Future of Schools

Rocketship Education debuts in Nashville with plans for quick expansion

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Students at Rocketship play in their brand new gym.

On a recent morning, Rocketship Nashville Northeast Elementary’s 448 students gathered at 8 a.m. in the gym of their newly-built school in East Nashville for a ten-minute “launch off” to start the school day.

The children erupted into cheers as their classmates were recognized for exemplifying Rocketship values, like respect, responsibility, empathy, and persistence. The launch ended with a massive synchronized dance before the students, some as young as five, dispersed into a tightly-scheduled day of classroom activities including sitting in a large computer lab for two hours. It’s a controversial practice Rocketship says will improve the educational outcomes for Tennessee’s most academically-struggling students.

Rocketship, a California-based chain of charter elementary schools known for combining technology and teaching to reduce costs and raise student achievement, is expanding in Tennessee, even as it tempers its original plan to open schools in 50 cities and serve 1 million children. Heads of the charter management organization were attracted to Tennessee by the state-run Achievement School District, which shares their goal to close the achievement gap between affluent and low-income students “within our lifetime.”

The ASD has already approved Rocketship for eight schools,  and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which authorized the East Nashville school, has authorized Rocketship for at least one more. The school is already hiring some teachers for their expansion.

Not only is Rocketship spreading schools across the state, they’re spreading ideas. Education officials in Shelby County and across the state are exploring how to implement blended learning in traditional public schools, the school is considered the progenitor of the method.  Proponents of blended learning say that it allows students get a personalized education, and provides more data to teachers and administrators so they can assess and address students’ weaknesses.The state’s innovative educator network of about 50 educators will take a field trip to Rocketship this fall, a department spokeswoman said.

Rocketship received little visible opposition in Nashville before opening. But critics in San Jose, Calif. and Milwaukee, Wisc. have raised concerns about board members being part-owners of Dreambox, one of the products Rocketship uses in their learning labs; the educators’ tight focus on math and reading, rather than non-tested subjects; and the time children spend in front of a computer. Studies suggest that too much time in front of a computer can lead to attention problems and sleep disruption.

A white board in a Rocketship classroom shows the schedule for a busy day.
PHOTO: G. Tatter
A white board in a Rocketship classroom shows the schedule for a busy day.

Rocketship leaders say they were interested in the company Dreambox before any board members invested in it, but it was not quite up to their standards. It was through investments from board member Reed Hastings that school leaders were able to help craft the program to suit their students.

“It wasn’t like a big existing company that we started contracting with because of the relationship,” Mitchell said. “That would be a conflict of interest.”

And Rocketship CEO and cofounder Preston Smith said that students don’t spend all of their time on a computer, as critics often assume. During the two-hour learning lab, he said, students go to Spanish and drama, and participate in screen-free tutoring at tables on the side of the learning lab.

Inside the school

The first week of school, the principal of the new Rocketship school, Adam Nadeau, had little time to think about criticisms.

Most charter schools in Tennessee have opened with one grade at a time, phasing in higher grades over several years. Rocketship’s urgent mission meant that leaders wanted to open the whole elementary school at once, and so 448 students in  kindergarten through fourth grade arrived to the school in late July. The school recruited heavily in the East Nashville neighborhood in which it’s located, housed in a brand new, purple and orange building. It’s funded by tennis star Andre Agassi’s for-profit hedge fund devoted to charter school growth.

The majority of students at the school live in the Dickerson Pike area of East Nashville, said Shaka Mitchell, Rocketship’s regional director for Tennessee.

Nadeau is an  alumnus of Metro Nashville Schools and a former middle school teacher at KIPP Nashville. In 2009, he moved to San Jose, where he served as the principal of two Rocketship schools.

On the second day of school at Rocketship Nashville, Nadeau was patrolling the school and learning 480 students’s names. He made sure children’s clothes were tidy and broke up two boys playing in the hall with a bark of “Gentlemen! Gentlemen!”

“They’re just having fun,” he later said, “but…”

Nadeau said he wants to maximize every minute of a student’s day at school. Students as young as five-years-old rotate through separate humanities, math, gym, Spanish, and theater classes. (Originally, children were to only take Spanish and theater classes as electives, because Nadeau felt they best supported literacy key skills in core courses, he said, but the school quickly decided to add a visual arts class mid-year.)

Students also spend time in the school’s cafeteria-sized learning lab, where they are guided through activities by a computer, rather than a teacher. Teachers and on-staff tutors get the data from the activities, and can tailor their lessons accordingly.

Students help each other in the learning lab at Rocketship Nashville Education.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students help each other in the learning lab at Rocketship Nashville Education.

The school system has learned that blended learning can go too far. In 2013, they piloted a program with fourth- and fifth-graders in which one hundred students were in one large, open classroom at a time, working on individual lessons on computers and breaking out into smaller groups around the room throughout the day for direct instruction. Test scores dropped. Now all Rocketship schools are back to the rotational model.

Blended learning should just be one tool in the tool box of a good school, Veskus said, adding that great teachers are what Rocketship truly banks their success on. According to Rocketship’s application to Metro Schools, teachers get paid up to $70,000, far above the Tennessee average.

Even though there are only 19 teachers for a school of 448 students, professional development is built into the day when the students are in the learning lab, which is monitored by non-teaching certified tutors, or electives. And every Thursday, students leave at 2 p.m. so teachers can have more conferencing time. Assistant principals’ main focus is to coach teachers, sometimes in live time, through the use of walkie-talkies.

A “Stop Rocketship Education” group  in California has criticized the network for over-relying on young Teach For America (TFA) corps members they said were inexperienced, and high rates of teacher turnover. At the Nashville school, only two staff members are currently in TFA, although more of the 26-person staff are TFA alumni.

Parents at Rocketship are encouraged to take an active role at the school and get to know each other. There’s a parents’ lounge where they can spend time during the school day, and ample volunteer opportunities. By Labor Day, teachers were to have visited each of their students’ homes.

Angelina Rollin enrolled her third-grade daughter after seeing the construction of the building in her neighborhood.  Before the school opened, she began volunteering, and mentioned to an assistant principal that she was out of work. The school hired her to help out with tasks during the day, like monitoring the lunchroom and helping with pick-up and drop-off of students.

Rollin said, in an ironic twist, a school that champions the computer screen, considered to be the enemy of in-person relationships, might be building a community after all.

“Dickerson is known for being a hard neighborhood,” Rollin said. “People don’t just socialize. But now people say, ‘Hey, that’s the lady from the front of the line. I wouldn’t have reached out to my neighbors, but now I know their children.”

See a video of Rocketship’s daily launch ceremony below:

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.