After Danner sold his company and became a multimillionaire, the Jesuits who ran his Catholic high school sought a donation. Danner opted instead to help them create a private middle school for at-risk boys in San Jose. “I wasn’t really interested in just giving money,” Danner said. “I wanted to get involved.”
He acted as the chief operations officer, securing and fixing up the school building, hiring the principal, crafting the budget.
When his wife got a job teaching law at Vanderbilt University, they moved to Nashville. Danner earned a master’s degree in education and taught for three years in the city’s public schools.
Faced with a classroom of second-graders at varying levels, Danner devised plans for each student. But he was convinced there must be a better way to teach, one that used technology designed to make teaching more efficient.
Upon his return to California in 2006, Rocketship was born.
Rocketship, which is a nonprofit organization, takes 15 percent from the public funding it gets for each student as a management fee and uses it for accounting, payroll and building maintenance, as well as curriculum and professional development. Danner earns $150,000 a year.
“Very few people understand both K-12 and tech,” said Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix and an early donor who now co-chairs Rocketship’s national strategy board. “John is one of the crossovers.”
Data is king
Like other high-performing charter schools, Rocketship emphasizes discipline, responsibility and achievement.
Each morning at Discovery Prep starts with a ritual called the “Rocketship Launch.” One day this past spring, several hundred children gathered on the asphalt lot outside the school, dancing with their young teachers as The Jacksons’ “Blame It On the Boogie” pumped from a boom box.
“Rocketeers, are you ready to focus?” shouted one teacher, who was rewarded with a high-pitched chorus of “Yes!”
The children streamed into the school, passing under Yale, Cornell and other collegiate banners. There are frequent and deliberate references to college throughout this elementary school, located in a neighborhood where students are more likely to drop out of school than attend a university.
The walls inside Discovery Prep are plastered with messages like “Work Hard, Talk Smart, Every Minute, Every Day” and handmade posters measuring student progress.
Rocketship focuses exclusively on reading and math; it encourages classroom teachers to try to incorporate science, the arts and other subjects into math and literacy lessons.
A great deal of preparation is focused on the state’s standardized tests taken in early May, the all-important metric by which schools — and Rocketship’s success — are judged. Some say Rocketship uses a “drill and kill” approach, where students become adept test takers but perhaps not critical thinkers.
“I feel conflicted about it,” said Dan Valedespino, a 24-year-old math teacher. “I try to wed the conceptual to the test taking. But that’s the game that these kids are in. Those colleges are going to know their scores.”
Data is king at Rocketship — in addition to two state tests, Rocketship students take eight internal tests during the school year. Every six weeks, teachers and administrators close school for a day to analyze test results.
Rocketship also goes to great lengths to involve parents, requiring them to pledge to read to their child every night, check homework daily, attend monthly meetings and volunteer 30 hours each year, among other things.
The bond between the school and families is further cemented by home visits.
“One teacher played ‘Chopsticks’ on our piano,” said Patrice Lindo, whose three daughters attend Rocketship Si Se Puede in San Jose. “I’ve never seen anything like it. They give their cellphone numbers, and the kids can call them until 9 or 10 p.m.”
Danner sees parents as an untapped force that could transform education politics. Rocketship has bused hundreds of parents to pivotal public meetings. It encourages parents to help elect politicians friendly to charter schools. In 2010, Rocketship helped parents create a political action committee that worked to elect three school board members in San Jose.
High stakes, potential pitfalls
Twenty years after the first charter school opened in this country, momentum is shifting fast from the early “Mom and Pop” stand-alone schools toward larger operations. But there are risks to growth.
As a charter organization expands, it can begin to resemble the school district it was formed in reaction against, said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. And the bigger it gets, the harder it is to maintain quality, she said.
“They’ll never be big enough to solve the problem, and the minute they do get big enough, they’ll be the problem,” said McMahon, the San Jose union president.