Future of Schools

Rocketship Education debuts in Nashville with plans for quick expansion

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Students at Rocketship play in their brand new gym.

On a recent morning, Rocketship Nashville Northeast Elementary’s 448 students gathered at 8 a.m. in the gym of their newly-built school in East Nashville for a ten-minute “launch off” to start the school day.

The children erupted into cheers as their classmates were recognized for exemplifying Rocketship values, like respect, responsibility, empathy, and persistence. The launch ended with a massive synchronized dance before the students, some as young as five, dispersed into a tightly-scheduled day of classroom activities including sitting in a large computer lab for two hours. It’s a controversial practice Rocketship says will improve the educational outcomes for Tennessee’s most academically-struggling students.

Rocketship, a California-based chain of charter elementary schools known for combining technology and teaching to reduce costs and raise student achievement, is expanding in Tennessee, even as it tempers its original plan to open schools in 50 cities and serve 1 million children. Heads of the charter management organization were attracted to Tennessee by the state-run Achievement School District, which shares their goal to close the achievement gap between affluent and low-income students “within our lifetime.”

The ASD has already approved Rocketship for eight schools,  and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which authorized the East Nashville school, has authorized Rocketship for at least one more. The school is already hiring some teachers for their expansion.

Not only is Rocketship spreading schools across the state, they’re spreading ideas. Education officials in Shelby County and across the state are exploring how to implement blended learning in traditional public schools, the school is considered the progenitor of the method.  Proponents of blended learning say that it allows students get a personalized education, and provides more data to teachers and administrators so they can assess and address students’ weaknesses.The state’s innovative educator network of about 50 educators will take a field trip to Rocketship this fall, a department spokeswoman said.

Rocketship received little visible opposition in Nashville before opening. But critics in San Jose, Calif. and Milwaukee, Wisc. have raised concerns about board members being part-owners of Dreambox, one of the products Rocketship uses in their learning labs; the educators’ tight focus on math and reading, rather than non-tested subjects; and the time children spend in front of a computer. Studies suggest that too much time in front of a computer can lead to attention problems and sleep disruption.

A white board in a Rocketship classroom shows the schedule for a busy day.
PHOTO: G. Tatter
A white board in a Rocketship classroom shows the schedule for a busy day.

Rocketship leaders say they were interested in the company Dreambox before any board members invested in it, but it was not quite up to their standards. It was through investments from board member Reed Hastings that school leaders were able to help craft the program to suit their students.

“It wasn’t like a big existing company that we started contracting with because of the relationship,” Mitchell said. “That would be a conflict of interest.”

And Rocketship CEO and cofounder Preston Smith said that students don’t spend all of their time on a computer, as critics often assume. During the two-hour learning lab, he said, students go to Spanish and drama, and participate in screen-free tutoring at tables on the side of the learning lab.

Inside the school

The first week of school, the principal of the new Rocketship school, Adam Nadeau, had little time to think about criticisms.

Most charter schools in Tennessee have opened with one grade at a time, phasing in higher grades over several years. Rocketship’s urgent mission meant that leaders wanted to open the whole elementary school at once, and so 448 students in  kindergarten through fourth grade arrived to the school in late July. The school recruited heavily in the East Nashville neighborhood in which it’s located, housed in a brand new, purple and orange building. It’s funded by tennis star Andre Agassi’s for-profit hedge fund devoted to charter school growth.

The majority of students at the school live in the Dickerson Pike area of East Nashville, said Shaka Mitchell, Rocketship’s regional director for Tennessee.

Nadeau is an  alumnus of Metro Nashville Schools and a former middle school teacher at KIPP Nashville. In 2009, he moved to San Jose, where he served as the principal of two Rocketship schools.

On the second day of school at Rocketship Nashville, Nadeau was patrolling the school and learning 480 students’s names. He made sure children’s clothes were tidy and broke up two boys playing in the hall with a bark of “Gentlemen! Gentlemen!”

“They’re just having fun,” he later said, “but…”

Nadeau said he wants to maximize every minute of a student’s day at school. Students as young as five-years-old rotate through separate humanities, math, gym, Spanish, and theater classes. (Originally, children were to only take Spanish and theater classes as electives, because Nadeau felt they best supported literacy key skills in core courses, he said, but the school quickly decided to add a visual arts class mid-year.)

Students also spend time in the school’s cafeteria-sized learning lab, where they are guided through activities by a computer, rather than a teacher. Teachers and on-staff tutors get the data from the activities, and can tailor their lessons accordingly.

Students help each other in the learning lab at Rocketship Nashville Education.
PHOTO: G. Tatter
Students help each other in the learning lab at Rocketship Nashville Education.

The school system has learned that blended learning can go too far. In 2013, they piloted a program with fourth- and fifth-graders in which one hundred students were in one large, open classroom at a time, working on individual lessons on computers and breaking out into smaller groups around the room throughout the day for direct instruction. Test scores dropped. Now all Rocketship schools are back to the rotational model.

Blended learning should just be one tool in the tool box of a good school, Veskus said, adding that great teachers are what Rocketship truly banks their success on. According to Rocketship’s application to Metro Schools, teachers get paid up to $70,000, far above the Tennessee average.

Even though there are only 19 teachers for a school of 448 students, professional development is built into the day when the students are in the learning lab, which is monitored by non-teaching certified tutors, or electives. And every Thursday, students leave at 2 p.m. so teachers can have more conferencing time. Assistant principals’ main focus is to coach teachers, sometimes in live time, through the use of walkie-talkies.

A “Stop Rocketship Education” group  in California has criticized the network for over-relying on young Teach For America (TFA) corps members they said were inexperienced, and high rates of teacher turnover. At the Nashville school, only two staff members are currently in TFA, although more of the 26-person staff are TFA alumni.

Parents at Rocketship are encouraged to take an active role at the school and get to know each other. There’s a parents’ lounge where they can spend time during the school day, and ample volunteer opportunities. By Labor Day, teachers were to have visited each of their students’ homes.

Angelina Rollin enrolled her third-grade daughter after seeing the construction of the building in her neighborhood.  Before the school opened, she began volunteering, and mentioned to an assistant principal that she was out of work. The school hired her to help out with tasks during the day, like monitoring the lunchroom and helping with pick-up and drop-off of students.

Rollin said, in an ironic twist, a school that champions the computer screen, considered to be the enemy of in-person relationships, might be building a community after all.

“Dickerson is known for being a hard neighborhood,” Rollin said. “People don’t just socialize. But now people say, ‘Hey, that’s the lady from the front of the line. I wouldn’t have reached out to my neighbors, but now I know their children.”

See a video of Rocketship’s daily launch ceremony below:

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”