Rocketship has three charter schools in San Jose (CA) in 2012. Mateo Sheedy elementary (K-5) has been described in various places. I visited Los Suenos elementary last week. And Rocketship schools are spreading.
Just recently, the Santa Clara County School Board (CA) granted 20 additional charters for K-5 elementary schools to Rocketship Schools. By 2016-2017, Rocketship will be operating charters in eight school districts, serving over 15,000 low-income Latino children. In addition, Rocketship received a nearly $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to open charter schools in Oakland (CA), Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Chicago. The pace of opening new charters and growing Rocketship schools in the next five years puts John Danner and his organization on the national map alongside KIPP, Green Dot, and charter school models that promise success to low-income minority parents and students.
The features that distinguish Rocketship schools from its neighbors in San Jose school districts and elsewhere are straightforward:
*Longer school day
*Teachers available outside classroom school hours
*individualized education plans for every student
*Widespread parent involvement in school
*Extensive computer resources devoted daily to customized basic skill instruction
*Credentialed teachers in self-contained classrooms work on writing, critical thinking, and soci0-emotional learning
*Less expensive to operate than neighboring public schools
I saw all of those features at work in my morning at Los Suenos. After the visit, I and two other visitors met with CEO John Danner to discuss Rocketship schools. We talked for nearly an hour. What follows are a few of the questions and answers that flew back and forth in a spirited conversation.*
Q: What makes Rocketship innovative?
A: The key idea with Rocketship is that there is a place for classroom instruction and for individualized instruction exactly at the developmental level of a child. We created a school model that incorporates both – we have six hours of classroom time and two hours of Learning Lab, which is where we do our individualized instruction, with tutoring and computers.
Learning Lab is not staffed by teachers; it’s staffed by instructional coaches, who generally have high school or college degrees but are not certified teachers. They get paid $14 an hour. We hand them a scripted curriculum; they oversee the work children are doing on computers, and they’re perfectly capable of providing instruction as long as we know exactly what each child needs to learn.
The net effect is that we save, with schools of about 500 kids, about half a million dollars a year, and we reinvest that then into the things that matter most for the school – training our teachers very, very well; empowering our parents; developing our leaders; paying our teachers a 20 percent higher salary than surrounding school districts.
Q: What connects classroom teachers to the Learning Lab to help teachers track individual kids?
A: We have Gates money to do fine-grained data analysis on basic skills of each kid in Learning Lab and then give teachers that information to help them in making their lessons on thinking and socio-emotional learning richer and targeted. Also I think teachers will want to access a variety of instructional options at distribution hubs. No one has built this yet, so Rocketship has begun developing something called Teacher Dashboard, and it will figure out where a kid should go, instructionally, and send them there.
Q: Do you see the Rocketship model of hybrid learning dispensing with teachers down the road?
A: Not at all. Our teachers are awesome. It’s not either/or. We just think that individualized instruction is better for basic skills. Do you really want teachers spending time on rote learning instead of critical thinking?
Q: Do you intend to move from elementary to secondary schools?
A: No. Teaching different academic subjects and the lack of software in those areas and the size of schools overwhelm me with the complexity of working with older children and youth.
Q: As you move out of San Jose to more Rocketship charter schools in California and other states, what is your vision?
A: Online learning should be responsible for the majority of basic skills learning, freeing our teachers to use classroom time to teach students how to think. We believe that we will see … a 50/50 online/classroom hybrid model [with] properties that helps us scale up. First, we will have 10 teachers at each campus instead of 20. With 10 teachers on each campus, we have much less need for talent. With the extra money we save ($1M), we can double teacher pay to well over $100,000 per year. With Learning Lab … delivering 80% of basic skills, teachers can spend their class time to teach values and higher order thinking skills. We think that both financially and from a talent perspective, the model gets more and more compelling as we drive online learning forward.
Part 3 on Rocketship reconsiders the quote: “I have seen the future and it works.”
*During the meeting with Danner, I did not take notes or record the conversation. I recalled some of the questions that I asked and Danner’s responses. I also read a number of published interviews with Danner that asked similar questions. I provide links to those sources. Readers can see a short YouTube positive description by co-founder, Preston Smith, of the first Rocketship school in San Jose.
Readers can also see a John Danner talk on Rocketship in 2010.