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:

Looking to the future

Why this standalone Denver charter school is considering joining forces with a network

PHOTO: Courtesy Roots Elementary
A student at Roots Elementary in Denver.

A tiny charter school in northeast Denver faces a big decision after the departure of its founder.

Roots Elementary is searching for a new leader who can continue improving upon the school’s shaky academic start. But the standalone charter is also considering an unusual alternative: canceling its search and becoming part of the Rocky Mountain Prep charter network, which has stellar test scores and experience absorbing other schools.

Which route the school takes will largely depend on feedback from students’ families, said Eric Sondermann, the chair of the Roots board of directors. Families first heard about the Rocky Mountain Prep option last month, and many are still weighing the pros and cons. But TaHana McClinton, whose daughter will be in fourth grade at Roots this fall, sees mostly positives.

“From what I’m hearing, they’re the best,” McClinton said of Rocky Mountain Prep. “They have the best teachers and their curriculum is really good. I really do think it’ll be a wonderful merger.”

The Roots board is likely to vote in the fall on its path forward, Sondermann said. If it chooses Rocky Mountain Prep, the process of joining the network would probably take a year or two.

Roots’ situation highlights the challenges of going it alone as a single-site charter. The potential merger is also illustrative of an expansion strategy that, in the face of declining enrollment and scarce real estate in Denver, is becoming one of the only viable options for charter networks.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, which means they don’t benefit from the same centralized support as traditional district-run schools. It can be difficult for standalone charters to find a leader with expertise in academics as well as the business of running a school.

And money is often tight, in part because single-site charters also don’t benefit from the economies of scale that districts and networks do. For instance, Roots owns its own modern, two-story building in the heart of a historically low-income community that, like much of the city, is rapidly gentrifying. Owning its own building is both a blessing and a curse: Many charter schools struggle to find space, yet Roots has what Sondermann called “a significant mortgage.”

Much of the recent charter growth in Denver has come from the expansion of homegrown networks rather than from new standalone charters. The networks are eager to grow, and the district has approved them to open more schools. But a declining student population citywide and a more cautious approach to closing low-performing schools, driven in part by backlash from the community and opposition to charters, are limiting opportunities to expand.

Some networks have found a way. This fall, Rocky Mountain Prep will open a new campus in northwest Denver at the site of the former Cesar Chavez Academy, a standalone charter that closed last month after years of lagging test scores. The arrangement wasn’t imposed by the district; rather, Rocky Mountain Prep and Cesar Chavez worked together on the plan.

If the merger with Roots happens, it would be the third time Rocky Mountain Prep has added a previously existing school to its roster. (It is also in the process of replacing a low-performing elementary school in the neighboring city of Aurora.) Because Denver Public Schools already authorized the network to open two more schools, the deal wouldn’t need district approval.

Rocky Mountain Prep founder James Cryan said the network is excited about expanding. He noted that Denver Public Schools isn’t serving students of color and students from low-income families as well as it’s serving white and affluent students, as measured by test scores. To the extent Rocky Mountain Prep can change that, Cryan said he’s eager to do so.

“We know there’s important work to do,” he said, “and we’re energized to be part of a solution.”

Besides the schools Rocky Mountain Prep has added, it runs two elementary schools in Denver it opened from scratch. Both serve mostly poor students, and both are highly rated on a scale largely based on state test scores. Its flagship school, opened in 2012, is one of only 10 elementary schools in the entire 92,600-student district to earn the district’s top rating, “blue.”

Roots, meanwhile, is rated “yellow,” which is in the middle of the district’s color-coded scale. It’s also an improvement from the first rating the school received. In 2016, a year after Roots opened with students in kindergarten and first grade and a plan to add a grade every year, its scores resulted in a dead-last “red” rating, which put the school at risk for closure.

Interim executive director Steph Itelman, a former Roots board member who is temporarily running the school while the current board decides its future, admitted the school didn’t focus as much as it should have on what students needed to know to do well on the tests.

Students also struggled with Roots’ original academic model of intensely personalized lessons delivered via iPads, with teachers coaching them along the way. The school now uses a more traditional classroom structure – and test scores have improved. One thing that hasn’t changed is Roots’ emphasis on what educators call “social and emotional learning”: teaching students how to regulate their emotions, form healthy relationships, and the like.

That’s especially important at Roots, where many of the students are living in poverty and have experienced trauma. Though the percentage of low-income students is decreasing as the neighborhood gentrifies, Itelman said the needs of the students are not. In fact, she said, perhaps because of the instability and doubling-up of families that often comes with rising rents, some students are showing up with more intense needs than before.

Itelman and others see evidence that Roots’ focus on building students’ emotional skills is working. She offered an example: During a field day that took place in the last week of school, a kindergartener who wasn’t being a good sport was pulled from his activity by a teacher. At first, she said, the boy was upset to be missing out. But his frustration didn’t last long.

