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."