Rocketship: 29 charters in San Jose

Promises working with districts on impact

Rocketship Education, the charter organization whose hybrid online/classroom model has drawn national attention and foundation dollars, wants the Santa Clara County Board of Education to let it open 20 more elementary schools, primarily in its hometown of San Jose, in the next seven years.

Together with the three schools now operating and six already approved, Rocketship would be running 29 schools by 2018-19, an ambitious and unprecedented number of charter schools by one operator serving low-income, minority children in a concentrated area – basically East San Jose, plus maybe a school in Sunnyvale and one in Gilroy.

Rocketship co-founder Preston Smith said that Rocketship was responding directly to SJ2020, a commitment by school district officials in San Jose to eliminate the achievement gap – the difference in proficiency levels between Asian and Caucasian students and Hispanic and African American students – within a decade.

Rocketship is doing that now with its two schools (a third opened this year). Its first school, Mateo Sheedy Elementary, had a 925 API (on a level with Palo Alto schools) two straight years. The 2010 API score for its second school, Si Se Puede Academy, was 886, with a student body that’s nearly four-fifths English learners and more than 90 percent low-income.

Blend of online learning, classroom instruction

Rocketship has developed a distinct system that combines regular classroom instruction with small group tutoring and a computer lab providing individualized learning. Rocketship saves money by having non-credentialed individuals run the learning labs. It uses the savings  to hire an academic dean and assistant principal – a principal in training for the expansion program – at each site and to run two-hour after-school tutoring for struggling students. Donors and foundations have invested $3 million to develop adaptive learning software.

Once the 29 schools are at capacity, Rocketship would serve about 15,000 children in kindergarten through fifth grade, making it the equivalent of one of the largest districts in the county. (Click here for Rocketship’s letter to the county trustees requesting additional schools.) About 40,000 students in San Jose are not learning at grade level – more than half of testing-age children in the city. In grades 2-5, about 9,000 children in San Jose are below basic or far below basic – the lowest two quintiles on state standardized tests, according to Rocketship’s application to the county.

Rocketship has identified neighborhoods with low-performing schools in San Jose, which are represented by red and orange dots, mainly in East San Jose (click to enlarge).

Rocketship has identified neighborhoods with low-performing schools in San Jose, which are represented by red and orange dots, mainly in East San Jose (click to enlarge).

Rocketship already has a countywide charter to open five schools. It is technically seeking a revision of that charter. Along with testing the political will of the county board, the proposal will test Rocketship’s management and financial capability and school districts’ capacity  and openness to adapt to disruptive change – the  potential loss of millions of dollars in state revenue from the defection of thousands of students. It may also become a test of the flexibility of the  rarely used law enabling county offices to grant countywide charters. Rocketship must  prove that it cannot achieve  its unique program by seeking charters through individual school districts – some of which are antagonistic to charters. It’s unclear whether trustees, having approved a countywide charter already, can revise terms  and conditions of Rocketship’s request for subsequent schools.

“We are writing the rules with regard to a countywide charter of that magnitude,” said County Board Chairman Joseph Di Salvo, who said that Rocketship’s achievements and commitment to work with low-performing students are not in question. “The number of schools and the timing – four per year for five years – are a huge question mark in my mind. At the same time, I don’t want to be complicit in leaving kids in schools that are not meeting their academic needs.”

Rocketship has notified 11 districts that it may start a charter school, most likely near one of its Program Improvement schools. However, Rocketship is expected to concentrate its efforts in San Jose Unified and Alum Rock Union Elementary School District. It also will open two schools in Franklin McKinley, the one local district whose superintendent has openly invited in Rocketship.

Weighing the impacts on district schools

Districts are not supposed to consider the financial impact of a charter school on their operations when considering a charter application. But Di Salvo says he wants the county office to examine possible negative impact on students left behind in district schools under Rocketship’s proposal.

John Danner, Rocketship’s CEO and co-founder, said the revised application would be a performance contract, tying Rocketship’s ability to open additional schools to high academic results. The current metrics, which Rocketship had no trouble meeting, are 700, 750, and 800 API scores respectively during the first three years. Rocketship would consider making the third year target 875 – the actual target of schoolwide proficiency.