“The little guy said, ‘I know I’m hurting my class. I have a really good heart. I’m just not using it right now,’” Itelman said. When she heard the boy tell the teacher he needed to go apologize to his classmates, Itelman said it brought tears to her eyes.

Another place where Roots has excelled, parents and leaders said, is in its embrace of project-based learning. Every day, students have a class called Project Wonder. The endeavors they undertake vary by grade, but one infamous example is the time a couple of third-grade boys became fascinated by mummification during a unit on ancient Egypt. With some adult help, they tried it themselves by mummifying a cornish game hen.

Leaders from both Roots and Rocky Mountain Prep see a potential merger as mutually beneficial. Cryan said the network would possibly look to incorporate Project Wonder and other successful practices into the rest of its schools. Roots, meanwhile, would hope to benefit from Rocky Mountain Prep’s academic success, especially with black students.

Black students make up just 13 percent of students in Denver, but they account for 60 percent at Roots. Rocky Mountain Prep also educates a significant number of black students – and those students far outperform district averages. Whereas only 25 percent of black elementary students districtwide met expectations on the state literacy test last year, 54 percent at Rocky Mountain Prep did, according to data provided by the network.

In addition, Roots and Rocky Mountain Prep already have a connection. Roots founder Jon Hanover started his career in education as a kindergarten teacher at Rocky Mountain Prep. In developing Roots, he borrowed practices and curriculum from successful charters across the country. While such schools often face criticism for having rigid schedules and harsh discipline structures, Hanover said neither Roots nor Rocky Mountain Prep fit that bill.

“Rocky Mountain Prep is one of the unique schools that have incredible academic results and a really warm and loving school culture,” he said.

Hanover left Roots last month to take a position at Hop Skip Drive, a new ride-sharing service for children that’s trying to break into the Denver market. He said in an interview that after working to bring the school to fruition for four years, and running it for three, he was ready for a new challenge. He’ll stay involved, though, as a member of the Roots board of directors – which means he’ll have a say in the school’s future.

Parent Sarah Booth, who lives in the neighborhood and whose son will be in second grade at Roots this fall, said she’s not sure yet what to think of the potential merger. But no matter what happens, she hopes Roots hangs on to what makes it special.

“We like the innovative things they’re trying,” she said.

Future of Schools

The future of education reform in Indiana is pushing career-readiness to the forefront

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

After decades of blockbuster education policy changes that have catapulted charter schools, vouchers, and school choice into the national spotlight, the so-called education reform movement is in the midst of a change in identity.

A sector of influential education advocates is shifting its focus solely from the classroom to also emphasize career readiness, a less splashy type of education change than school choice — but one supporters say has the potential for broad and powerful impact.

And reform-minded Indiana, unsurprisingly, could be the proving ground for this national trend.

The state has recently put a laser focus on connecting education and workforce development. Instead of emphasizing college as the only post-secondary option, the state is encouraging schools to give students more opportunities to explore careers, take technical and science-based classes, and pursue internships. The goal is set up non-college-bound students for gainful employment in high-demand areas.

“It has a far greater impact than just focusing on one subset of education reform that is school choice, and it doesn’t divide people as much either,” said P.J. McGrew, who spoke with Chalkbeat when he was the senior education advisor to Gov. Eric Holcomb. “I think it’s something that everyone can rally around.”

The issue of career and technical education is bridging some of the political divides that the past couple of decades of school-choice-focused policy have wrought. But even with that consensus, meaningful career readiness policies still face an uphill battle, and the approach is not without its skeptics. It’s hard to start a movement around policies that require major institutional shifts, lots of planning, and take years to show they’re working.

During this year’s legislative session, workforce development bills were front and center, including initiatives like helping adults complete diplomas or certificates, encouraging internships and school-employer partnerships, and requiring schools to include more “employability skills” into their curriculums.

Funding has also been increased over the years to expand school career and technical education course offerings and incentivize the hiring of teachers transitioning from the workforce — all to fill a “skills gap” Indiana employers say is preventing them from finding the workers they need.

According to a 2015 report from the National Skills Coalition, a group that advocates for training workers to meet employer needs, 58 percent of Indiana’s labor market is made up of jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year-degree. Yet only about 47 percent of workers are trained enough to fill them.

The bipartisan support for workforce initiatives in education mirrors how broadly the issue resonates with Hoosiers. Many Republicans see career development as an extension of school choice policies, designed to allow families to find the school or program that is the “best fit” for their children. Democrats and Republicans alike see economic benefits for their constituents, whether they’re from urban centers trying to find higher-wage jobs or rural communities working to attract employees and keep industry in their region.

