Rocketship, Aspire: Tenn. volunteers

Charter organizations expand outside CA

California-based Aspire Public Schools and Rocketship Education are applying to open 26 charter schools in the next five years in a new reform district in Tennessee, where the need is great, the climate for charters friendly, and the money for public schools better than in California.

Tennessee would mark the first venture outside of its home state and a shift in its expansion strategy for Aspire, the largest charter school operator in California with 34 schools primarily serving low-income minority children in Los Angeles, Oakland, Fresno, and Stockton.

Tennessee would become the third region for fast-growing Rocketship, which runs five elementary charters in San Jose with approval for 25 more in Santa Clara County and an additional school in San Francisco. Earlier this year, Rocketship’s  board  of trustees accepted the City of Milwaukee’s invitation to open eight schools, with the first in the fall of 2013.

Achievement School District, which operates the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in Tennessee, announced Tuesday that Rocketship and Aspire are among 12 charter operators, four of them without prior experience, that applied to take over existing schools or open new ones. Sixty-nine of the 85 schools in the Achievement School District are in Memphis, with a smattering in Nashville and Chattanooga. Transforming the worst-achieving schools into a laboratory for innovation, while inviting in successful charter operators such as Rocketship, Aspire, and the charter network KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), was part of Tennessee’s  winning Race to the Top application. Rocketship and Aspire will learn in June whether their charters are approved. KIPP already operates a charter in Nashville.

Aspire wants to open 10 elementary schools in Memphis, where most of the students in the Achievement District schools are African American. It “was not an easy decision because we didn’t want to spread ourselves too thin,” said Elise Darwish, Oakland-based Aspire’s chief academic officer. “But when we looked at the poverty and needs in Memphis, it was a no-brainer.”

Aspire serves 12,000 students in California, and that will grow by 10 percent by filling out existing schools. Beyond that, for now, it will look beyond California for growth, Darwish said.

More funding, fewer hassles

Aspire will receive $8,100 per child in school funding in Memphis, more than 40 percent more than the average $5,660 tuition it gets in California, plus facilities if it takes over an existing school. The charter will be for 10 years – twice the length as in California ­– and it will be monitored by Achievement School District’s new superintendent, Chris Barbic, the founder of YES Prep, a group of charter schools in Houston. That’s simpler and more direct than answering to dozens of authorizing school districts, as in California. Aspire received a statewide charter authority from the State Board of Education in California, enabling it to open anywhere in the state, but that approval has been tied up in court.

Two years ago, Aspire was one of only three school systems in the nation singled out by McKinsey and Company for its “significant, sustained and widespread improvement” in student outcomes. Earlier this month, the education research firm Mathematica and the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington named Aspire as a top-performing charter organization and pointed to its effective system of coaching teachers.

For the past six months, Aspire CEO James Willcox has been meeting community leaders in Memphis. Aspire may fly parents from California to Memphis to answer questions about the charter school and its approach. Parents in a Memphis school that Aspire takes over will have the option of going elsewhere. Existing teachers will have the option of applying for jobs at the charter school.

Darwish said that in Memphis, Aspire would further develop a blended learning approach it is piloting in Oakland, in which for part of the day students learn online using software programmed for individualized needs.

Blended learning has brought Rocketship acclaim – and contributed to its high API scores. Students spend 100 minutes a day in a learning lab, using online programs to bolster basic skills and accelerate learning. The model, which satisfies the state’s minimum instruction time, also saves money, which Rocketship plows back into higher teacher salaries and training. (For my take on Rocketship’s learning lab, go here.) The same will happen in Tennessee, with additional school funding going to art and drama, with student transportation eating up some of the differential, said Kristoffer Haines, senior director of national development for Rocketship.

Rocketship has applied to open eight schools in Nashville, starting in 2014-15, and eight in Memphis, starting a year later. Nashville will be a homecoming of sorts for CEO and cofounder John Danner. When he and his family lived there, Danner started  KIPP Academy in the city, and was active in the state’s early charter movement.

Rocketship’s K-5 schools in San Jose serve primarily Latino students, many of them English learners. The Oakland Unified trustees and Alameda County Board of Education rejected Rocketship’s proposal for a charter school in West Oakland last year, partly on the grounds that Rocketship had no experience teaching African American children.

Haines said that Rocketship subsequently hired researchers to examine issues raised in Oakland and is confident its model will work successfully in predominantly African American schools. It makes the case for that in its application to the Achievement School District, he said.