Danner says he is confident Rocketship has the leadership succession and financial systems to bring the organization to scale quickly. And he says he is mindful of the challenges facing districts with new charter schools. But he says districts would have a decade to anticipate and adapt to the impacts (the first set of four new charters would be in 2013-14, and the last schools would reach capacity in 2020).

And there are ways Rocketship could help.  Rocketship’s current model is to build its own schools – an unusual arrangement. But Rocketship would consider paying full-market rent for district facilities – a big financial plus; under state law, it could request space for free. It would work with districts to adopt Rocketship’s hybrid model, Danner said.

A hearing on Rocketship’s request will take place June 15. In what may be unfortunate timing, the application coincides with delicate discussions between Rocketship and other charter operators and four San Jose districts on whether to pursue a charter compact spelling out areas of mutual interest, like sharing data and best practices, and commitments to resolve other issues, such as charters’ agreement to take more special education students. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is encouraging the compacts, would provide $100,000 initially to work out details, with the possibility of more money to implement ideas or provide help to districts faced with downsizing. (Don Shalvey, Deputy Director of Education for Gates, is on Rocketship’s national strategy board.)

Negotiations with some districts may implode because of the Rocketship expansion. (Franklin McKinley Superintendent John Porter intends to pursue it anyway.) But Danner said that the Gates compact, with  resources to help districts restructure, now becomes more relevant and offers the opportunity to start a dialogue on what districts will look like in the future.

“There is nothing like this anywhere, where a set of charters step up to eliminate the achievement gap. What happens in San Jose could be a model for the nation,” he said.

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  1. Rocketship is doing amazing things with high needs students. My worry more than anything under this plan is what happens to the students in 6th grade? If they return to the historically failing traditional public schools, most of the work Rocketship has done will be un-done – and fast. Why not be really bold? Either, create K-12 systems or subsume the entire K-5 student population in a district and allow the district to focus exclusively on 6-12. The biggest complain middle and high school teachers make is that the students come to them unprepared, multiple grade levels behind (which does make teaching more difficult). If schools knew the vast majority of students were at or above grade level, the middle and high schools should be able to soar and the district could put all of their instructional resources to the secondary schools.

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  2. Isn’t the point of charter schools to create models for innovation that are replicable back to the comprehensive public school system?  The real challenge for Rocketship and their investors would be to take what they have learned and bring it back to the neighborhood public school.  A partnership between the Santa Clara County Office of Education and Rocketship to do just that would be real leadership.
    Otherwise, the only innovation here is that opt-in schools for the educable and motivated show greater success because they rely solely on those families who self-select for these educational opportunities.
    This move for massive, fast-paced expansion suggests that the Rocketship management has given up on the true intent of charter schools and that they intend to create a parallel public school system that siphons off students from invested families and the dollars that come with them.

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  3. KSC’s point was my question as well. If this is a great program for everyone, why not integrate this back into the full public school system, instead of wasting resources building whole new schools? (Unless new buildings are key to the strategy.) What about adding academy tracks for this within existing public schools, so that kids can go to their neighborhood school and benefit from the program, if the feeling is that not every family would choose this?

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  4. By the way, I look forward to the day when high income majority white schools are named “Si Se Puede” and “Rosa Parks” and “Martin Luther King Jr.” and “Cesar Chavez”.

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  5. The map in this posting shows clearly how API scores are excellent predictors of students’ Zip Codes.
    It would also be quite informative to correlate this map with average family income data for each school to really drive home the link between socio-economic factors and overall school performance.
    Perhaps we can now stop blaming educators for failing schools and start to focus on the socio-economic factors which are the true root of poor school performances.

