Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 17, 2010

Group proposes new East Palo Alto charter school

Led by Palo Alto man, Rocketship already has three schools in San Jose

by Chris Kenrick

A group that runs three high-performing charter schools in San Jose is circulating a petition to open a new charter elementary school in East Palo Alto in the fall of 2012.

Rocketship Education, a 4-year-old nonprofit led by tech-entrepreneur-turned-teacher John Danner of Palo Alto, says it will apply in January for a charter with the Ravenswood City School District.

Rocketship has been scouting possible campus locations in East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park as well as soliciting support from local opinion leaders.

"We've been spending a good part of the fall talking to school board members and such," said Evan Kohn, Rocketship's manager of community support.

"We're talking to key leaders and parents who want another choice in East Palo Alto," Kohn said.

"They're certainly happy to sit down with us."

The group has been "overwhelmed with support" in a signature drive aimed at gauging parent interest in enrolling their kids in a Rocketship school, Kohn said. They expect to collect 400 signatures before the holidays, he said.

Rocketship said it uses a "hybrid model" — combining classroom teaching with one-on-one computer work — that has its low-income students in San Jose achieving state test scores on par with those in the Palo Alto Unified School District.

Children spend about 25 percent of their day in a computer lab, working with software that individualizes instruction in mathematics and reading, he said.

"The programs are very good at helping children with basic skills mastery, and then teachers can spend their time introducing new concepts, helping with guided instruction and working with critical-thinking skills," Rocketship Vice-President for Marketing Judith McGarry said.

Rocketship opened its San Jose campuses in 2007, 2009 and 2010. All three operate under charter agreements with the Santa Clara County Office of Education.

Students at Rocketship's Mateo Sheedy School earned a 2010 California Growth Academic Performance Index Score of 925. The group's Si Se Puede Academy had a score of 886 in its first year of testing. Data was unavailable for the newest Rocketship school, Los Suenos Academy.

The 2010 Growth API Score range for Palo Alto elementary schools was 861 to 984.

The API score for the K-8 Ravenswood City School District has moved from 633 in 2007 to a current 688.

The fast-expanding Rocketship aims to prove that its tech-assisted education model can erase the achievement gap among low-income students in a way that can be replicated efficiently across the country, McGarry said.

"We hope to say that with the exact same funding (as traditional public schools), we're able to offer kids a public-school experience that really helps them succeed academically," she said.

"Our approach is to be as collaborative as possible and to help the community understand our priorities are on the children."

Danner, a Bellarmine graduate and Stanford-trained electrical engineer, was founder and CEO of the web-advertising software company NetGravity, which he took public and sold in 1999.

He went on to become a public school teacher in Nashville, Tenn., where he got involved in the charter school movement. He was founding director of the charter middle school KIPP Academy Nashville. After returning to the Bay Area, he co-founded Rocketship with teacher and elementary school Principal Preston Smith in 2006.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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