  1. Wow. So basically replace teachers with software, hire more paraprofessionals instead of teachers and for the teachers you do hire, take them from TFA (no experience and cheaper).
    If anything, that’s a great way to make money.
    What happened to the mantra that a quality teacher is the single most important in-school factor in student success? Maybe that wasn’t the plan all along?

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  2. John – wonderful article.  Thank you for the insights.  We are excited that California’s top charter management organizations have decided to work in the Achievement School District.  They have both made a bold statement about working with students regardless of state or city, but instead are taking responsibility for the achievement gap everywhere.  We are anxious to begin the review process and will make announcements on June 1st.  Thank you John.

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  3. “Aspire will receive $8,100 per child in school funding in Memphis, more than 40 percent more than the average $5,660 tuition it gets in California, plus facilities if it takes over an existing school.”
    That’s impressive, not to say that $8k/child is luxurious funding.  I notice that Aspire has a nicely designed page on its website for “Donations.”  I’d like to see some reporting on the actual “added-dollar value” that Aspire, Rocketship, Kipp, and others bring to their per/child spending.  Would this represent an even further divide between these more independent operations and the “average” school in CA and elsewhere?

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  4. Navigio certainly has it right about the contradiction between two forcefully declared positions coming from the education-”reform” sector.

    As someone who has followed and critiqued media coverage of education “reform” fads for years, it interests me that Aspire lays pretty low while Rocketship flamboyantly declares itself to be the new walks-on-water miracle (a claim obediently parroted far and wide, of course).

    On that note, everyone should read Paul Farhi’s American Journalism Review piece on education news coverage. (Since I can’t post the link, Google paul farhi education reporting.)

    And also, a story to follow that I’m sure John will post here soon: The very most acclaimed miracle charter school in the land, American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland, may be closed due to alleged financial fraud. (And if they’re allegedly committing such financial misdeeds, do we really trust that those stratospheric test scores are on the up and up? Sure, if we’re very, very gullible.)
    Google American Indian Public Charter School, look for news articles and read the sfgate or Oakland Tribune versions.

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  5. “Because there are no student test scores with which to evaluate over half of Tennessee’s teachers — kindergarten to third-grade teachers; art, music and vocational teachers — the state has created a bewildering set of assessment rules. Math specialists can be evaluated by their school’s English scores, music teachers by the school’s writing scores.”
    The above is a quote from a NY Times (11/6/2011) article on “reform” in Tennessee driven by the state’s efforts to comply with the requirements of its Race to the Top (RttT) grant.
    Reread it. Yes. What it says is that all Tennessee teachers must have student test scores linked to student test scores. This is a result of an interpretation (likely an accurate one) of RttT’s call for linking teacher evaluations to “student performance.” Of course, more than half of the teachers (as is true in CA) don’t have state tests to link their evaluations to. The solution? Have those teachers choose some other teacher’s test scores to include in their evaluations. After all, a test score is a test score. It’s a number, so it must have some intrinsic significance. So we have a P.E. teacher at one middle school who heard that fifth grade writing scores would be high so he chose that score. He also passed the information on to the art teacher, the home ec teacher, and the career development teacher whose “effectiveness” will be judged on the performance of another teacher’s students. Sounds reasonable. Right.
    This whole “reform effort” is, of course ridiculous though it fits nicely within the architecture of RttT.
    Another quote from the NYT’s article about “reform” in Tennessee: “A recent article in Education Week said essentially that things were so bad in Tennessee, there was a danger that the grant program would be undermined elsewhere.”

    Another requirement of RttT was for states to make it easier for charter schools to be established. And so Tennessee has done that with its usual panache.
    And so we get to this article in TopEd.

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  6. Paul Fussell (Dumbing of America) would be proud. Pretending that something bad is actually good only makes things worse. How can a school district comprising the lowest-ranked schools in a state whose education system is already among the lowest-ranked in the nation possibly include “Achievement” in its name?
    As an amusing aside, grammar is not a strong point for “Achievement” School District. The home page and the “About Us” page include the heading, “Its [sic.] time in Tennessee.”
    Well said, Navigio and Sue.

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  7. The more public acclaim a school gets, the harder it is for its monitors or for internal whistleblowers to provide oversight. They take all kinds of risks trying to hold a larger-than-life figure like Chavis accountable. This is  something to which those doing the adulation-showering might give a little thought. (If anyone ever decides to raise issues about Rocketship — the current media darling — take cover!)
    Sorry, off topic.

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  8. Just like Starbucks or Wal-mart, they follow the money.

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