Charter school chain Rocketship prepares for launch
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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Inside a prefabricated beige building by the freight tracks, John Danner thinks he has solved one of the nation's most vexing problems.
This is Rocketship Discovery Prep, one of five charter elementary schools founded by Mr. Danner that are bridging the achievement gap -- the staggering difference in academic performance between poor and privileged children.
The gap -- which has persisted for decades despite heavy investments of time, energy and money -- can cement the path a young life takes. Poor children are likely to enter school already behind, never catch up and then drop out, joining an underclass that threatens the country's economic future.
Policymakers, foundations and business leaders are ravenous for schools that can educate all children, regardless of income. And they don't want just a handful of successes. They want a big idea, on a grand scale.
Mr. Danner, a boyish 45-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur and onetime public school teacher, believes he has the answer.
On standardized tests, Rocketship students -- overwhelmingly poor, Latino and Spanish-speaking -- have outscored the county and state average. In some cases, the "Rocketeers" have performed as well as students in nearby Palo Alto public schools, where Stanford University professors send their children.
Mr. Danner wants to take his model and expand it into the nation's largest chain of charter schools, reaching 50 cities by 2020.
Rocketship's scores, combined with an unusual educational and financial model, have made it the darling of the school reform movement. Cities across the country, including New York and the District of Columbia, are clamoring for Rocketship to set up shop. The Obama administration has invested $2 million to speed its growth.
But some wonder if 5-year-old Rocketship is producing miracles or mirages. Will a model that succeeds in San Jose also flourish in Nashville? Can a strategy that works for a handful of schools be expanded across the country? And can the achievement gap be eliminated?
Answers may be found next year, when Rocketship ventures outside of northern California to open the first of eight schools in Milwaukee.
To some, Rocketship's rise represents another step toward a gradual abandonment of traditional public schools, placing more children -- and public dollars -- into the hands of private operators.
Stephen McMahon, president of the San Jose teachers union, worries that a dual system is developing: One filled with charters that attract motivated families and another of traditional public schools populated with reluctant learners.
"It's almost harkening back to the days of segregation," Mr. McMahon said.
Charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately run, must accept any student, the same as a traditional public school. But families have to seek out a charter school, apply and, if demand exceeds capacity, enter a lottery for a seat. The charter may be located across the community, requiring families to transport their children back and forth each day.
What sets Rocketship apart from other successful charters is a financial model that allows it to operate on government payments without continual infusions of cash from private donors. Many successful charter schools require additional funds to cover the costs of a longer school day, intensive tutoring and other expenses.
In addition to Milwaukee, Rocketship has won approval to open schools in Indianapolis, New Orleans and Nashville. And it has permission to open 20 additional schools around San Jose, as well as one in San Francisco.
Despite the courtship of Rocketship by some cities, it hasn't been all flowers and candlelight.
Approval for the San Francisco school came from the state after the city's school board said no. City officials criticized the commercial software Rocketship uses and its English-only approach to teaching Spanish-speaking children, among other things. In Oakland, Calif., the board of education also spurned Rocketship, saying it lacked experience educating African American children. A bid to open a Rocketship in East Palo Alto met a similar fate.
The chain operates only elementary schools; Mr. Danner said he is dedicated to closing the achievement gap in the early grades.
Critics, including several school superintendents in the San Francisco Bay Area, say Rocketship uses a low-cost "industrial" model that depends on inexperienced teachers and computers. And they question whether a national chain would interfere with local control over education.
In each Rocketship school, children file into a "Learning Lab" every day, where they sit at computer carrels that line the perimeter of the room.
In the center of the room, tutors work in small groups with children in need of more intense help. In a traditional public school, students would be pulled out of class for that kind of extra help, losing valuable classroom time that can often push them even further behind.
First Published August 5, 2012 12:00 am