Ultimately, even fierce political opponents agree that students need options so they can be successful after high school.

And these policy debates haven’t been “as burdened down by blame” as past ones, said Teresa Lubbers, Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education.

Lubbers and others attribute the lack of friction to Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb’s demeanor and political approach. Indiana isn’t new to conversations about combining workforce and education, but Holcomb and his administration have made them the state’s central focus.

In trying to address the state’s opioid crisis and concerns from rural areas where industry has declined, Holcomb’s administration has said additional education opportunities for adults and better-prepared high school graduates can make a difference.

Because Holcomb has pursued a more moderate political agenda compared to his very socially conservative predecessor, then-Gov. Mike Pence, other politicians have been more likely to sign on to his workforce vision, even if they had opposing views on other issues.

For instance, he’s found common ground on the workforce issue with Indiana’s schools chief Jennifer McCormick, a former public school educator who shared many of her education policy views with her Democrat predecessor Glenda Ritz despite being a Republican.

McCormick has come out strongly in support of more ways students can learn about science, technology, engineering, and math, and set goals to update the state’s career and technical education courses.

And unlike Pence and Ritz, Holcomb and McCormick haven’t clashed as frequently — or as publicly.

The calmer political climate during the past two years has been far more conducive to a reform movement that requires a lot more collaboration between politicians and state agencies.

Prioritizing policies that create political unity not only reduces the spectacle of previous administrations, it primes the state for another controversial move lawmakers finally cemented in 2017 — making the elected state schools chief an appointed position, much like current agency heads for workforce development and higher education.

That cohesion, some believe, is what could lead to the most change.

“If you’re going to try and make a major push in the education and workforce space, you need alignment,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, a group that advocates for school choice. “Having a separately elected official makes that more difficult. We certainly saw that under Gov. Pence.”

It’s a less splashy type of education reform, said former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, who led many of those school choice reforms himself under Gov. Mitch Daniels. But workforce initiatives are still rooted in many of the same principles that drove the choice movement, such as innovation and individualization.

“There is a lot of room for big policy movement in that area,” Bennett said. “I just hope that the traditional reform community sees that as as powerful as we saw the things that we pursued.”

Bennett touches on a potential hurdle that has current Indiana policymakers concerned about this new path: Supporters believe workforce-oriented reform efforts could end up having more impact than their choice-focused predecessors — but they’re harder to create, slower to implement, and take longer to post results.

Creating a sense of urgency around these issues, said McGrew, who in May took a new job as director of policy for the Governor’s Workforce Cabinet, could be challenging.

But directing too much attention to work-based learning could have drawbacks, some education advocates say. And because Indiana has barely gone a year without changing some aspect of its education system, there’s fatigue for educators, students, and parents on the ground.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, worries the increased focus on education and workforce is redefining the purpose of education.

“That’s the debate that’s about to happen,” Meredith said. “What is the real role of public education? Is it to create bots to work in plants … or is it to create adults in a functioning society?”

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said workforce programs should be careful not to fall into the old traps of traditional career technical education — namely tracking students and pushing them into the programs.

“As long as it’s not old fashioned voc ed,” she said. “This is really giving kids choices and different pathways … it has to be the kind of pathways that are interesting and exciting to kids.”

Even ardent supporters of the state’s career-readiness push, such as Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican lawmaker who has been at the helm of many of Indiana’s biggest education overhauls, want the state to think even bigger.

It’s not enough to increase career and technical education classes and funding, or even to encourage more work-based learning, he said. He wants Indiana to look at other models for education, such as those in Switzerland and other parts of Europe, where apprenticeships and career training are very integrated into K-12 education but it’s still possible to pursue higher learning.

“I think unless you are willing to really dig down to how we deliver education and how we should be innovative and change our system from early childhood to post-secondary and beyond, I think we’re just tweaking at the edges,” Behning said.

It’s likely the state will continue to see workforce issues driving education policy, and the proposals could be even grander with the availability of state funding during the next budget-writing year.

But even as the reform strategies shift, in Indiana and across the nation, the days of more controversial education policy aren’t necessarily over. A new budget also means school funding decisions are on the table, a major factor in heated debates over how school choice is affecting districts across the state.

Newer, more complicated policies like Education Savings Accounts have failed to gain much ground in Indiana, but there are still many advocates pushing for the voucher-like program that could direct more dollars away from the state’s traditional school funding system.

Local education advocates don’t expect the same kind of dramatic 2011-era policies that established the state’s voucher program and expanded charter schools to crop up anytime soon, but there’s still plenty of runway for Indiana to stay in the education reform spotlight on innovation schools and vouchers.

“I don’t see us dragging our feet on anything,” Lubbers said. “It’s certainly true in K-12 with reform, and it’s certainly true in higher education reform, that we are a leading state, not a lagging state.”