[INTERVIEW] School Spotlight: Rocketship Education

Up to this point, our interviews have highlighted individuals who are influencing the direction of online education. But after careful examination of the space, we realized there are also a number of smart schools making an impact and we felt it would be negligent of us not to shine the spotlight on some of the more successful schools.


One of those successful school systems is Rocketship Education, a non-profit public charter school network that has spent the past six years serving low-income areas of San Jose, Calif. as they try to eliminate the city’s academic achievement gap.

The network opened its first school, Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary School in 2007. Now in 2012, Rocketship, which uses a cutting-edge model to connect with students individually and lower costs, has taken off. The network has already opened five schools with plans to open two more sometime this year.

Rocketship serves almost 2,500 students from low-income areas of San Jose and the early results have been so encouraging that Santa Clara County recently voted to approve 20 more Rocketship charter schools in Santa Clara County. 

We recently got the chance to sit down with Rocketship spokeswoman Sherri Dairiki, who was nice enough to spend more than an hour explaining how Rocketship is successful, the model they use for that success, and how they plan to grow in the future so they can complete their mission of eliminating the achievement gap.

The Rocketship Model

The first key to understanding the success of Rocketship Education is to understand their academic model. While they understood the importance of technology and online learning in the future of education, the network did not want to become one of the schools experimenting with a fully online learning model, because they recognized the importance of the teacher.

“Sure, we could spend a ton of time building our own Watson supercomputer,” Dairiki said. “But no matter what, no computer program can help students grow socially and emotionally.”

So instead of eliminating the teacher from the equation, Rocketship decided instead to take some of the more mundane responsibilities off the teacher’s plate and use computers for that instead.

The Rocketship model splits the duties between the teacher and what they call “the learning lab”. The teacher is responsible for introducing the concepts, teaching those concepts, and offering guided practice and support for the students so they understand how to apply the concepts to their daily lives. The learning lab is responsible for the student’s individual practice and assessing their comprehension of the concepts.

In order to make this a reality, Rocketship splits the student’s daily routine in a “75/25” mix. The students spend 75 percent of their day working with the teacher to understand the concepts and then they spend 25 percent of the day practicing to master those concepts using fun, adaptive online educational programs in the learning lab. This works because the teachers no longer have to devote a large portion of their time to repetitive practice and assessment of the students’ work. 

“We hire these teachers so they can teach,” Dairiki said. “The learning lab and the students’ use of a computer allow the teacher to focus on the high-order thinking and introduction of concepts.”

So now we know the teachers are important, so how does Rocketship find them?

Staffing any new school can be a seemingly impossible task, but Rocketship found a solution and an easy source of energetic, intelligent, and hard-working teachers in the program Teach for America.

Teach for America is an organization that recruits intelligent recent college graduates interested in education and rigorously trains them so they can become effective teachers in low-income areas. Or in other words, Teach for America is the perfect organization for Rocketship to partner with.

Each Rocketship charter school has a principal, an assistant principal, and an academic dean. The principal is in charge of running the school, the assistant principal is in charge of training the highly qualified learning specialists who staff the learning labs, and the academic dean is in charge of regularly training Rocketship’s teaching force so they can constantly improve. 

The teachers come to Rocketship already with a strong understanding of education, but that doesn’t mean they are a perfect fit for the Rocketship model, which is why the network constantly trains and evaluates its teachers to help them get better at their jobs.

Rocketship also understands that retaining talented teachers can be just as difficult as finding them in the first place. They also understand that many young teachers aspire to advance their career past the teaching level.

So they came up with the Rocketship Network Leadership Program which is designed to prepare participants to open and successfully run Rocketship schools. Dairiki said the leadership program has become increasingly popular and is part of Rocketship’s philosophy on the importance of teachers.

“We want our teachers to feel valued,” Dairiki said. “And the only way for them to feel valued is if we treat them as valued members of our team, which is what we try to do.”

Individualized learning: a study in success

Almost every online learning advocate across the country uses the idea of individualized learning to tout the benefits of online education programs and Rocketship is no different. Their software and educational programs not only allows students to proceed through their coursework at their own pace, it also allows the teachers to hone in on the students who are struggling and give them extra attention o help them make progress.

With real-time information available about how students are progressing, teachers can use that information to group students who are struggling at the same task together and give instructions to the learning lab specialists about what particular students should be spending their time working on. Dairiki points to this model as one of the reasons why Rocketship has been so successful at extracting high levels of achievement from students from low-income areas – and they have been quite successful.

Dairiki readily admits that standardized test scores are not the only measurement of success Rocketship uses, but they are still one of the best ways to measure the progress of a school and based on the data, Rocketship is flourishing.

The data also allows for Rocketship school leaders to evaluate how well their students achievement is progressing through the year, so they can take necessary measures to ensure all students have access to an effective teacher.

According to their own data analysis using the California Academic Performance Index from 2011, Rocketship’s three charter schools were among the state’s top ten schools serving low-income districts and Rocketship Mateo Sheedy was ranked the No. 1 elementary school serving low-income students in Santa Clara County.

Also, when they measure the results against their own past results, the improvements are starting to show as well. These results are one of the primary reasons why Rocketship has been able to overcome initial skepticism about their program and school districts are no longer discounting their success.

Building a parent network

One of the first things Dairiki mentioned when I asked about the Rocketship model was that building a community of active and involved parents was essential to Rocketship’s growth and continued success. Like many others, Rocketship seems to understand that active and in-depth parental involvement can often mean that students are more engaged in the work, more accountable for their attendance in class, and more likely to complete their homework in a complete and timely manner. But that is not the only way parents can get involved with Rocketship.

The network has not only used the testimonials of these parents to advocate their model in front of county school boards, but they are also using parent volunteers to go door-to-door in some cases, recruiting new students and spreading the good word about their program.

Rocketship believes that active parental involvement will be beneficial for the student’s success, so they encourage parents to learn about Rocketship’s model, join the school’s board and even participate in the Parent Leadership Program. Members of the Parent Leadership Program get to help interview new teachers and help encourage other parents to participate in community meetings, home visits from teachers, and of course parent/teacher conferences as well.

The cost of doing business

Like many of the at least partially online schools sprouting up across the country, Rocketship says that their operating costs are lower because they have used computers and software technology to become more cost-effective.

The way Dairiki explained it is that because Rocketship uses a learning lab for part of its educational experience, which means they need to pay for one less teacher per grade level and one less classroom leading to about $500,000 saved.

However, this $500,000 doesn’t just go into the network’s pocket. Instead they re-invest the money back into the school so they can pay the teachers a very competitive salary, afford an academic dean, and continue to make improvements and stay on the cutting-edge of educational technology.

Another awesome side-effect of the savings is that Rocketship, which does not charge any of its students a cent, doesn’t need to take money from outside investors. Because their operating costs are lower than some traditional schools, they are adequately financed by the state of California and therefore do not need to kowtow to the interests of their investors and they can instead focus on the children.

Our opinion

It is hard not to buy into what Rocketship has been doing over the past few years. There is no doubt that the charter school network is still in its infancy and will need to show evidence of sustainable and consistent success, improvement, and growth, but California should be grateful someone is trying this method.

California isn’t the only state with a poor-track record when it comes to educating and serving low-income students and it has become clear that if the achievement gap is going to be reduced, then some sort of disruptive innovation will need to take place, because the current method isn’t working well enough.

Rocketship isn’t reinventing the wheel, they are just taking the technology resources at their disposal, and they are using them to help create a new and innovative educational model that reduces costs, eliminates some inefficiency, and appears to be helping students grasp the educational concepts they couldn’t before…for free.

They still have a long way to go, but for now, Rocketship has laid the foundation for a successful and cheaper alternative form of education and even if they do have their flaws, the traditional educational system should be taking notes.