by Greg Toppo, USA TODAY
SAN JOSE - Luis Zepeda is relentless.
The fourth-grader, his dark hair cropped close, has been staring at a computer screen for close to 20 minutes, trying again and again to solve a devilish little puzzle built around rectangles' axes of symmetry.
Two friends appear, offering unsolicited advice and urging him to try their solutions. Nothing works, and their teacher, who could offer help, is nowhere in sight.
"This one's hard," classmate Brian Aguilera says. Zepeda keeps trying. Finally, after 15 minutes' more work, he cracks the puzzle. His reward: another, harder puzzle.
Another morning in Learning Lab at Rocketship Si Se Puede Academy, a 3-year-old charter school built on a sliver of city-owned land in the shadow of the I-680 off-ramp. Si Se Puede - Spanish for "Yes It's Possible" or "Yes We Can" - is part of a tiny chain of schools set to expand nationwide.
While it shares a lot in common with many privately run, but publicly funded, charter schools, Rocketship defies nearly all the conventional wisdom about how an urban elementary school should operate. For one thing, students spend as much as two hours a day one-on-one with a computer, learning virtually all of their basic skills through games.
Most Rocketship teachers are young and inexperienced, and the vast majority attended Ivy League or other top colleges. Rocketship recruits heavily from Teach For America - a high-profile program that matches college graduates with high-needs schools - and pushes teachers to become principals after just a few years in the classroom.
But perhaps the most striking difference is what's about to happen: The chain is small, with only seven schools, but by the end of the decade, its founders want about 2,000 schools in 50 cities, serving 1 million students. That would make Rocketship nearly as large as New York City schools, the USA's largest district.
Rows of desktop computers
At a time when standardized testing is as contentious as ever, Rocketship has doubled-down on testing, using it as a signpost for teachers, not a Scarlet Letter. Guided by test scores, teachers outsource basic skills instruction to a series of computer programs, most of which are digital games.
As students log on in the computer lab, they access what amounts to an individualized skills plan, the day's instruction based on assessments that adjust to their performance.
"You lose kids when either they don't understand or (say), 'I know this,'" said Andrea Chrisman, a fourth-grade math and literacy teacher.
The Learning Lab holds 130 students and it's nearly always full. Once students squeeze into their chairs and pint-sized headphones, the room takes on the hushed air of a study hall during final exams, with each student working at his or her own pace.
Most kids seem smitten with ST Math - it's what Luis Zepeda was playing as he worked through the axes-of-symmetry puzzle. Developed by a Santa Ana, Calif., non-profit called the MIND Research Institute, the series of games is widely known by its mascot, JiJi the penguin. When kids get a correct answer, the program quickly builds a roadway or removes an obstacle, letting JiJi pass wordlessly across the screen. There are no prizes, no fanfares, no cheers. It's just JiJi appearing and disappearing. "It's almost Zen-like in its simplicity," said Principal Andrew Elliot-Chandler.
The game grew out of MIND co-founder Matthew Peterson's ideas around "math without words" for kids with language deficits. "Your reward is that you solved the puzzle," he said.
That's key to the school's success, teachers say, because improving basic skills here leaves teachers to do what they love best: Teach big ideas.
As her students clicked away on games one recent morning, Chrisman strolled into the Learning Lab with a paperback copy of the children's novel Island of the Blue Dolphins under her arm. "I don't have to spend my time teaching homophones," she said. "If a computer can do that, I can talk about themes in books."
Training ground for students, principals
So far the results are promising: Rocketship students score among the top performers on standardized tests. Learning Lab also helps Rocketship balance its books in an unusual way. By hiring non-certified instructors to supervise lab sessions at about $15-$16 per hour, each school saves about $500,000 per year.
A school might have four first-grade classes but need only three rotating certified teachers. The savings go into higher teacher salaries, training, a longer school day, an assistant principal and academic dean - luxuries for schools whose students are virtually all low-income.
Rocketship's ambitious expansion plans also dovetail with co-founder John Danner's ideas on career paths. A Silicon Valley entrepreneur who made his fortune with NetGravity, a company that pioneered Internet advertising, Danner, 45, taught high school briefly in Nashville while his wife taught at Vanderbilt Law School.
After a year, he asked his principal what he'd need to do to become a principal, too. "She said, 'You need to work really hard for 10 years and then do this-and-that,' and I was like, 'Wow, that's not really aligned to what I want to do.'"
Now running what amounts to his own school district, Danner envisions a "big farm system" for Rocketship principals. He wants to grow it quickly so that it will push its best young teachers into administrative roles at new start-up schools.
Jeffrey Henig, who studies school choice, privatization and the politics of urban education reform at Columbia University's Teachers College, said it's an open question whether Rocketship can sustain such a model over the long haul.
Innovative groups such as Rocketship and Teach For America "have proven that they can attract a lot of young, eager people when they're young and eager," he said. "But one of the big question marks is whether this is creating a professional structure that will hold people and satisfy people, where they can stay in it once they themselves decide to have families and kids."
Henig said Rocketship's fast-track career ladder is attractive to Teach For America, which for two decades has wrestled with retention problems. Many of their young teachers "don't necessarily want to stay in teaching" after their two-year, Peace Corps-like assignment in a struggling urban or rural school, he said.
"This gives them the chance to say, 'Come do the Peace Corps in the trenches, but then there's another step if you want to move up the ladder,'" he said. "So I think it's potentially a marriage of convenience for the two of them - whether it's good for the rest of us is the big question mark."
Rocketship's expansion also is wrankling a few neighbors, who say its local growth is coming at the expense of neighborhood public schools. The push is generating "a grass-roots uprising of the community," said Brett Bymaster, who lives near a San Jose elementary school slated to compete with Rocketship. "They have engaged in very aggressive recruiting, which has broken a lot of relationships in the community," he said.
Santa Clara County school board president Joseph DiSalvo said Rocketship's well-organized parent group has made for raucous school board meetings. "I can see how others see it (as) less than positive," he said.
A former teacher and principal, DiSalvo said he supports the expansion, but isn't sure if Danner's "farm system" is sustainable over time. "It's brilliant, and it's something the traditional public world, where I came from, could learn from," he said. "We put a lot of leaders in positions that fail because it's so difficult."
He supports Rocketship's overall approach, calling it "an exceptional learning environment" for low-income kids. But he said he's concerned that the chain gives short shrift to foreign languages and the arts.
He also worries that children's gains might not stick once they get to middle school. "I want to know how they're functioning once they leave the Rocketship environment."