Selected readings on US charter schools
California-based charter network raises eyebrows with results, aggressive tactics
It’s midmorning on a Saturday in June when Will Reichardt unlocks the front door of a south side office and grabs the day’s supplies: clipboard, school fliers in Spanish and English, some enrollment applications.
Just in case.
Then Reichardt drives his minivan to the local laundromats, where he circles dryers and washers and toddlers and parents, asking each family, in Spanish, to consider the opportunities at a new school opening in August called Rocketship.
A newcomer to Milwaukee, Rocketship Education is a nonprofit elementary charter-school network based in San Jose, Calif., that’s attracting national attention for its low-cost schools that blend traditional instruction with technological intervention.
Rocketship’s first national expansion site is Southside Community Prep, a new school at 3003 W. Cleveland Ave. which will operate under a special charter with the City of Milwaukee. If successful, Rocketship may open up to eight schools serving up to 4,000 children in Milwaukee.
The organization’s mission is to eliminate the achievement gap by rapidly replicating schools that perform better and cost less than local options. It intends to grow from 3,800 students in California to 25,000 students in six states by 2018.
In a decade, leaders estimate, they could be educating 200,000 students in 30 cities.
But in Milwaukee, Rocketship is an unknown, and the hurdles to recruiting students in a highly competitive school landscape have it scrambling to enroll at least 300 students by an Aug. 19 start date — now four weeks away.
“It’s a question of getting enough kids in the first year to make the economics make sense,” said Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce President Tim Sheehy, who is president of the Rocketship Milwaukee board of directors.
There is more at stake than a single school.
Rocketship was wooed to Milwaukee by business and political leaders and given $2.5 million in local private start-up funds, including from the charter-school friendly Bradley Foundation and other businesses tapped by Sheehy’s MMAC.
Success would signal Rocketship’s capacity to expand its model beyond California and Milwaukee’s capacity to nurture high-performing schools run by outsiders with a different vision.
But locally, Rocketship’s arrival has pitted those who believe the network is one catalyst for boosting the long-stagnant trajectory of overall student achievement in the city against those who bristle at the enterprise’s educational practices and aggressive outreach efforts.
Nationally, Rocketship’s attempt at expansion is a harbinger for the high-performing American charter-school movement as a whole, as the schools that are publicly funded but independently operated try to prove they have the capacity to grow from boutique alternatives to national systems.
“For years, charter schools have tried to (grow in ) scale but for a host of reasons have found that very difficult,” said Heather Staker, a senior research fellow and an expert on blended learning at the Clayton Christensen Institute. “What Rocketship does is present a model that is cost-effective to a point that it could be easier to replicate than other charter schools.”
Milwaukee School Board member Tatiana Joseph questions the network’s model of hiring fewer teachers in favor of lower-cost aides who run learning labs where students often work independently or on adaptive software. She also believes Latino children should be able to learn English and Spanish in school. While Rocketship has bilingual staff and often recruits families by speaking in Spanish, all instruction is in English.
“Rocketship is coming into our community with this idea that they need to save our children,” said Joseph, who represents the south side district where Rocketship is operating. “Our children don’t need to be saved; they need to be understood.”
She added that the school is stripping down effective school practices in favor of “building little robots that can take standardized tests.”
Rocketship critics also point to its low rate of special-education students — network-wide in seven California schools operating this past year, about 7% had special needs.
In Milwaukee Public Schools, that figure is about 20%.
Rocketship has also faced criticism for using young and less experienced teachers. The network’s teachers, like many who work in independent charter schools, are not unionized.
But Rocketship supporters praise the nonprofit for running schools more like businesses than bureaucracies. They also see the network demonstrating powerhouse results with children from impoverished communities.
The organization’s mission is to remake the urban elementary school experience with stronger teachers, more technology, more innovation and more directed parent advocacy.
“We are going to change the game,” said Preston Smith, Rocketship’s 34-year-old co-founder and CEO. “Now we’re in the stage of proving we can grow success.”
Rocketship was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2006 by John Danner, a California software engineer, and Smith, a former TFA first-grade teacher who had recently opened his own elementary school.
As the organization explored sites for its first expansion, Denver, New Orleans, the District of Columbia and Chicago were top contenders.
