At the computers, each child logs onto a program that continually adapts, spending more time on tasks that the student finds difficult, advancing when the student demonstrates mastery.
One morning this spring at Discovery Prep, Ebony-Princess Cutts thumbed through a stack of printouts as first graders clicked away at their computer stations. Cutts, a Learning Lab aide who is not a certified teacher, earns about $14 an hour with benefits.
“This tells me that he’s struggling,” she said, referring to a chubby boy sitting at the end of a row of computers, his small ears swallowed by big blue headphones. “I wouldn’t ordinarily notice that because he’s quiet and he looks like he’s engaged.”
Later, kindergarteners filed into the Learning Lab and slid into their seats. Of nine students, three faced their computers while the others played with their headphones, poked each other and glanced everywhere but the monitors.
Danner acknowledges that the youngest students have trouble concentrating, although he said internal data show the kindergartners and first graders complete as many computer lessons as older children.
As the quality of software improves, Danner thinks “Rocketeers” could spend as much as 50 percent of the school day with computers.
A handful of other charter school operators are experimenting with blended learning, including two Los Angeles elementary schools that are part of the Knowledge Is Power Program or KIPP.
The KIPP schools were forced to use computers after state budget cuts resulted in teacher layoffs. The experiment is going well, but KIPP does not plan to expand it, said Mike Feinberg, a co-founder of the KIPP network. “The recipe is great teaching and more of it,” he said.
Offloading rote work to computers
As far as Juan Carlos Martinez is concerned, the Rocketship computers have delivered great teaching.
Martinez has three children in third grade. His daughter, Vivian, was hopelessly confused by basic math. His sons, both autistic, struggled with everything, and one was in a special-education class that didn’t seem to help.
Martinez, who remodels houses, and his wife, a nurse’s assistant, couldn’t afford tutoring. Uncertain what to do, they pulled the children from the neighborhood elementary school and enrolled them this past November in Discovery Prep at a friend’s urging.
Rocketship tested the children and found they were performing at the first-grade level, which shocked Martinez.
After their first week at Rocketship, the children woke up early on Saturday morning to do their homework unprompted. The boys made progress. And Vivian had a math breakthrough. “She said, ‘Dad, I finally get it,’ ” Martinez said. “I asked how did your teacher show you?’ She said it wasn’t the teacher. It was the penguin.”
An animated penguin is featured in the math software used by Rocketship.
Computers cannot replace good teachers, Danner said. But rote tasks — math drills, for example — can be offloaded to computers, freeing teachers to focus on more creative work, he said.
Computers cut roughly $500,000 annually from Rocketship’s labor costs for each school, which has an average enrollment of about 500. The savings means Rocketship can finance its own new school buildings — a luxury in the charter world, where facilities pose the greatest obstacle.
It also uses the windfall to pay for staff training and higher salaries for its teachers, who earn about 10 percent more than those in surrounding public schools. Teachers can earn another 10 percent in bonuses if students meet performance goals.
Mindful of teacher burnout that plagues high-poverty charter schools, Rocketship provides a month of training before school starts and professional development through the year. Rocketship is also quick to promote teachers, who can run a school after just a couple of years in the classroom.
Even so, about 25 percent of the teachers do not return each year, which is in line with the national attrition rate for young teachers in high-poverty schools.
Devon Conley, 32, a Yale-educated kindergarten teacher at Discovery Prep, arrives at school about 7 a.m., stays until 5 p.m. and works a couple of hours more at night from home.
Like most of her colleagues, Conley loves her job and speaks of the “mission” with great passion. Still, she said, “this is not for the faint of heart.”
Finding a better way
Danner grew up alongside the technology industry in Silicon Valley. From his first computer at 12 — an Apple II — he was smitten. After earning an electrical engineering degree from Stanford, Danner worked for a series of tech start-ups before creating his own, NetGravity, the first company to write code that placed ads on Internet search engines and other sites.