Palo Alto man seeks to 'eliminate achievement gap'

Former tech entrepreneur aims to scale his 'hybrid' K-5 model to serve large numbers

Can a Silicon Valley business guy retool his startup skills to transform the world of education?

Meet John Danner, a Palo Alto resident who is betting his company on it.

The Stanford University-trained engineer switched careers to education following the 1999 sale of his high-flying venture-backed startup, NetGravity.

After three years of teaching second- and fifth-graders, Danner's key observation -- that kids need to be reached at the level they're at, not where they "should" be -- became the basis for co-founding his next startup.

This time it's Rocketship Education, a Palo Alto-based K-5 charter-school management firm.

That six-year-old, nonprofit startup aspires to a goal as audacious as that of any cheeky tech venture -- "to eliminate the achievement gap in our lifetimes."

Today, after launching five elementary schools that have propelled low-income kids in San Jose to top academic results, Danner believes he has an educational model that's worth "scaling up."

A few dozen -- even a few hundred -- charter-school success stories won't make a dent in helping the millions of kids across America who are stuck in failing schools, he said in a recent interview at Rocketship's downtown Palo Alto headquarters.

"There are 100,000 schools, of which the U.S. Department of Education has identified 13,000 as failing -- so why does doing 100 or 200 matter at all?

"It's not a bad thing to dream big and hope to be a major game-changer for an industry," he said.

"That's in the water of Silicon Valley. If you're not trying to do that, maybe you should be doing something else."

Rocketship recently got cleared to expand its five-campus network to more than two dozen in San Jose -- and to enter the Milwaukee, Wis., public school system with charters for eight new campuses.

The company is prepared to bring its model to any other failing school system that's open to change, Danner said.


A decade ago, after selling his technology company, Danner followed his wife to Nashville, where she took a job as a professor at Vanderbilt Law School and he began teaching elementary school.

Like any new teacher, he immediately started puzzling over what to do about the handful of kids who were behind in his class.

"I'd ask the other teachers, 'What should I do? I'm supposed to be teaching a lesson on two-digit addition, but these kids are still learning their numbers.' They said, 'You need to differentiate,' and I said, 'What does that mean?'"

Danner started writing customized learning plans for the students most in need of help.

He'd figure out where they were academically, what they needed to do next and create individualized worksheets, guiding them through the developmentally appropriate lessons to bring their skills up to par with those of the rest of the class.

"It seems kind of obvious that kids learn differently, at different speeds and have different gaps in their knowledge," he said.

"But we just had a pretty monolithic system dating from the mass industrialization era that tries to treat kids as if they're quite similar, when that's not really true."

Danner started thinking about engineering a system steeped in more self-paced learning for kids. Back in California a few years later, he teamed up with Preston Smith, a former teacher and principal, to create what they call a "hybrid" model that combines traditional classrooms with a daily dose of individualized online instruction.

The pair opened their first elementary school, Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary, in San Jose's Washington Guadalupe neighborhood in 2007.

In the following four years they opened four more -- Si Se Puede Academy, Los Suenos Academy and, just last fall, Mosaic Elementary and Discovery Prep.

On the inside, Rocketship schools look much like those of a traditional elementary school system: classrooms containing cozy "reading corners" with rugs and books, cheerful purple cabinets, behavior charts and wall displays emphasizing phonics and vocabulary.

They also incorporate features often seen in charter campuses serving low-income neighborhoods: college banners hanging around campus, daily 8 a.m. pep rallies where the whole school gathers to sing and chant its core values; teachers who make a point of personally greeting each child at the classroom door.

A key difference in every Rocketship school, according to the company, is the "Learning Lab," where every student spends more than an hour a day at a computer screen, with at least 70 minutes of self-paced math, reading comprehension and literacy instruction.

Danner maintains the advantages of Learning Labs are twofold:

"Academically, it turns out to be much more effective with the most at-risk kids -- the bottom quartile of kids do quite well with this," he said.

"Ninety percent of kids move up to 'basic,' 'advanced,' or 'proficient' within a year of coming to Rocketship," he added.

Staffed by hourly workers, Learning Labs also afford a financial advantage for Rocketship, yielding a $500,000-per-campus savings (because they can hire fewer teachers). The organization invests that in other priorities, including "academic deans" on each campus and teacher salaries that are 20 percent higher than in surrounding school districts, Danner said.

Rocketship's track record is short, but in the startup years its schools have logged stellar results on California standardized tests -- particularly compared to other schools in which the substantial majority of students are English learners and qualify for federally subsidized school lunches.

The three Rocketship campuses for which standardized test data has been posted achieved 2011 Academic Performance Index scores in the mid- to high-800s -- on par with those in some of Palo Alto's elementary schools.

With that model and record of success, Danner says he feels ready to launch Rocketship in new venues.

