John Danner is leaving Rocketship Education, the innovative, Palo Alto-based K-5 charter school network he cofounded seven years ago, to become an entrepreneur again. He is starting an as yet unnamed company, he says, “out of my frustration that the online learning space never embraced student-centered learning, so we are going to try to do it right.”
Rocketship announced Thursday that Rocketship President Preston Smith, a former teacher who started Rocketship with Danner and was the principal of the first Rocketship school, will become both president and CEO.
Danner and Smith said that the transition was planned from the beginning of Rocketship and that now, with Rocketship facing its next stage of growth, is the right time. Rocketship, with about 200 employees, operates seven schools with 3,800 students in San Jose with approval to open 30 in Santa Clara County within five years. In August, it will open an elementary school in Milwaukee, its first out-of-California expansion. Rocketship’s board will vote next month on whether to open the first of several schools in Nashville.
“We will continue to work relentlessly at Rocketship to ensure that the achievement gap is eliminated in our lifetime in San Jose and beyond,” Smith, who has overseen Rocketship’s operations over the past year, said in a news release. Bringing it to scale, including developing a cadre of new leaders, is the next challenge, he said.
Danner founded, ran and then sold NetGravity, an Internet advertising software company, before teaching for three years in Nashville. He returned to San Jose, convinced that online software, programmed to track to individual students’ learning, could fill in gaps in students’ knowledge and teach rudimentary skills, freeing up teachers’ time for more in-depth instruction.
The learning lab that students attend for 100 minutes daily, run by paraprofessionals, also saves money in personnel, which Rocketship plows back to hire two extra administrators at each school: an assistant principal and academic dean to train teachers. Most of Rocketship’s teachers are beginning teachers, recruited from Teach for America.
So far, the model has worked. The overall API score for Rocketship schools, where 80 percent are English learners and 90 percent are from low-income families, was 855 last year, far above the average for schools with minority students.
But Smith and Danner remain dissatisfied with the limitations of commercial online software and the difficulty in smoothly feeding helpful information on individual students’ performance in the learning lab to the classroom teachers so that they can tailor instruction. That’s the illusive goal of personalized learning and is one area that Danner’s new company apparently will focus on.
Smith said that Rocketship is developing the next iteration of hybrid or blended learning, which will involve integrating computers in a classroom setting.
Danner’s startup company plans to work closely with Rocketship. In order to avoid a potential conflict of interest, Danner is stepping down from Rocketship’s board of directors. “Rocketship is the first partner, and hopefully it will make it easier for all schools to become student-centered,” he said in an email.