Rocketship Schools See Success in Closing Achievement Gap

Has a chain of new charter schools in California solved the problem of the income achievement gap? John Danner, founder of Rocketship Discovery Prep located in San Jose and four other charter schools around the state, believes so.

Danner, who was once a public school teacher, paid his entrepreneurship dues in Silicon Valley before transferring his attention to the problem of how to raise academic performance of poor children to the level of their more privileged peers. Rocketship students, called the Rocketeers, seem to be proving his approach right. On the latest round of standardized tests, they performed better than the average California students — and some have done as well as students from the nearby Palo Alto public schools. Schools in Palo Alto are where many of the nearby Stanford faculty members educate their children.

These impressive showings mean that education leaders from Los Angeles to New York have beaten a path to Danner’s door to ask him to spearhead Rocketship experiments in their states. Expanding the charter network is in the cards eventually – Danner plans to have schools open in every state in America by 2020 – but his the real test comes this fall. For the first time, Danner will be leaving behind the confines of Northern California when he opens the first of eight planned charters in Milwaukee.

And those who view the Rocketship experiment with skepticism will surely be watching closely.

Some wonder if five-year-old Rocketship is producing miracles or mirages. Will a model that succeeds in San Jose also flourish in Nashville? Can a strategy that works for a handful of schools be expanded across the country? And can the achievement gap be eliminated?

But some wonder if five-year-old Rocketship is producing miracles or mirages. Will a model that succeeds in San Jose also flourish in Nashville? Can a strategy that works for a handful of schools be expanded across the country? And can the achievement gap be eliminated?

One of the fiercest of Danner’s critics is, unsurprisingly, the president of the San Jose teachers union Stephen McMahon who says that charters create a two-tiered system of public education. Schools like Rocketship cater to the highly motivated student body, supported by an involved family, while the less-motivated or reluctant students become the exclusive problem of the traditional public schools.

Charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately run, must accept any student, the same as a traditional public school. But families have to seek out a charter school, apply and, if demand exceeds capacity, enter a lottery for a seat. The charter may be located across the community, requiring families to transport their children back and forth each day.

“I don’t want every committed family at a charter school and those who are struggling at traditional schools,” McMahon said.