"For five years now we've been tuning the model, getting it right, figuring out what's important and not important. We'll accelerate, and expand to Milwaukee, now that we understand the basics of why our schools work.

"You can plan only so far, and then you actually have to do it -- and you learn a ton of stuff by doing," Danner said.

"We're saying we think we know what to do, and we're ready to do more and be of benefit to the country. Let's solve this problem. Sometimes that attitude works, and sometimes you just get your head chopped off."


Among the many things he's learned, Danner said, is not to tread where he's not wanted.

After disastrous attempts to expand to East Palo Alto and Oakland -- where local school boards sent them packing -- Danner said Rocketship concluded it's "not in the business of making people want to change."

In both cities -- despite large numbers of parents petitioning for a Rocketship school in their neighborhood -- the company was denied permission to operate by the local authorities who have the power to grant or deny five-year charter contracts.

The 3-2 denial by East Palo Alto's Ravenswood City School District board last March followed an emotional hearing that drew hundreds of local families.

Ravenswood Superintendent Maria De La Vega recommended a "no" vote, saying a new charter school could lead to neighborhood school closures and otherwise "disrupt" a small district like Ravenswood, which is fighting for its own survival.

Ravenswood already loses more than 1,000 students who live in the district but exit each morning for alternative programs, including the Tinsley Voluntary Transfer Program in Palo Alto and other neighboring school districts.

Danner acknowledged it can hurt for a district like Ravenswood to make way for a Rocketship because state funds follow students when they enroll in a charter school.

"I don't expect that a school board that's not interested in change is going to come to a solution like ours because it's incredibly painful. You've got to make cuts and do things you don't want to do.

"We're not in the business of making people want to change. But if they want to change, we can help."

Still, he regrets the Ravenswood failure.

"I'm disappointed, especially since East Palo Alto is a mile away, and the kids there are in just as bad a situation as the children in Milwaukee, but there's nothing for us to do."

However, Danner sees increasing willingness among some community leaders across the country to look to new models.

In an initiative called "San Jose 2020," the city, along with education, business and community leaders, has set a goal to "eliminate the achievement gap in San Jose by the year 2020."

They determined that 40,000 students in the city -- nearly half of all public students tested -- are not proficient in their grade level.

In December, the Santa Clara County Board of Education authorized 20 new Rocketship schools, intended to be a sizable chunk of the San Jose 2020 solution.

Critics argued it was unfair for the county board to authorize blanket charters for schools that will operate in eight different school districts inside the county. But board members disagreed, voting 5-2 Dec. 15 to grant the single largest charter approval in the state.

"People get really practical about solving the achievement gap when it's clear how big the problem is and you have a clear date when it needs to be solved," Danner said.

"When you talk about doing dozens of schools, it fundamentally changes the conversation about school reform. Because we can bring scale to the charter side of the solution, the goal of eliminating the achievement gap becomes a lot more real."

Danner sees a similar willingness to embrace "disruptive innovation" -- particularly among younger superintendents -- in other cities.

Though he hadn't thought of planting the flag in Milwaukee, the Wisconsin city became Rocketship's "first expansion city" outside California after city leaders there approached the company more than a year ago.

In November, Milwaukee's Common Council backed a plan for Rocketship to launch a network of charters in the fall of 2013 that will serve 4,000 low-income K-5 students by 2017.

Philanthropists there have helped Rocketship raise $3.5 million in startup costs. Those funds will cover Rocketship staff heading to Milwaukee this spring to begin recruiting students and teachers; setting up business operations; and seeking regulatory changes needed in areas of facilities approvals and governance.

Milwaukee also has sent prospective principals for the future schools to San Jose to participate in Rocketship's leadership-training program.

"We need cities with the political will to give us eight charters up front, as opposed to one at a time," Danner said. "We don't want to start with one or two schools and wait for the politics of a city to change.

"And we need cities that will source leaders into our leadership-development program back here in the Bay Area so they'll be ready to start schools in their city."


Danner's own children attend Addison Elementary School in Palo Alto.

Asked to compare a Rocketship with Addison, he said in many ways they are "totally different worlds."

"Palo Alto teachers are great at stretching kids' thinking. Rocketship teachers are more focused on the fundamentals, what kids need to know," he said.

"There's no question that if my kids don't know something, I'm going to spend an hour with them at home and they're going to learn it. It's totally different from Rocketship, where a lot of the parents don't know what the kids are learning because they're learning English themselves.

"But if we can move more of the basic skills to the Learning Lab, our classrooms can start looking more and more like Palo Alto's, some of the highest-income, most privileged classrooms in the country. We want that kind of classroom."

As to the relevance of his business and technology background to the Rocketship venture, Danner says it probably helps him "think differently" -- and more boldly.

