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VOL. 38 | NO. 15 | Friday, April 11, 2014

Rocketship alters course as scores drop

By Lisa Fingeroot

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Rocketship Education, a charter school company known for pioneering the use of computers to boost the academic achievement of low income students, is dumping a controversial online teaching program before it opens a school in Nashville, company officials say.

Rocketship opened its first elementary school in California in 2008 and earned a national reputation for success with a “blended” learning model in which students spend a part of the day learning online while supervised by an aide instead of a certified teacher. The rest of the students’ day takes place in a traditional classroom.

The online learning program allows a 50-to-one student-teacher ratio, has come under fire from educators and has contributed to a drop in test scores for Rocketship students, documents show.

Even though California-based Rocketship will abandon the online program, Kristoffer Haines, senior vice president of growth and development, is accusing critics of distorting company goals by wrongly claiming the online program was designed simply to cut costs so more money could be syphoned from each individual school and used to fuel company expansion into more states.

Rocketship’s learning model has found support among many of the nation’s education reform spokesmen, including former Florida Gov. and potential Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who promote the use of computers as a method to individualize student instruction.

But Rocketship took a public relations hit earlier this year when the California Department of Education released test scores showing a steady decline in student test scores between the 2008-09 and 2012-13 school years. During that period, the company grew from one to seven schools and also implemented the higher student-teacher ratio pilot.

The test scores, calculated at the request of Education Week, a national trade magazine for educators, show a correlation between growth of the company and incremental drops in test scores.

But Rocketship officials downplay the scores and blame the drop on the online pilot program, which they say will be nixed before the Nashville school opens for the 2014-15 school year.

Rocketship’s efforts have been “twisted and perceived to be increasing the student-teacher ratio to raise dollars to use elsewhere,” Haines says.

The online program allowed Rocketship schools to corral about 100 students into one open classroom with two certified teachers. With help from hourly wage earners, groups of students with similar ability levels rotated between learning centers.

“It’s important to understand that our goal is closing the achievement gap,” Haines explains.

The company goal is to create a successful school model for the estimated 14 million children who go to failing schools each day, and to finance it with the currently available per-pupil funding, he adds.

“We’ve really looked in the mirror and thought about what is best for students and teachers,” Haines says. “How can we do this in a way that drives us to have phenomenal results. We refined the model and we will continue to look at those kinds of things.”

Adam Nadeau, a Hume-Fogg graduate poised to shed his current corporate Rocketship title and become a principal in his hometown, says results of the pilot project were very similar to the results obtained by the original “blended” model that has won kudos around the nation.

“I really stress the results were very similar,” he adds.

However, the results calculated by California officials for Education Week show the percentage of Rocketship students who scored proficient or better in English/language arts dropped by 30 percentage points in five years, and the number scoring that well in math dropped by more than 14 percentage points.

Rocketship’s own calculations show student achievement in its schools still ranks in the top 5 percent of California school districts that serve low-income students.

The original “blended” model that garnered early success and will be established in Nashville is the use of a two-hour rotation through the school’s computer lab, where students participate in individualized lessons targeted to their ability level.

“We paid real close attention to the data,” says Nadeau, whose current position is director of schools and instruction for Rocketship. He also served as a Rocketship principal in California and says, “I taught as a principal. That’s how invested I was in the success” of the pilot model.

But factors other than achievement caused the group to abandon further use of the model. Teachers didn’t like it, Nadeau says, and company officials also found it very difficult to develop the teaching skills needed in that kind of classroom setting.

“Teachers have to be very strong,” Nadeau notes.

Since its experimentation, Rocketship has decided on a “sweet spot” of about 30 students to one teacher, Haines says. The ratio will vary from region to region depending on per pupil allocation in each community.

But maintaining that average allows Rocketship to balance the student achievement it seeks while supporting each school with available per pupil funding.

Rocketship currently has eight charter schools in California and one in Milwaukee. Its first Nashville school will open in August on Dickerson Pike, but the company is already making plans to seek approval for at least one more in Nashville. It will also open a school in Washington DC in 2015.

Rocketship has government approval to open charter schools in Memphis, New Orleans, Texas, and Indianapolis and corporate plans call for opening as many as 62 more schools in 11 regions during the next five years, according to company documents.

The Nashville school is designed to hold almost 400 students in grades kindergarten through fourth grade. Nadeau estimates the school has commitments for about 75 percent of the available seats.

It will have 12 classroom-based teachers and six others who teach subjects like technology, Spanish, art and physical education.

Rocketship schools, like many charter schools in Nashville and around the nation, operate on an extended day schedule that begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m. The day opens with an assembly, and then each child is given breakfast, Nadeau says.

Breakfast is served after assembly to make sure even late students have the opportunity to eat before starting the school day, he adds.

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