http://paloaltoonline.com/print/story/print/2012/03/23/a-focus-on-data-and-minding-the-gap


Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - March 23, 2012

A focus on data, and minding the gap

At Rocketship's newest campus, young teachers, students learn together

by Chris Kenrick

The new campus of Rocketship Discovery Prep wasn't much more than a vacant lot near U.S. Highway 101 and McKee Road in San Jose a year ago.

Today it houses 423 children who are heading into spring semester led by a staff of young teachers and administrators, armed with data and a passion to close the achievement gap.

Discovery Prep, which opened Aug. 29, is the fifth of Rocketship Education's five charter schools in San Jose — so new it has yet to log any standardized test data with the California Department of Education.

But if it's anything like its sister campuses, the oldest of which opened in 2007, its students will significantly outperform children who are similarly low-income and English learning on the upcoming California Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) test.

Classrooms in Discovery's two-story building look much like those in any elementary school, but wall displays heavily emphasize phonics.

In Holland Snider's first-grade class, students sit on the carpet for a lesson on "inferring."

"How do you figure out what a word means if you don't know it?" the teacher asks.

Hands go up and a student named Alisha answers: "You look for context clues on the same page. Look at other words on the page and predict what it means."

Down the hall, Tianay Perrault's kindergarten class is studying the phonics and meaning of the word "transparent."

"What's the last sound-letter?" Perrault asks the class, whose members answer in unison: "t."

She then asks for the first sound letters in the word, working through "sw" and "str" before the class agrees that the correct answer is "tr."

Perrault pulls out a flashlight, plastic wrap, foil and pink paper for a demonstration of "transparency."

The youthful teaching staff at Discovery gets regular coaching from Academic Dean Amanda Chang, who herself taught for four years after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 2007.

Chang, who considers herself a full-time teaching coach, said she holds a one-on-one weekly meeting with each new teacher, and every other week with those more experienced.

"We focus on the students in whom we're looking for more growth," she said. "We dive into the student work, talk about what it shows us for what the next step should be."

"When I was a teacher, my principal was my coach and did the same thing with me. I was always stuck inside my own classroom, and it was really helpful to have another set of eyes in the room, someone who knew the kids and was invested in me as a professional."

Teachers also get real-time coaching from mentors such as Chang, who use video and earpieces to improve classroom practices.

Rocketship schools rely on young teachers and administrators — many, like Chang, alumni of the Teach for America program — to staff its growing network of campuses, projected to increase to more than two dozen in San Jose in the next few years.

Young teachers can aspire to be principals by the time they're 30 if they participate in Rocketship's Network Leadership Program, providing a pipeline of talent to start up new schools.

Another key feature of Rocketship schools are "Learning Labs," containing banks of computers at which each child spends at least 70 minutes a day in self-paced, individualized instruction in basic math and literacy skills.

Teachers can see live data from any student at any point, and kids are assessed every eight weeks for feedback to parents and teachers.

Students in all grades are tested each fall and spring through the Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit that says it tries to foster a school "culture that values and uses data to improve instruction and student learning."

Additionally, second- through fifth-graders take California's STAR test each year, whose results can be compared with those of other schools.

Five percent of Rocketship students receive special-education services — 60 percent of them for speech or language impairment, 33 percent for a specific learning disability, 3 percent for emotional disturbance and 3 percent for autism.

The reason that number is below the 10 percent of special-education students typically found in California schools, administrators said, is because the individualized instruction in Rocketship's regular program helps kids keep up.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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