Rocketship, Aspire: Tenn. volunteers

California-based Aspire Public Schools and Rocketship Education are applying to open 26 charter schools in the next five years in a new reform district in Tennessee, where the need is great, the climate for charters friendly, and the money for public schools better than in California.

Tennessee would mark the first venture outside of its home state and a shift in its expansion strategy for Aspire, the largest charter school operator in California with 34 schools primarily serving low-income minority children in Los Angeles, Oakland, Fresno, and Stockton.

Tennessee would become the third region for fast-growing Rocketship, which runs five elementary charters in San Jose with approval for 25 more in Santa Clara County and an additional school in San Francisco. Earlier this year, Rocketship’s  board  of trustees accepted the City of Milwaukee’s invitation to open eight schools, with the first in the fall of 2013.

Achievement School District, which operates the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in Tennessee, announced Tuesday that Rocketship and Aspire are among 12 charter operators, four of them without prior experience, that applied to take over existing schools or open new ones. Sixty-nine of the 85 schools in the Achievement School District are in Memphis, with a smattering in Nashville and Chattanooga. Transforming the worst-achieving schools into a laboratory for innovation, while inviting in successful charter operators such as Rocketship, Aspire, and the charter network KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), was part of Tennessee’s  winning Race to the Top application. Rocketship and Aspire will learn in June whether their charters are approved. KIPP already operates a charter in Nashville.

Aspire wants to open 10 elementary schools in Memphis, where most of the students in the Achievement District schools are African American. It “was not an easy decision because we didn’t want to spread ourselves too thin,” said Elise Darwish, Oakland-based Aspire’s chief academic officer. “But when we looked at the poverty and needs in Memphis, it was a no-brainer.”

Aspire serves 12,000 students in California, and that will grow by 10 percent by filling out existing schools. Beyond that, for now, it will look beyond California for growth, Darwish said.

More funding, fewer hassles

Aspire will receive $8,100 per child in school funding in Memphis, more than 40 percent more than the average $5,660 tuition it gets in California, plus facilities if it takes over an existing school. The charter will be for 10 years – twice the length as in California ­– and it will be monitored by Achievement School District’s new superintendent, Chris Barbic, the founder of YES Prep, a group of charter schools in Houston. That’s simpler and more direct than answering to dozens of authorizing school districts, as in California. Aspire received a statewide charter authority from the State Board of Education in California, enabling it to open anywhere in the state, but that approval has been tied up in court.

Two years ago, Aspire was one of only three school systems in the nation singled out by McKinsey and Company for its “significant, sustained and widespread improvement” in student outcomes. Earlier this month, the education research firm Mathematica and the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington named Aspire as a top-performing charter organization and pointed to its effective system of coaching teachers.

For the past six months, Aspire CEO James Willcox has been meeting community leaders in Memphis. Aspire may fly parents from California to Memphis to answer questions about the charter school and its approach. Parents in a Memphis school that Aspire takes over will have the option of going elsewhere. Existing teachers will have the option of applying for jobs at the charter school.

Darwish said that in Memphis, Aspire would further develop a blended learning approach it is piloting in Oakland, in which for part of the day students learn online using software programmed for individualized needs.

Blended learning has brought Rocketship acclaim – and contributed to its high API scores. Students spend 100 minutes a day in a learning lab, using online programs to bolster basic skills and accelerate learning. The model, which satisfies the state’s minimum instruction time, also saves money, which Rocketship plows back into higher teacher salaries and training. (For my take on Rocketship’s learning lab, go here.) The same will happen in Tennessee, with additional school funding going to art and drama, with student transportation eating up some of the differential, said Kristoffer Haines, senior director of national development for Rocketship.

Rocketship has applied to open eight schools in Nashville, starting in 2014-15, and eight in Memphis, starting a year later. Nashville will be a homecoming of sorts for CEO and cofounder John Danner. When he and his family lived there, Danner started  KIPP Academy in the city, and was active in the state’s early charter movement.

Rocketship’s K-5 schools in San Jose serve primarily Latino students, many of them English learners. The Oakland Unified trustees and Alameda County Board of Education rejected Rocketship’s proposal for a charter school in West Oakland last year, partly on the grounds that Rocketship had no experience teaching African American children.

Haines said that Rocketship subsequently hired researchers to examine issues raised in Oakland and is confident its model will work successfully in predominantly African American schools. It makes the case for that in its application to the Achievement School District, he said.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *