But eight years after its first school opened in a downtown
Its ambitions have drawn fire from neighbors, parents, teachers unions and school districts, who charge that adding campuses will hurt traditional public schools and who have bested Rocketship in court.
Perhaps even more devastating for this darling of charter-school boosters is that its vaunted test scores have plummeted.
"We didn't deliver," said CEO and co-founder
Primary among its difficulties, Smith concedes, is the failure of an audacious plan to knock down walls and create 100-student classrooms, which Rocketship is abandoning. Rocketship also suffered through a leadership transition after the exit last year of co-founder
Yet, Smith maintains, "We have really great schools." He also points to Rocketship's loyal parents, long waiting lists for its eight
Rocketship, Smith said, has been targeted partly because it challenges the status quo.
Not so, said the network's leading nemesis.
"What happens when you have a relatively secretive organization that has an unelected board and has large growth plans?" asked Bymaster, who organized his Tamien neighborhood to oppose a proposed Rocketship school there, filed a successful land-use lawsuit that has slowed the charter network and now runs a "Stop Rocketship" website that has attracted a local and national following.
He noted that Rocketship reneged on a promise to maintain local school boards and instead consolidated them with the national board. "How do we as a community hold them accountable?"
Rocketship maintains that its recipe works. Hiring enthusiastic recent grads from top colleges and employing online learning, the brash nonprofit won awards and attracted investment by getting the hardest-to-educate children to score as high as their wealthier peers. Placing children on computers and with non-credentialed tutors for more than an hour a day has saved on teacher salaries.
The school day, even for young children, is eight hours. Teacher raises depend on test scores.
Staffers' long hours, however, are both a key to success and a source of burnout. Current and former Rocketship teachers characterized their workday as 11 to 16 hours, with just five weeks for summer vacation.
"You ate, breathed and lived with Rocketship," said
But she and a teacher who is quitting Rocketship this month both said the hours are unsustainable. Rocketship in recent years has churned through green teachers, many from the nonprofit service group
Teachers -- who are at-will employees who can be fired at any time -- also criticized Rocketship's intolerance for dissent, saying it contributed to the disastrous redesign that placed 100 students in a classroom.
"Teachers raised concerns," said one ex-teacher, "and no discussion was allowed on the subject."
Those who privately expressed doubt feel vindicated, although sad, by the resulting test decline.
Rocketship was seeking in part to save money with the large classrooms, overseen by two teachers and an aide. Smith said the model also allowed for more specialized teaching, efficiency and computers in class. He acknowledges that the redesign, which in part precipitated a fall in test scores at all schools, didn't work out.
Rocketship relies primarily on state money for its
Smith maintains that Rocketship listens to its teachers, and that he wants it to be a great place to work.
The turmoil has taken a toll.
Though it had visions of opening multiple schools annually, including eight in
But with its advertised achievement, focus on discipline, attention to safety and effort to involve parents as well as intense recruitment, Rocketship has more than 750 students signed up or waiting for its yet-to-be-approved school.
"I see the excitement of my nieces and nephews at Si Se Puede," Rocketship's second school, said
(c)2014 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)
Visit the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at www.mercurynews.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services