Rocketship charter chain had an audacious plan to enroll one million students nationwide, drawing students from poor and immigrant communities, putting them in front of a computer in large classes, and relying on low-wage (mainly Teach for America) “teachers.” The chain got high scores and began opening charters outside San Jose, California, where it originated, but then something happened that was unexpected. The scores fell.
But now Rocketship hopes to enroll 13,000 students in the next three years.
“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.”
The teacher burnout rate is high. Many find the workload and hours unsustainable. Certainly it is not compatible with a family life. Rocketship depends on a steady supply of low-wage college graduates willing to devote their life to the school until they can’t anymore.