Rocketship Charter School Nears Full Enrollment in Milwaukee

One year after a rocky launch, Rocketship Southside Community Prep is beginning to showing signs of success, and education reformers nationwide are keeping an eye on how the newest Rocketship experiment plays out.

The start-up is a charter school that began in eight years ago in California and now boasts locations in San Jose, Milwaukee, Nashville and Washington D.C. The school spends part of each day using computer software that adapts to each students' skill level to teach reading and math, overseen by an aide in place of teachers to keep costs down. Teachers at the school are specialized in their subject.

Rocketship recently celebrated its one-year anniversary of its Milwaukee location, is set to have full enrollment this fall, writes Erin Richards for The Journal Sentinel.

"The question was whether we could take an academic model and replicate success in another state. And that answer is yes, unequivocally," Katy Venskus, Rocketship's vice-president of policy, said.

The location exceeded its goal of 65% of its students meeting the national average for reading and math, having 72% learn as much as a typical student in English and 87% in math.

Teachers were successful in getting 90% of parents participating in their 30-hour involvement goal with the school.

The location also faced some challenges this year. Rocketship went over budget by about $500,000 in its efforts to help the 17% of their students who have special needs.

The school also has long work hours and high expectations, causing a high turnover rate in its teachers.

The company currently has an agreement with the Milwaukee Common Council to open eight locations serving 500 students each, but does not plan on opening a second location until 2016-17.

Charter schools offer high results in exchange for freedom from some of the traditional public school rules.

Because companies privately run these schools, they do not have to answer to a school board, causing them to receive much criticism from teachers unions and school districts, which believe the growth will hurt traditional public schools by taking away state funding. Rocketship relies on this funding for much of their $52.6 million annual budget.

Also a concern among critics, the school predominately recruits its teachers from Teach For America, which hires recent college graduates to teach in low-income areas for two years. Critics believe the students that the company serves, who have more educational needs than the average student, need teachers with more experience.

Richard Whitmire, a former USA Today reporter, touched on the criticism in his book, "On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope" by applauding the school's efforts resulting in students who work hard and are quick to try new things.

"If superintendents and union leaders had been doing that with traditional district schools, we wouldn't be seeing millions of parents requesting spots in charter schools," Whitmire wrote.

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