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: Grace 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:

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.