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  6. Robert raises an important question.  It is quite possible for public schools to rise to the challenge as can be seen the high schools in San Jose Unified.  From 2004 to 2010 there was a dramatic but steady improvement in economically disadvantaged 9th grade Algebra I student scores  in SJUSD from only 5% proficient or above (way below the state average of 9%) to 32% proficient or above – way, way above the 2010 state average of 17%.  In contrast, Fremont Unified High School District’s Fremont HS in Sunnyvale (one of Rocketship’s “maybe” expansion locations) shows how easy it is to slide from above the CA average (13% prof. or above in 2004) to their 2010 score of 6% in 9th grade Algebra 1.  This is possible because FUHSD can mask the economically disadvantaged with a lot of high-achieving middle class kids and tout your high overall API scores as the best in the state.  SJUSD does not have that advantage.
    SJUSD’s achievement disproves Ravitch’s and others insistence that it is all about poverty and public schools can do nothing until we eliminate poverty (throw in racism while they’re at it).  Ravitch, Valerie Strauss and their ilk would like it to be anyone’s fault but the schools that poor kids don’t do well.  SJUSD shows what you can do when there is a will without any great amounts of money or smaller class sizes.
    It also disproves the current idea that it is all the fault of a few bad teachers.  SJUSD did not fire all their incompetent math teachers and hire competent ones.  Nor did FUHSD fire their competent teachers and hire incompetent ones.  SJUSD adopted tactics that worked and keeps improving on them.  FUHSD adopted tactics that fail horribly and won’t admit it to itself.  SJUSD set up a lot of proven district-wide methods that keep teachers on track (‘you will be on this page on this day’), and let teachers and students know what the state standards are with periodic district-wide benchmark tests.  Also, SJUSD also threw in some decades old technology but that is the least of their stories.
    It raises some questions.  Why aren’t all schools doing this?  Why isn’t the head of SJUSD getting some presidential award? Why isn’t SJUSD serving as a model for large school districts around the country?  Why can’t FUHSD (and so many other districts) get it together and do what SJUSD (5 miles away) is doing with the same amount of funding per student?
    I applaud Rocketship for their work.  I applaud SJUSD for their work.  Those who constantly decry high standards,  district and school accountability in favor of some amorphous, undefinable, and untestable ‘creativity’ need to see the positive results that NCLB has produced (SJUSD and in the NAEP increase in nationwide scores of children in poverty) and come up with something other than rhetoric and ‘not my fault’-ism.

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  7. Michael, you misread Ravitch if your take-away is that she believes nothing can be done about student achievement as long as there is poverty in our communities.  She raises that point in response to the education “reformers” who point to teachers as bearing sole responsibility for the standardized test scores of the students in their classrooms for one year.
    Ravitch rightly points out that we must consider the factors in a student’s life outside the school day.  One might conclude from your comment that Ravitch believes that poor children can’t learn.  Nothing could be further from the truth, in reality and in Ravitch’s many publications and public speeches.
    One good thing to come from NCLB is the disaggregation of data and the very bright light shone on individual sub-groups of children.

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  8. “SJUSD set up a lot of proven district-wide methods that keep teachers on track (’you will be onthis page on this day’),”

    No, they don’t. I teach algebra in this district, and I’ve been to PD with all the other algebra teachers in the district, and the majority of them do not even share assessments cross school. We are not told what page we will be on, only that we’ll have benchmarks that will expect material to be covered by a particular time–and most teachers don’t buy into the benchmarks. (I do, however).

    I’m not sure what the district has done differently, as I haven’t been here that long. My guess is that they started insisting that the teachers care about the CSTs and teach a higher level of algebra. But we’re still in PI, and under constant pressure to improve our Hispanic scores, so whatever we are deemed to have done isn’t enough.

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  9. All of these comments and not one person even stops to ask if this test data is valid?  Look at what happens when learning is all about testing and tied to how much a teacher makes.  It’s disgusting that in our country we think everything should have a score.  Let teachers teach and stop shackling them with all this gov’t “accountability” crap.  Instead of being a mile wide and an inch thin, let’s slow down and work at the rate of each kid.  Give teachers the time and class size ratio so that they can focus on each kid, and meet them wherever they are at.  Let’s stop bundling kids by age, and set up a education plan for each kid.  How about that?  What kind of resources would that take?  Is our society ready to commit to that?

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