Inside a prefabricated beige building hard by the freight tracks, John Danner thinks he has solved one of the nation’s most vexing problems.
This is Rocketship Discovery Prep, one of five charter elementary schools founded by Danner that are bridging the achievement gap — the staggering difference in academic performance between poor and privileged children.
The gap — which has persisted for decades despite heavy investments of time, energy and money — can cement the path a young life takes. Poor children are likely to enter school already behind, never catch up and then drop out, joining an underclass that threatens the country’s economic future.
Policymakers, foundations and business leaders are ravenous for schools that can educate all children, regardless of income. And they don’t want just a handful of successes. They want a big idea, on a grand scale.
Danner, a boyish 45-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur and onetime public school teacher, believes he has the answer.
On standardized tests, Rocketship students — overwhelmingly poor, Latino and Spanish-speaking — have outscored the county and state average. In some cases, the “Rocketeers” have performed as well as students in nearby Palo Alto public schools, where Stanford University professors send their children.
Danner wants to take his model and expand it into the nation’s largest chain of charter schools, reaching 50 cities by 2020.
Rocketship’s scores, combined with an unusual educational and financial model, have made it the darling of the school reform movement. Cities across the country, including in the District and New York, are clamoring for Rocketship to set up shop. The Obama administration has invested $2 million to speed its growth.
But some wonder if five-year-old Rocketship is producing miracles or mirages. Will a model that succeeds in San Jose also flourish in Nashville? Can a strategy that works for a handful of schools be expanded across the country? And can the achievement gap be eliminated?
Answers may be found next year, when Rocketship ventures outside of northern California to open the first of eight schools in Milwaukee.
To some, Rocketship’s rise represents another step toward a gradual abandonment of traditional public schools, placing more children — and public dollars — into the hands of private operators.
Stephen McMahon, president of the San Jose teachers union, worries that a dual system is developing: One filled with charters that attract motivated families and another of traditional public schools populated with reluctant learners.
“It’s almost harkening back to the days of segregation,” McMahon said.
Charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately run, must accept any student, the same as a traditional public school. But families have to seek out a charter school, apply and, if demand exceeds capacity, enter a lottery for a seat. The charter may be located across the community, requiring families to transport their children back and forth each day.
“I don’t want every committed family at a charter school and those who are struggling at traditional schools,” McMahon said.
McMahon stressed that he is neither anti-charter school or critical of Rocketship. In fact, he said, he admires some of Rocketship’s innovations.
What sets Rocketship apart from other successful charters is a financial model that allows it to operate on government payments without continual infusions of cash from private donors. Many successful charter schools require additional funds to cover the costs of a longer school day, intensive tutoring and other expenses.
But after initial start-up costs, Rocketship schools are largely self-sufficient because they use technology to re-engineer the classroom.
For two hours each day, students are taught by computers designed to meet children at their particular level and drill them in rote skills like addition or subtraction. They spend the rest of the day in more typical classrooms with teachers, tackling more complex work like critical thinking.
Computers shave 25 percent from Rocketship’s labor costs — savings used to extend the school day to eight hours, pay higher salaries to its nonunion teachers and to construct its own school facilities, among other things. One Rocketship school is a replica of the next — everything is identical, down to the paint scheme: forest green and beige with purple accents.
Cities vie for schools
Last year, D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson shook hands on a deal to bring eight Rocketship schools to the District. In January, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Rocketship was en route to his city.
Both announcements turned out to be premature: It can take years for Rocketship to identify and train school leaders, and neither Henderson nor Bloomberg has legal authority to approve a charter school. But the high-profile statements only amplified the buzz.