Rocketship Education changes course, slows expansion [San Jose Mercury News :: ]
(San Jose Mercury News (CA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) June 29--SAN JOSE -- Rocketship Education shot to national prominence by operating charter schools that produced stellar test scores from poor and immigrant students with a model focused on high-energy teaching, computerized learning and frequent test-taking.
But eight years after its first school opened in a downtown San Jose church, Rocketship has scaled back its ambitious goal of enrolling 1 million students in 50 cities -- which would have put it on the same scale as New York City's school district, the nation's largest.
Its ambitions have drawn fire from neighbors, parents, teachers unions and school districts, who charge that adding campuses will hurt traditional public schools and who have bested Rocketship in court.
Perhaps even more devastating for this darling of charter-school boosters is that its vaunted test scores have plummeted.
"We didn't deliver," said CEO and co-founder Preston Smith, about disappointing results that led Rocketship to slow its growth. "That's in response to our own expectations."
Primary among its difficulties, Smith concedes, is the failure of an audacious plan to knock down walls and create 100-student classrooms, which Rocketship is abandoning. Rocketship also suffered through a leadership transition after the exit last year of co-founder John Danner, who began a firm to supply software to schools.
Yet, Smith maintains, "We have really great schools." He also points to Rocketship's loyal parents, long waiting lists for its eight Bay Area schools, all in San Jose, and proficiency scores that outshine schools with similar students. Rocketship still envisions tripling in size to 13,000 students in three years.
Rocketship, Smith said, has been targeted partly because it challenges the status quo.
Not so, said the network's leading nemesis. Brett Bymaster, of San Jose, whose successful lawsuit led Rocketship to abandon plans for an already-approved school in Tamien, southwest of downtown. He said he's most concerned about governance.
"What happens when you have a relatively secretive organization that has an unelected board and has large growth plans?" asked Bymaster, who organized his Tamien neighborhood to oppose a proposed Rocketship school there, filed a successful land-use lawsuit that has slowed the charter network and now runs a "Stop Rocketship" website that has attracted a local and national following.
He noted that Rocketship reneged on a promise to maintain local school boards and instead consolidated them with the national board. "How do we as a community hold them accountable?"
Rocketship maintains that its recipe works. Hiring enthusiastic recent grads from top colleges and employing online learning, the brash nonprofit won awards and attracted investment by getting the hardest-to-educate children to score as high as their wealthier peers. Placing children on computers and with non-credentialed tutors for more than an hour a day has saved on teacher salaries.
The school day, even for young children, is eight hours. Teacher raises depend on test scores.
Staffers' long hours, however, are both a key to success and a source of burnout. Current and former Rocketship teachers characterized their workday as 11 to 16 hours, with just five weeks for summer vacation.
"You ate, breathed and lived with Rocketship," said Jennifer Myers, who worked as a teacher, academic dean and substitute. Like others, she initially loved her job -- citing the can-do culture at Mateo Sheedy, Rocketship's pioneer school, and the astonishing and satisfying progress of students.
But she and a teacher who is quitting Rocketship this month both said the hours are unsustainable. Rocketship in recent years has churned through green teachers, many from the nonprofit service group Teach for America, at a furious pace. After 2013, 29 percent of its teachers left.
Teachers -- who are at-will employees who can be fired at any time -- also criticized Rocketship's intolerance for dissent, saying it contributed to the disastrous redesign that placed 100 students in a classroom.
"Teachers raised concerns," said one ex-teacher, "and no discussion was allowed on the subject."
Those who privately expressed doubt feel vindicated, although sad, by the resulting test decline.
Rocketship was seeking in part to save money with the large classrooms, overseen by two teachers and an aide. Smith said the model also allowed for more specialized teaching, efficiency and computers in class. He acknowledges that the redesign, which in part precipitated a fall in test scores at all schools, didn't work out.
Rocketship relies primarily on state money for its $52.6 million annual budget -- which doesn't include a separate entity, Launchpad, that builds its schools -- and California has relatively low per-pupil allocations. So even after test scores fell at all schools -- including a precipitous 73 points at Mateo Sheedy -- in the pilot year, Rocketship went ahead and knocked down classroom walls and created more super-large classes. In March, Smith decided the model was not working. The walls are going back up.
Smith maintains that Rocketship listens to its teachers, and that he wants it to be a great place to work.
The turmoil has taken a toll.
Though it had visions of opening multiple schools annually, including eight in New Orleans, eight in the nation's capital and more elsewhere, Rocketship opened just two new schools last year and will again open just two this year, in Nashville, Tenn., and Alum Rock, approved earlier this month by the Santa Clara County Board of Education. Last week, Rocketship won approval to open a school in Redwood City in 2015. Currently, its only school outside of San Jose is in Milwaukee.
But with its advertised achievement, focus on discipline, attention to safety and effort to involve parents as well as intense recruitment, Rocketship has more than 750 students signed up or waiting for its yet-to-be-approved school.
"I see the excitement of my nieces and nephews at Si Se Puede," Rocketship's second school, said Lety Gomez, who hopes a new Rocketship will open for her 4-year-old. "I want to share that with my daughter."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.
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