Will Rocketship schools launch in D.C.?

June 12, 2011

Their handshake added an unexpected jolt to the closing session of the New Schools Venture Fund summit in San Francisco last month, and with good reason. Acting D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and Reed Hastings, Netflix co-founder and California charter school entrepreneur, sealed a deal to bring eight Rocketship Education schools to the nation’s capital.

Or did they?

Henderson said she considered the handshake serious. But she also cautioned there was a long way to go before Rocketship, which has drawn national attention for its “hybrid” school model combining classroom and online learning, has a presence in the District.

“There are a lot of logistics to work out before we can more forward,” she said. Hastings, co-chair of Rocketship’s national strategy board and one of its several major Silicon Valley investors, was supposed to meet with Henderson in the District recently but had to cancel. She said they have a call scheduled for later this month. Hastings did not respond to a phone message last week.

Henderson said she is on board with Rocketship’s goal of operating “at critical mass” wherever it decides to locate — thus the notion of eight schools. She also said she sees Rocketship coming to town as either a charter operator or a partner for traditional public schools.

“The question is, are there at least eight schools in the city that we could partner with Rocketship to improve? Absolutely,” Henderson said.

Rocketship has attracted considerable buzz for its five K-5 schools in the San Jose area, where students divide their days between classroom instruction and a “Learning Lab” for online and small-group work in math and reading. In 2009 its flagship school, Mateo Sheedy, was one of the highest-performing low-income elementary schools in California.

What also gets edu-entrepreneurs excited is that the hybrid model can be operated with fewer certified teachers, generating savings that can be used for instructor pay and new schools.

Henderson apparently has been interested in Rocketship for a while. According to one account of her onstage appearance with Hastings and Goldman Sachs managing director Carlos Watson, she said Rocketship had been slow to return her calls. One blogger, Elizabeth Corcoran of EdSurge, said Rocketship may consider it too early to venture into the pressure cooker of D.C. education politics, especially with the scale it has in mind.

But Henderson doesn’t agree, and said she’d like to see Rocketship in the District sooner rather than later.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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