SAN JOSE, Calif. — Looking for first graders at Fuerza Community Prep?
One sunny morning this spring, they could be spotted inside the school’s spacious computer lab, headphones strapped on their ears, eyes scrutinizing mini-laptop screens, plowing through online books about Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed and practicing online math exercises. This is where they spend up to 90 minutes a day.
For Preston Smith, a co-founder of Rocketship Education, the San Jose-based charter network that runs the school, that computer lab exemplifies what the chain is good at: harnessing technology to teach at-risk students.
“We feel a great responsibility to get our kids, who are often behind, up to grade level,” said Smith, who now oversees 11 tech-heavy elementary schools, including one in Nashville and one in Milwaukee. “I’m proud of that.”
But for some former teachers and parents, the Rocketship computer lab tells a different story: of a charter network too reliant on “screen time,” too light on free play and too obsessed with test scores.
Kate Mehr, a former Rocketship executive who now runs the Baltimore outpost of another charter network, says Rocketship’s “stripped-down efficiency model” has much to recommend it. But, she says, “The question is, how efficient should you be when you’re dealing with little human beings?”
Rocketship is perhaps the nation’s most celebrated pioneer of online learning, having received millions of dollars from outside funders, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Obama administration, as well as financing from former tennis star Andre Agassi’s real estate fund. The attraction is its innovative approach, which promises that intensive online work and a rigorous curriculum will help disadvantaged children make up ground quickly, and gain parity with their better-off peers. (Close to 88 percent of the schools’ students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and 60.5 percent are English-language learners.)
But as the network has grown, it has encountered challenges, losing key staff members and struggling with its reading program. In math, a relatively high percentage of its students routinely score well on state exams. But in 2013 — the last year that California published reading and math scores — four of Rocketship’s elementary schools showed significant dips in state reading scores.
“They are really phenomenal at marketing their schools,” said Roxana Marachi, an associate professor in the Connie L. Lurie College of Education at San Jose State University. “But they have not shown they can deliver on all that they are promising.”
Rocketship leaders say that their own internal number-crunching shows significantly more improvement than the more dated California-wide comparisons suggest. They continue to position their schools as Silicon Valley’s answer to the educational divide.
And Fuerza Community Prep looks and feels like a Silicon Valley creation, with its brightly-lit classrooms almost entirely devoid of the low-tech educational toys of other elementary schools. On a recent visit, there were no pretend kitchens, boxes of wooden blocks or easels to be seen in the classrooms. Students were often spoken to using language more common in corporate offices than elementary schools. A kindergartner whose uniform pants were falling down was told to “dress for success,” and an administrator boasted that a first-grade teacher “was maniacal about not wasting time” with her young charges.
Students at these elementary schools can spend up to 90 minutes a day inside computer labs, although administrators say they increasingly try to break up some of that time with music and art classes. Once students are back in their classrooms, some receive yet more time in front of laptops, adding to their total daily screen time. Lunch and recess together are a total of 40 minutes.
Teachers use data points gleaned from educational software programs, as well as their own pen-and-paper assessments, to determine classroom work. Rankings on standardized tests, reading levels, even a student’s ability to recognize math patterns and sound out words — all are prominently posted in hallways and classrooms, for everyone to see.
And everything — from the student-teacher ratio to the schools’ layout — has been designed to be cost-effective and efficient, so that it can be easily replicated across the country.
Rocketship arrived on the scene in 2007, the brainchild of an ambitious Silicon Valley entrepreneur, John Danner, and a former elementary school principal, Preston Smith, who believed that educational software was the most effective means of closing the national “achievement gap.” Their idea was that students should spend part of their day doing individualized assignments in front of laptops, and the rest with teachers and tutors, learning material a computer can’t easily impart.
Their first school, with 160 students, opened in a church in San Jose, a northern California city with a large, economically struggling Latino population. Today, the network has nine schools in that city, one in Milwaukee and one in Nashville. The schools educate roughly 6,000 children. Administrators say they have been granted charters to open new schools in the San Jose area, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., and Nashville; the Nashville elementary school, scheduled to open this fall, will be the second Rocketship school in the city.
While the Rocketship model has earned accolades from powerful technology executives, as well as frequent calls from educators in Florida, Texas and Washington, D.C., eager for its arrival, it has also been widely criticized.
“Rocketship is strictly academics,” said Maggie Cardona, the mother of a first grader and a fourth grader in San Jose, who says her two children were so stressed out and loaded down with homework at their Rocketship school that she is putting them in another school in the fall. “There is nothing fun they do.”
People familiar with the schools say classrooms rarely include anything but instructional material, leaving little room for “choice time,” a hallmark of many elementary schools. While time for dance and music is offered, current and former parents say the schools skimp on social studies, science, the visual arts and the kind of creative, sensory activities that fill the days at high-performing schools in wealthier neighborhoods.
Smith takes issue with this characterization. Some schools have gardens and others have chess programs, and fifth graders in the San Jose schools attend week-long science camps. He says he is particularly proud of the way the schools choose which enrichment classes to feature: parents decide.
Rocketship students spend up to 200 minutes each day in language arts classes and half that in math classes. Educators at the network say science and social studies lessons are “embedded” into those periods.
In recent years, Rocketship has experimented with different learning models. At one point during the 2012-2013 school year, the network explored an open classroom plan, in which 100 or so elementary-age children spent most of their time in a large room with multiple teachers and a tutor. The shift was unpopular with teachers and blamed, by some, for test score dips. It was quickly scrapped.
These days, Smith says the network is exploring a more flexible lab structure, where students spend some time away from their computers during their lab period, engaging in enrichment activities. In addition, he has added laptops to the classrooms.
For Smith, this type of experimenting is a sign of the network’s nimbleness. But critics see it as a sign that the network is still unsure of what it wants to be, or what methods actually help its students learn.
Daniela Muna, the mother of a student at Fuerza Community Prep, says the Rocketship model allows her son to work at his own pace, leapfrogging ahead of some kids and working, in some areas, behind others.
“My son is excited to go to school every day,” said Muna, this spring, as the boy finished kindergarten. “He’s five years old, and he’s doing first-grade math, and reading at almost a second-grade level.”
Teachers say that sort of differentiation is made possible through data generated online and through their own frequent assessments. They quiz students weekly and have nine “data days” a year on which they get together to review student weaknesses and strengths and figure out ways to help move them ahead.
“At other schools where I taught, I knew which of my students were struggling, but I didn’t know how to help them,” said Monique Castro, a kindergarten math teacher. “Here, I know exactly what my students need.”
Administrators acknowledge the model has its challenges. Some former teachers say the focus on scores has turned the schools into “drill and kill” factories, rewarding students for reaching reading and math levels quickly, but not for critical thinking and intellectual independence.
“For me, it was a learning lesson on what not to do,” said Alicia Albo, a former first grade teacher, who left the network after she became disillusioned with what she called its increasingly “corporate” mentality. “It was reading, writing and math. That’s all you get in a Rocketship school.”
In recent years, the network has worked hard to shed this reputation. The schools have introduced a social and emotional learning program, using stuffed animals that sit atop bookshelves in the classrooms. Administrators say the schools are also giving students more independent projects, like the Earth Day posters that third graders worked on one day this past spring. Students in other grades now write letters to favorite fictional characters in the books they are reading and have in-depth classroom discussions about passages or quotes in selected books.
In 2013, Danner, who is widely considered to be the network’s true visionary, left to start his own educational software company; shortly after that, a handful of the network’s other leaders left, too. The network was repeatedly criticized for keeping on an advisory board member, Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings, who is a main investor in DreamBox Learning, an online education company whose is used in the schools’ computer labs. Last year, Hastings stepped down.
And Smith has been widely criticized for his abrupt leadership style, which some say is overly focused on data. Others say Smith has tried to grow the network too fast in his fervor to spread the model.
Smith concedes that original plans to serve one million students by 2020 were too ambitious. Today, the 2020 goal has been scaled back to 20,000 students (which is still more than triple the program’s current population). As for his leadership style, he said in an email that he meets with his own leadership and professional development coaches regularly and believes that morale at the network has improved in recent years.
Even parents who say the schools can be overly rigid concede that the chain has offered students in San Jose’s struggling neighborhoods an educational outlet that was unavailable in the past. Rocketship schools have taken in the children of gang members, for example, who have come to cherish the schools, said Rocketship parent Erika Yereman.
“Gang members come to the meetings with their kids,” said Yereman, the mother of two Rocketship students, who spent several years recruiting for the network. “They enroll their kids. They respect the schools.”
But others say these schools have done more harm than good, draining neighboring elementary schools through hyper-aggressive recruitment campaigns.
Brett Bymaster, the founder of a San Jose-based advocacy group called Stop Rocketship, calls the efforts “intrinsically divisive.” He and the San Jose Unified School District Board of Education sued the board of education in Santa Clara County (where San Jose sits) to stop the development of the chain’s eighth area school. He won the case against that proposed school, last year. But Rocketship still managed to launch two other schools, elsewhere in the city, including Fuerza Community Prep, which arrived last August.
Smith concedes that the network may have been too eager to enroll students in the past. “I do think we did march with a very heavy stick and we were a bit arrogant,” he said, adding that some of the network’s most controversial practices, like recruiting on the doorstep of other schools, are being scrapped.
Back at Fuerza Community Prep, one morning this spring, a young teacher in a brightly colored sundress sat with a kindergartner, jotting down the basic reading skills he had mastered, as he read aloud to her a short story from a pamphlet on her desk. The other students were writing letters, playing memory games on the floor or sitting in front of classroom laptops, reading graphic novels written for elementary school children.
Eventually, the teacher stood up and marched across the classroom to a large chart that advertises each child’s reading level. She removed a small photo of the student and placed it one level higher.
“You’ve gotten to STEP level 3,” she announced, using the acronym for a reading evaluation system from the University of Chicago.
The boy, who had gone up an entire reading level, beamed. The room of five- and-six-year-olds applauded. Then everyone got back to work, some resuming their letters, others strapping on headphones and getting back in front of their laptops.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.