Rocketship to build charter school on Anacostia hilltop


The learning lab at Rocketship Discovery Prep in San Jose, Calif., in April 2012. Rocketship is a chain of charter schools that uses blended learning, including regular use of computers. It plans to break ground on a D.C. school in October. (Randi Lynn Beach/For The Washington Post)

The next outpost of one of the country’s best-known high-tech charter school chains will be on a wooded hilltop across the street from an aging public housing development in Anacostia.

School officials recently announced plans for Rocketship’s first D.C. school: A 54,000-square-foot, two-story building with a glass entrance, outdoor terrace, multiple play areas and nature trails. It is scheduled to open in the 2015-2016 school year.

“We have the opportunity to build a school unlike any other school anywhere in our network,” said Katy Venskus, the California-based nonprofit’s vice president for policy and growth development. “This will be our anchor in the D.C. region.”

Rocketship, which opened its first school in San Jose in 2007, quickly gained national attention for its low-cost, blended-learning approach and strong test scores for poor and minority students, who face some of the toughest learning challenges. The charter network earned support from many philanthropists and charter advocates, and it set ambitious goals for expansion.

But its model — which combines face-to-face instruction with computer-driven learning — also has stirred debate over using technology as a central aspect of academic curricula.

Last year, Rocketship saw test scores drop amid instructional changes and enrollment growth. Officials announced recently that they are dialing back some of their expansion plans and focusing on four regions, including the District, where the chain already has started to build.

Venskus said the organization has had difficulty navigating varying charter school regulations and environments.

The D.C. school will be the 12th for Rocketship. It runs nine schools in San Jose. It opened a school in Milwaukee a year ago, and it recently opened one in Nashville.

Rocketship’s D.C. campus will be across the street from Woodland Terrace, a public housing development operated by the D.C. Housing Authority. The school will be adjacent to green, hilly parks and around the corner from the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum and a recreation center. It will be the first elementary school in its network to offer preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds, and it might partner with AppleTree Early Learning to provide preschool instruction.

As in Rocketship’s other schools, the students in the District will spend 75 percent of the day in classrooms with licensed teachers and the rest of the day — about two hours — in learning labs with unlicensed tutors. Most of the lab time will be spent working on computers using adaptive software that challenges students at their individual ability levels. Some of the time will be used for physical education, arts or enrichment activities, Venskus said.

The computer-driven approach saves money on personnel and has helped boost scores, according to Rocketship officials.

But some say the reliance on technology instead of teachers is compromising quality. A report published in April from the left-leaning Education Policy Institute criticizes the Rocketship model for spending too little time on subjects beyond math and literacy and for not appealing to multiple learning styles.

Don Soifer, a member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said he thinks that Rocketship will make “a valuable addition to the D.C. education market.” He traveled to California to visit Rocketship schools as part of the application process, and he said the “through-the-roof” test scores and the commitment to parental engagement impressed him.

Soifer said the computers give teachers useful information that helps them decide how to work best with each student.

The charter school board unanimously approved Rocketship’s application in early 2013, giving a green light to open two schools with 650 students each. If the schools perform well, Rocketship can continue to grow.

School officials expect to break ground on the new campus in October.

Barry Brinkley, Rocketship’s director of community development, has begun meeting with community organizations and knocking on neighbors’ doors to let them know about the new school and invite them to help design the front entrance of the building.

Juanita Britton, the longtime owner of the Anacostia Art Gallery & Boutique around the corner from the site, sold her property to make way for Rocketship. She said she had been approached multiple times during the past several years to sell.

“I was not just letting a developer come to develop something,” she said.

She changed her mind when she found out the land was going to be used as a Rocketship school. “I found it was going to be a school, a special kind of school. And I was happy to accept the deal.”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.

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