At first glance, Rocketship charters differ little from all the other privately run and publicly funded schools that have become so popular in America over the last decade. However, what the first glance doesn't reveal is that Rocketship is on a mission to completely redefine how urban schools educate their students.
In USA Today, Greg Toppo writes in excellent detail about how the Rocketship ethos is to ignore all conventional wisdom. He shows that this even translates to its hiring practices, as the majority of Rocketship teachers are new to the job, but have a prestigious college pedigree. A large number of its instructors are Teach for America graduates who are committed to making a difference in the classrooms of some of America's most high-needs schools.
It is inside the classroom that the major difference between Rocketship and traditional schools becomes obvious. The rows of desks host desktops – one for every student – where kids do a lot of their basic learning. According to Toppo, the teaching programs are frequently disguised as games to keep students interested in the material.
As students log on in the computer lab, they access what amounts to an individualized skills plan, the day's instruction based on assessments that adjust to their performance.
"You lose kids when either they don't understand or (say), âI know this,'" said Andrea Chrisman, a fourth-grade math and literacy teacher.
Up to 130 students at a time can utilize the Learning Lab. While a teacher would not be able to function in a classroom of this size, at Rocketship, that isn't a concern. Guided by the computer, each student moves through the lesson at their own pace with the program making on the fly adjustments to make sure that kids are neither overwhelmed nor bored.
Most kids seem smitten with ST Math — it's what Luis Zepeda was playing as he worked through the axes-of-symmetry puzzle. Developed by a Santa Ana, Calif., non-profit called the MIND Research Institute, the series of games is widely known by its mascot, JiJi the penguin. When kids get a correct answer, the program quickly builds a roadway or removes an obstacle, letting JiJi pass wordlessly across the screen. There are no prizes, no fanfares, no cheers. It's just JiJi appearing and disappearing. "It's almost Zen-like in its simplicity," said Principal Andrew Elliot-Chandler.
There are currently only 7 Rocketship schools operating in the country, with most located on the West Coast. The founders have already developed an aggressive expansion plans that culminate with 2,000 schools in all large urban areas, serving 1 million students, all by the end of the decade.
It's too early to draw final conclusions on the success of the Rocketship experiment, but early results are promising. Rocketship students rank near the top in their districts based on standardized test scores.