On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools Are Pushing the Envelope
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More About This Title On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools Are Pushing the Envelope


The face of American education is evolving—and the roadmap is clear

On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope examines the rise and expansion of leading charter school network Rocketship, revealing the "secret sauce" that makes a successful program. A strong narrative with a timely message, the book explores how Rocketship started and the difficulties encountered as it expands. Designing schools for children who have been failed by traditional schools is extremely challenging work. Setbacks are inevitable. Later in the book the narrative shifts to the national picture, exploring how high performing charter schools are changing the education landscape in cities such as Denver, Memphis, and Houston. The book emerges just as charter schools are running into stiff political opposition in New York City and elsewhere. Even in San Jose, Rocketship's home base, the pushback against charter schools is gaining speed. On the Rocketship becomes a valuable resource for explaining what's at stake in this battle. Lose these schools, in New York, San Jose and other cities, and low-income and minority students lose their best shot at a quality education.

Written by a veteran journalist who followed Rocketship through a school year, the book explores some of the factors that make Rocketship and other charters successful, including the blended learning that was pioneered at charter schools, especially Rocketship.

Many schools around the country are looking to Rocketship as a model for implementing blended learning. The interplay between charter schools and blended learning is setting a change in motion, and the American education system is ready to evolve. On the Rocketship details this phenomenon, providing insights for educators across the nation.


RICHARD WHITMIRE, a veteran newspaper reporter and former editorial writer at USA Today, is author of The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District. He is also author of Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Education System That’s Leaving Them Behind.


Introduction 1

Part 1: The Players

Rocketship Finally Launches outside California 7

John Danner 9

Preston Smith 15

Danner’s Big Pivot 19

Part II: The Startup Years

A Charter Fund Designed to Nurture Top CMOs 25

Did the Butterfly Effect Give Wings to Rocketship? 27

Hurricane Katrina 29

Startup Meets Smokestack 31

Sci-Fi-Inspired Software 41

Joel Klein Does the Unexpected 43

Recruiting the Key (Outside) Players 45

The Hard Sell: Pitching the First Rocketship 53

Opening Mateo Sheedy: Tough Times 61

New Schools Launches Charter Accelerator Fund II 65

How to Build a Fibonacci School 67

Part III: The Growth Years

The Ideal Personnel Department? Not within Rocketship 73

Alum Rock Rejects Rocketship Is That a Bad Thing? 79

Rocketship Finds a Friend 81

Charter School Growth Fund Puts Rocketship on the Map 85

Slivka’s Sci-Fi Software Gets Shipped: DreamBox 87

Rocketship Wins Five More Charters 91

Finding Karen Martinez It’s an Art 93

Achievement Gaps in Fabulous Silicon Valley? 99

District-Charters Compact Launched 101

Danner (and Reed Hastings) Discover DreamBox 103

Yet Another Boring Education Book? Not Exactly? 105

States Repeal Charter Restrictions (Okay, a Bribe Was Involved) 107

Fresh Charter Strategy from the Department of Education 109

Growing the High-Performing (and Blended) Charters 111

Double Setbacks Rocketship Changes Course 113

A Corporate Jet Packed with Movers and Shakers Touches Down 117

Leaders of Top Charters Tapped as State Commissioners 123

Top Charters to Get Stiff Test 125

Blended Learning Rocketship Style: This Stuff Works! 127

KIPP Opens Its One-Hundredth School 129

A Discovery That Would Lead to Big Changes (and Bigger Drama) 131

Rocketship Bids Big: Give Us Twenty More Charters in Santa Clara County 133

Setting Up Rocketship to Fail? 137

Rocketship Doubles Down on a Reinvention 141

One Million Rocketship Students by 2030? Not Happening 147

Rocketship and Unions: It’s Complicated; A Rocketship Teacher Sits down with a Union Leader—Her Mother 149

Early Fallout from Model Change 157

The Pushback Gets Real: The Fight over Tamien 159

Part IV: The Push to Expand outside San Jose

Welcome to South Milwaukee 171

A Power Play Backfires 173

School Starts in Seven Months—but Only Three Sign-ups! 177

Danner Steps Down; Smith Steps Up 181

Milwaukee Gets a Shakeup 183

Stretching to Lure Top Charters: The San Antonio Story 187

Smith’s Worst Monday Ever 193

Exactly What Kind of a Difference Can a Fibonacci School Make? 199

Milwaukee Looking Up (a Bit) 201

Two Charters Make the Top Five List 205

If Rocketship Is the Digital Future Why Do Its Schools Look So Ordinary? 207

Fibonacci Developments in Massachusetts 211

More Progress in Milwaukee 213

A Day in the Life: Rocketship’s Flagship School, Mateo Sheedy 215

Fresh Turbulence in Milwaukee 225

Surprise Shift on TFA 233

Milwaukee Parents Name Their School: Southside Prep 237

Rumor Just In: Rocketship Falls through the Ice 241

A Fibonacci Charter Group Is Honored 243

Build, Measure, Learn, Rinse, Repeat 245

One Month before Southside Prep Opens 251

How Many Sharon Kims Are out There? 253

Eva Makes Life Hard for Her Many Critics 263

Opening Week at Southside Prep 265

California Test Scores Released 267

Part V: The Future for Rocketship and Other High Performers

Answering the Fibonacci Question: Will Rocketship Make It Big? 271

Fibonacci Charters Summoned to Memphis 279

Houston’s Spring Branch Schools: The Future? 287

Where’s the Tipping Point? 293

The Tennessee Launch 299

Conclusion 301

Acknowledgments 311

About the Author 313

Epilogue 315

Index 319