Rocketship: 29 charters in San JosePromises 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 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.