"What the business and technology background did for me was to say, 'We have to design Rocketship to have the ability to move the bar.

"Everybody told me I was crazy -- and still do -- for wanting to do more than a handful of schools in one city.

"Having both a technology and business background was important. But if I hadn't taught in a classroom, I'm not sure I would have gotten there. I think you have to experience what poverty is like as a teacher to understand the full spectrum of things you have to deal with."

Related story:

A focus on data, and minding the gap


Like this comment
Posted by ageism
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 23, 2012 at 9:05 am

"Rocketship schools rely on young teachers and administrators" (see image captions).
Interesting that Rocketship has an ageist policy as a requirement for teachers in their schools.

Like this comment
Posted by Better Pay
a resident of another community
on Mar 23, 2012 at 9:36 am

Young teachers are the ones being let go during budget cuts in public schools. What I liked better from the caption was: "Teacher salaries are 20 percent higher than those in surrounding school districts."

Like this comment
Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 23, 2012 at 9:59 am

This is an odd story. It is ostensibly a story about closing the achievement gap. Yet it lauds the Palo Alto schools without mentioning that PAUSD has one of the worst achievement gaps in the state and that a major report was issued yesterday b a national nonprofit organization (reported on NPR and in the Mercury News (see: Web Link) which lambasted PAUSD as the second-worst large unified school district in the state for poor and minority student achievement.

Yet in this story, Danner seems oblivious to the achievement gap problem here in Palo Alto schools, where he sends his own, advantaged children:

Asked to compare a Rocketship with Addison, he said in many ways they are "totally different worlds. Palo Alto teachers are great at stretching kids' thinking. Rocketship teachers are more focused on the fundamentals, what kids need to know," he said.

With respect to Mr. Danner, given that his driving goal is to eliminate the achievement gap, he might want to first turn a critical eye on his own school district which has been called out as literally at the bottom of the state rankings.

The Weekly would be doing a service to its readers if it, like the Merc, reported on the Ed Trust West rankings that specifically called out PAUSD as one of the worst in the state despite its relative wealth. This was a missed opportunity to educate the public about how our schools are actually performing.

Like this comment
Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 23, 2012 at 10:03 am

Thank you Weekly for publishing an excellent story about the Ed Trust West Report, which was just posted here: Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Huh!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 23, 2012 at 11:06 am

@Michelle: There is no statistically significant achievement gap in Palo Alto. What you are looking for is 100% proficient in all subjects across all demographics. That's just not possible. We can't all be above average. Let's devote our resources to more pressing problems.

Like this comment
Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 23, 2012 at 11:14 am

I am not looking for any such thing as 100% proficiency for all groups. I am not even expecting to see the gap between majority and minority students close in my lifetime. What I do expect is not to pay a ridiculous tax bill to this school district and have results that are the worst in the state (PAUSD is second to last among large unified districts). There are 146 other districts that do a better job for these kids than we do despite the fact that we are incredibly affluent and well-funded compared with those districts. Why are Clovis and Gilroy and Turlock doing a better job educating poor and minority kids then we are? That's shameful and I want to hold this do-nothing school board accountable for it. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

The rest of the town, however, not share your sense of what is a "priority." We might want some accountability for results like these. We Can Do Better Palo Alto continues to call for an independent audit of the basic lane curriculum to ensure that we have schools that work for all kids, not just superstar academics. Every kid deserves the chance to go to a 4 year, public college. Every family is paying taxes so that their child can have that chance. If the child doesn't want to go, that's different. But every family wants their child to have that option and this report card proves that on that measure we are failing.

Like this comment
Posted by Huh!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 23, 2012 at 11:49 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 23, 2012 at 1:45 pm

I would like to see Rocketship or other charter schools educate every child who lives in their service area with absolutely NO exceptions, test every single child and compare the results to the neighborhood school. It is not okay for charter schools to pick or choose students, to counsel struggling children out of their school, to send special education students back to the neighborhood school, to reject children who show up in the middle of a school year... and then claim that they have solved the achievement gap.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 23, 2012 at 2:13 pm

> odd story ..

Not really. This story is one that is very timely. What's missing is details. Using data from the State DoED, it seems that three of the Rocketship schools report scores better than 800:

Mateo Sheedy: 892
Si Se Padre: 859
Los Suenos Academy: 839

> "There's no question that if my kids don't know something,
> I'm going to spend an hour with them at home and they're
> going to learn it. It's totally different from Rocketship,
> where a lot of the parents don't know what the kids are
> learning because they're learning English themselves.

And it is hard to believe that this is not true in most Palo Alto homes, where most parents have 4+ years of post-high school education. Parents at the Rocketship schools show only 2.x years.

Ultimately, parental education is a huge component to schools that are top performers. In the Rocketship case, they seem to be including more hands-on access to technology, which is intended to offset the lack of parental involvement at home. However, is it enough? The underlying involvement of more technology, via distance learning, is not discussed in this article. It's a shame that Mr. Danner doesn't hold a couple open round tables that would allow this sort of question to be posed. His answers would be interesting.

These scores put these schools, and the students in the schools, in the upper 2/3rds of the performance spectrum in Santa Clara County.

There are other details missing from the article, such as the performance levels of the students before they enrolled in these schools, so that some sort of before/after profile can be developed which focuses on how these schools are succeeding.

It would also be interesting to see his financials.

Like this comment
Posted by loop
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 23, 2012 at 2:13 pm


[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

If your point is that the students and parents are responsible for the achievement gap, you confuse performance with achievement. There is a performance gap in Palo Alto which can humble the best of us in this district. But that's different from achievement. Achievement, in my opinion, is completing a program with access to post-secondary opportunities, and receiving a decent education in Math and Science.

On achievement, there are schools which do better than PAUSD at educating even struggling students. These schools are able to teach more Math and Science to struggling or under-performing students, regardless of race, wealth, o video-game consumption. Some argue that Palo Alto is teaching better Math and different Science, than other schools. Is that the reason why struggling students have a harder time in Palo Alto?

I think the lanes are not being used properly. What is the point of lanes, if nothing is adapted for each lane? It's all pretty messed up, and I would agree that an outside audit is necessary to settle the controversy about whose "fault" it is, and then maybe this topic can get beyond this loop.

Like this comment
Posted by loop
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 23, 2012 at 2:24 pm

When I mentioned schools that do a better job in my post above, I was not referring to Rocketship.

I agree with Paly Parent, charter schools are not a PAUSD comparable, given the greater flexibility charter schools have to select students.

A comparable to PAUSD are the schools mentioned in the related story about the Ed Trust West Report,

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 23, 2012 at 9:46 pm

There is a measured achievement gap PAUSD. Exactly how many kids are "not achieving" out of the total measured student population? In other words, what is the percentage of kids not achieving out of the total 100%?

Are we talking about 36 HS students out of a population of 3600 HS students? 1%?

Just asking.

Like this comment
Posted by Finally
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Mar 24, 2012 at 3:53 am

well said, this is every school districts worst nightmares that underachieves. Kids are never prepared going through k-12.
Everyone thinks different and learn differently. Teachers just see a group that are learning their way, and will neglect the other kids and will not teach those alterantive routes. i have experienced this in my lifetime. This program should be adopted once a school fails to meet expectations.

(The government should implement these programs for our children. Just like Unions or HR in place during realife work place experiences, to force these school districts to change)

KUDOS Rocketship and John Danner keep fighting, change will come soon!

Like this comment
Posted by Rocketship Teacher
a resident of another community
on Mar 24, 2012 at 11:05 am

I am a Rocketship Teacher and feel I must clarify the point made about charter schools hand-picking students. At Rocketship, we accept ANY child regardless of academic level. Our Rocketeers are selected through a lottery system. After 6 years of working in traditional public schools, I also believed that charter schools only selected the cream of the crop. However, after working at Rocketship for 2 years, I can truthfully say we work extremely hard to move our students academically - almost all of whom enter our schools 1 - 2 years below grade level. At my current school, there is a high percentage of students with special needs, and in my class alone, 6 out of 27 have an IEP. Out of all the schools I've worked at (and they've all been schools in low income urban neighborhoods),Rocketship has THE strongest special ed program I've ever experienced. Please don't make assumptions unless you've been at our school and have seen our Rocketeers and teachers in action. You might be surprised :)

Like this comment
Posted by 42 year public high school teacher
a resident of another community
on Mar 24, 2012 at 11:54 am

To the Paly parent,
The "selection of students" you described is very characteristic of "private schools". Rocketship is mandated to not do just that. They must have a lottery system.

I do know of one charter school "north of San Jose" that does not follow that model, and actually charges a tuition to be used for extensive field trips around the United States. Their charter is being challenged. Their abuses of the charter school option was noted in the San Jose Mercury News two months ago.

Like this comment
Posted by pa parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 24, 2012 at 6:08 pm

I'm not sure this story says anything at all except what we already know, and have heard repeatedly about from the Finnish model: Whatever it Takes, for each child, works.

My early elementary education (public school) was broad with lots of enrichment, in an ordinary, none-too-wealthy corner of the Midwest, in which the basics were taught on a self-paced basis. I wish someone would study it, as it's astonishing how varied the careers and successful the kids I knew there have become. Interesting that Rocketship is doing something that is in principal very similar.

What I would not like to see is this used as a foil for the public-private debate (or, as it might more truthfully be called, the 30-yr-long attack on all things public in this country), because charter-public-private aren't the essentials when it comes to quality. I would also not like to see his work dismissed because of that debate.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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