Abby Andrietsch and Kole Knueppel, co-founders of Schools that Can Milwaukee, a nonprofit aiming to increase the number of high-performing schools in the city, took the lead on informing Rocketship about Milwaukee’s potential.
Sheehy secured a corporate jet from a member and flew out Mayor Tom Barrett and Common Council President Willie Hines to see the schools in California in 2011.
The network saw a potential talent pool in TFA Milwaukee. Danner said he also needed to see $2.5 million raised locally in start-up costs and a pathway toward a charter.
MMAC members raised the funds, and in November 2011, the Common Council approved a first-ever “umbrella charter” that would allow Rocketship to open up to eight K-5 schools in the city, serving up to 500 students each. Opening future schools would be predicated on the previous schools showing successful results with students.
Rocketship aims to open its second Milwaukee school on the tough-to-serve northwest side. The organization has not yet educated a population that is predominantly black.
“Milwaukee brought us here to eliminate the achievement gap, and we wouldn’t be doing that authentically if we weren’t on the north side,” Smith said.
Getting people — especially those outside the San Francisco Bay Area — to understand Rocketship is often easier to show than tell.
So Rocketship flew out some Milwaukee parents in April to tour its schools and meet Rocketship parents for two days.
Some of the parents included Nelly Hernandez, who worked for the nonprofit GreatSchools and was intrigued by Rocketship’s model after watching a video and talking to staff.
Roberto Montemayor, a boisterous self-starter who owns Monterrey Market on S. 13th St., was similarly intrigued and intends to send his youngest son to the school this fall.
Elizabeth Mercado’s children had been attending Holy Wisdom, a private voucher school, but she was disappointed in the test scores and thought Rocketship might offer a better alternative.
In California, their first impression of the schools — beyond their location under the warm April sun in San Jose — was the signature purple and green school colors.
Inside, friendly staff and principals introduced their schools while children trod past on lines painted on the floor. Teachers frequently reminded students to stand straight and tall, with “eyes forward” and hands behind their backs.
Classrooms and class time were highly structured, with minute-by-minute agendas and nearly all students on task. Mercado’s father joined the tour, and as the group moved from class to class and into computer labs to observe, Elizabeth gave him an optimistic thumbs-up.
“I like it here,” she said, in the hallway of Rocketship Alma Academy. “It’s very organized and the kids are really respectful. You don’t see that in all other schools. They seem proud of themselves in the classroom, like they’re at home.”
Structure and ritual
Though it is experimenting with a new instructional model for fourth- and fifth-graders, Rocketship currently organizes the school day into two three-hour blocks of English and math teaching time, with science and history and other subjects incorporated into those blocks.
Teachers specialize by subject, and students rotate classrooms. Principals are expected to be instructional leaders, so only high-quality teachers are promoted.
It is not uncommon to see a Rocketship principal take over a lesson while the less-experienced teacher observes.
For two hours of the day, students engage in individualized, non-direct instruction time monitored by aides, which is referred to as “learning lab.” Many pupils work at computers on adaptive, online reading and math software. Others receive small-group tutoring or work individually. Students rotate through enrichment time during the block, which could include physical education, drama or dance, coordinated by an enrichment teacher.
The schools do not employ certified art and music teachers.
The savings are redirected to provide teachers and principals with more training and higher salaries; Rocketship aims to pay them at least 25% more than the local school district.
Like many high-expectation charter schools, the school day and year are longer at Rocketship and uniforms are required.
School rituals build identity. An energetic daily morning assembly known as “launch” incorporates music, choreographed dancing and short speeches on academics and personal character. Each day ends with a closing assembly.
Teaching and staff
It’s not just the students at Rocketship who are young. Nearly every staff member is between the ages of 25 and 35.
The organization recruits heavily from Teach for America, and about 75% of its staff is either in or a graduate of the alternative teacher education program that recruits high-achieving, ambitious college graduates to commit to teaching in high needs schools for two years.
As Rocketship expands its operations, many TFA graduates and other strong teachers have a fast-track to school leadership positions.
In Milwaukee, the inaugural staff is more diverse. Only two teachers are in the TFA corps. Others are from charter and voucher schools, and other public schools.
