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.
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.
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: