The gap — which has persisted for decades despite heavy investments of time, energy and money — can cement the path a young life takes. Poor children are likely to enter school already behind, never catch up and then drop out, joining an underclass that threatens the country’s economic future.
Policymakers, foundations and business leaders are ravenous for schools that can educate all children, regardless of income. And they don’t want just a handful of successes. They want a big idea, on a grand scale.
Danner, a boyish 45-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur and onetime public school teacher, believes he has the answer.
On standardized tests, Rocketship students — overwhelmingly poor, Latino and Spanish-speaking — have outscored the county and state average. In some cases, the “Rocketeers” have performed as well as students in nearby Palo Alto public schools, where Stanford University professors send their children.
Danner wants to take his model and expand it into the nation’s largest chain of charter schools, reaching 50 cities by 2020.
Rocketship’s scores, combined with an unusual educational and financial model, have made it the darling of the school reform movement. Cities across the country, including in the District and New York, are clamoring for Rocketship to set up shop. The Obama administration has invested $2 million to speed its growth.
But some wonder if five-year-old Rocketship is producing miracles or mirages. Will a model that succeeds in San Jose also flourish in Nashville? Can a strategy that works for a handful of schools be expanded across the country? And can the achievement gap be eliminated?
Answers may be found next year, when Rocketship ventures outside of northern California to open the first of eight schools in Milwaukee.
To some, Rocketship’s rise represents another step toward a gradual abandonment of traditional public schools, placing more children — and public dollars — into the hands of private operators.
Stephen McMahon, president of the San Jose teachers union, worries that a dual system is developing: One filled with charters that attract motivated families and another of traditional public schools populated with reluctant learners.
“It’s almost harkening back to the days of segregation,” McMahon said.
Charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately run, must accept any student, the same as a traditional public school. But families have to seek out a charter school, apply and, if demand exceeds capacity, enter a lottery for a seat. The charter may be located across the community, requiring families to transport their children back and forth each day.
“I don’t want every committed family at a charter school and those who are struggling at traditional schools,” McMahon said.