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Rocketship Education to Take Off in Milwaukee

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(Sorry, couldn't resist that headline.)
Rocketship Education, a national darling in both charter school education and blended learning (it is among the country's top performing charter networks, according to various organizations), is still a local franchise. It manages five K-5 charter schools in San Jose, Calif., for 2,400 low-income students.

But beginning in fall 2013, Rocketship will open eight new charter schools in Milwaukee with plans to enroll 4,000 students, the first phase of plans to expand the franchise into cities across the country. (Now if we can only get another California-based franchise to follow suit.)

Rocketship is best known for its rotational blended learning instruction. Students attend a brick-and-mortar school, but rotate between periods of traditional classes and online learning. The approach is equal parts personalized learning and cost-saving—Rocketship's San Jose schools are in poor neighborhoods and the nonprofit organization relies heavily on donations. But it's also produced results out of those poor students that top traditional schools in the area.

Those results helped Rocketship gain approval last year to open 20 new charter schools in Santa Clara County, Calif. It's also opening new schools in the Bay Area. As local approvals were handed down, Rocketship entertained interest from other cities, ultimately receiving approvals to open new schools in New Orleans and Milwaukee. Despite not being on its radar 18 months ago, the organization decided on Milwaukee, based on a four-part criteria for opening new schools:

  • Can Rocketship raise $3.5 million to open new schools there?
  • Check. In addition to $1 million from the Charter School Growth Fund, the Walton Family Foundation and the The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation donated half of the remaining $2.5 million. Several local businesses and foundations covered the matching funds. (The Walton Family Foundation also contributes to Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit publisher of Education Week.)
  • Is there a need for the schools?
  • Check. In the 2010-2011 school year, 82 percent of Milwaukee Public Schools students were classified as "low-income." And a 2010 report by the IFF, a Chicago nonprofit studying the distribution of low-performance schools, found only one-third of students were being served by a school that met even 75 percent of the Wisconsin proficiency standards.
  • Is local policy favorable to Rocketship schools?
  • Check. The Milwaukee Common Council, an elected body similar to a city council, can approve charter schools. That way, the needs of the entire city can be taken into account when considering an applicant, and some of the typical, district-level opposition to outsider charter schools can be avoided (like from local school districts in Santa Clara). "All over the country there are places that have alternatives to the district [for approving charter schools]," Rocketship CEO John Danner said in a phone interview Wednesday. "That will be more attractive to people from outside."
  • Is the city willing to open eight new schools instead of one?
  • Check. While Rocketship will have to meet performance marks before additional schools can open, Milwaukee approved eight schools, to open by 2017. The school was recruited by a group of Milwaukee officials, including the city's mayor and a representative from Teach for America.

By securing that criteria ahead of time, Rocketship gives itself an improved chance of succeeding and having the schools renewed, necessary when targeting low-income, low-performing schools. That level of selectivity can drive success, but it's also a luxury many charter schools don't have.

Danner acknowledged that his organization will still need to win over the local community and create a school culture that matches Milwaukee, not San Jose.

"The way we look at it is, We're here to run great schools, not push our way in," Danner said.

To do that, Rocketship will identify school leaders in Milwaukee and bring them to San Jose to train for leadership positions in new schools. (Rocketship's Bay Area Director of Schools will head the first Milwaukee school.) Work to find school facilities is underway, with help from the local community, Danner said.

Now, Rocketship will look to expand into additional cities, with Chicago, Indianapolis, Washington, Newark, N.J., and Detroit on the radar.

Rocketship is an interesting case study for the expansion of charter school networks. Charter schools are becoming more popular and permitted in more states, which means there is more data available and a greater focus on accountability. Those with proven track records are able to scale beyond their local beginnings, while those with poor results aren't renewed and disappear. The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), which began in Houston and is now a national charter staple, is an early example of a charter "franchise."

(Read this story from August 2011 for more on charter schools scaling out.)

In Rocketship's case, it chose a city that allowed it to extend its mission on a large scale, but also gave it the best chance for success. If it succeeds in Milwaukee, other cities could line up to offer an equally sweet deal, possibly changing or enacting policy to do so. That could be an early step to a more homogeneous charter school landscape, where national chains have a larger presence.

Now who wants to go "recruit" In-N-Out Burger beyond California too?

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