a deliberate pace.

    Details of the changes that are in store in the near or long-term future for Summit are still being developed, but I encourage you to open lines of communication with the administration and the board if you want to get more information. I don't think it is appropriate for me to share any such details.

    And yes, this discussion should continue - not just about Summit, but about the future of public education. I love having those discussions. We should all educate ourselves about education.


  13. Hey Mr.Cortella,

    It has taken some time for me to realize how important Summit was for everyone. Whether I believed in the model or not is irrelevant. What I do know is that you worked your hardest to help kids who needed it. You not only taught us math, you inspired us to pursue our dreams no matter how difficult they may be. I know I wasn't always the most appreciative and the kindest student, and I apologize for that. You are an amazing human being, and I thank you deeply for all the sacrifices you have made for your students.

    -Greg Hyver

  14. So sorry to hear this, Mr. Cortella! This is very sad news because great math teachers are not that easy to find and can have such a huge impact on how students feel about math.

  15. Julian, can I ask where you are now?