Inside Facebook’s plan to build a better school

Looking back, Mike Sego says, he was always meant to work in education. His dad taught fifth grade for 37 years, three of his older siblings were K-12 teachers, and he spent free time as a kid grading papers for fun. But like so many people who arrive in Silicon Valley after college, Sego first started working in tech. He worked on The Sims, and later got to know Mark Zuckerberg when his virtual pets game, (fluff)Friends, was one of the first hits on Facebook’s new games platform. Around that time, Zuckerberg had become interested in education as part of his philanthropy, donating $100 million to Newark schools in 2010. After a stint as CEO of Gaia Interactive, Sego decided to turn his attention to education. He called Zuckerberg and asked if they could work together.Not long after, Sego was touring Summit Denali, a public charter school in Sunnyvale, California. With him was Priscilla Chan, wife of the Facebook founder and his partner in philanthropy. They had been drawn to Summit Public Schools because of their striking success in preparing students for college: 99 percent of its graduating students have been accepted into at least one four-year college. And 55 percent of graduates go on to complete college, compared to a national average of 28 percent. The results are particularly compelling given the diverse makeup of the student population: only 20 percent of students are white, 48 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, and 13 percent are English language learners.
Summit says it outperforms most schools thanks to a program that lets students learn at their own pace, work on projects rather than listening to lectures, and receive regular one-on-one mentoring from their teachers. Educators there call it personalized learning, and being a product of Silicon Valley, it’s supported on the back end by software. Priscilla Chan was sufficiently impressed with her tour that she told her husband he should see it himself. After a visit of his own, he asked Summit’s founder and CEO, Diane Tavenner, if she was seeking donations. Actually, Tavenner said, what Summit really needs is code.What followed was an improbable collaboration that resulted in the announcement of a partnership today between Facebook and Summit that will make their software available to other public schools. A pilot program is taking place around the country this year; eventually, Facebook and Summit plan to offer the software to any school that wants it. The partnership, which Sego is leading, has already produced a working tool that is used by students and teachers in 13 states and 20 schools. Facebook is giving it away for free, and says it plans to do so indefinitely. But Facebook’s tentative move into education, which in some ways resembles Google’s efforts in the classroom, could open up new business possibilities down the line — and might send a shiver down the spine of smaller education-technology startups in the meantime. To get an idea of what impressed Zuckerberg and crew about Summit, it helps to spend a day at one of its 11 schools. I stopped in at Denali, a middle school that opened in 2013, during the third week of instruction. The school occupies a single square-shaped building in an office park near US Highway 101, Silicon Valley’s main artery. Denali currently serves about 300 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, and plans to eventually expand into a combined middle and high school with 700 students.

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