In California, the Rocketship model has shown strong results, especially in its most mature schools.
Mateo Sheedy, the flagship elementary school opened in 2007, posted the third-highest test scores against San Jose Unified School District schools last year.
About 85% of Mateo Sheedy students receive free- or reduced-price lunches, an indication of poverty, and about 70% are learning English, according to California Department of Education data. But the number of children with special needs is lower than average: only 3.3%, according to the most recent data.
Four out of five Rocketship schools that have state test scores available are beating California state performance targets, according to the most recent data available. The fifth school is close to the target.
Opening a school is no easy task, but recruiting students in Milwaukee has been harder than Rocketship anticipated.
In California, hundreds of families sit on waiting lists for the schools. But in Milwaukee, Rocketship lacks name recognition. Its school building wasn’t finished until a few weeks ago. And many parents are reluctant to switch from their current schools, even if overall results are middling.
Furthermore, Rocketship is a K-5 school competing in a predominantly K-8 school landscape. And like many charter schools, it does not offer transportation.
The school had 225 applications on file as of last count, but fewer students officially enrolled because of some missing paperwork.
Underscoring Rocketship recruitment and internal operations is the belief that schools cannot change the outcomes for children single-handedly, and that parents are necessary partners. Through home visits, regular community meetings and social events, Rocketship trains parents to advocate for their children and neighborhoods in ways that many middle- and upper-class families tend to do naturally.
Parents are also asked to fulfill 30 hours of volunteer work for the school.
To recruit its initial crop of parents, Rocketship has tracked dismissal times — as well as test scores — of nearby schools.
But Rocketship hasn’t always been received warmly. Teams have been asked to leave the sidewalks outside public schools.
They’ve met resistance from schools such as ALBA, an MPS charter school, and Lincoln Elementary, a traditional MPS school.
Joseph, from the Milwaukee School Board, distributed anti-Rocketship literature during a carnival for Rocketship families at the new building over the Fourth of July weekend, according to Rocketship staff.
Light poles outside the school have been plastered repeatedly with posters negative toward the charter school network.
The network has rebuked the claims with its own literature.
Sheehy is optimistic that once the school has a year to prove itself, recruitment will become easier.
“We’re prepared to start at less than full capacity in the first year, and what will govern our growth is execution and performance,” Sheehy said. “The families that are in it will become tremendous advocates for the school, and enrollment will take care of itself.”
Will Reichardt, 22, grew up in Waukesha before joining Americorps and then the Rocketship network.
He’s been responsible for leading Saturday canvassing sessions at laundromats and in neighborhoods, and he’ll be the enrichment coordinator at the first school.
Reichardt was born in Korea, and the fact that he can strike up a conversation with anyone in Spanish about school issues tends to disarm people momentarily.
Reichardt thinks it works to his advantage.
At Blue Kangaroo Coin Laundry on W. Greenfield Ave. in June, he approached a young couple and their 4-year-old daughter.
The father, Adrenzo Dominguez, seemed intrigued when Reichardt asked him what he thought made a school great.
“Well, teachers,” Dominguez said in English.
Reichardt explained the Rocketship model, its emphasis on parental involvement and how charter schools are public schools, but with more flexibility than traditional public schools.
Dominguez asked if Rocketship taught in Spanish, too.
“We are a monolingual school because all the high-stakes tests are in English,” Reichardt responded.
Dominguez thumbed the flier while his daughter crawled on the bench next to his girlfriend.
“It’s definitely something to look at,” he said.
He looked back at Reichardt.
“You guys are going above and beyond just by doing this.”
Rocketship track record
In California, the Rocketship model has shown strong results, especially in its most mature schools.
■ Mateo Sheedy, the flagship elementary school, opened in 2007 and posted the third-highest test scores against San Jose Unified School District schools last year.
■ About 85% of Mateo Sheedy students receive free- or reduced-price lunches, an indication of poverty, and about 70% are learning English, according to California Department of Education data. But the number of children with special needs is lower than average: only 3.3%, according to the most recent data.
■ Four out of five Rocketship schools with standardized achievement test results available beat California school performance targets, according to the most recent state data available. The fifth school came close to hitting that target.
Source: Journal Sentinel – by Erin Richards