John Danner shoots for the stars with Rocketship charter schools
Rocketship schools employ computers and coaches to help teach low-income kids, and see student performance rise dramatically.
(Page 2 of 2)
The things that adults like to do to help children is different than the things we seem to do all day long in low-income schools. I think that’s an overlooked part of burnout with teachers. If you can take those rote skills and automate them, you can free up classroom time for teachers to focus on the things they can uniquely do.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Turnaround schools
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Parental engagement is an oft-cited challenge in low-income schools. But at one point, Rocketship parents started a political action committee. How did that happen?
My co-founder Preston Smith really was a strong believer from his previous experience as a principal that getting parents involved in a school had really good characteristics. Once I saw it working, we started to think [that] if we have parents who are so engaged and so fervently believe we are doing the right thing for their children, why don’t we start to educate them about what’s going on outside Rocketship that affects them?
[After a local school funding debate], we created parent leaders, 20 at each school, who became involved in educating other parents about the political and systemic issues that they face.
What changes when you engage parents at that level?
A few things. One is that our parents start to act like upper-middle-class parents when they leave Rocketship and go to secondary schools. By and large, low-income Latino parents in San Jose are not very well served. They’ll go [to high school] and say, “I know what it looks like for my child to go to college; he needs this, this and this.”
If they continue to be ignored, they go to superintendent. If the superintendent ignores them, there’s several hundred parents at a school board meeting [talking] about the how district needs to change to serve their children. They’ve done that several times now, and they are kind of terrifying when they do that.
Tell me about the political action committee (PAC).
They formed a PAC called Parents for Great Schools. It grew to 100 parents, and they interviewed about a dozen candidates for school board races and picked four they thought really represented their views. They did about 1000 hours of campaign work for those four candidates and ended up getting 3 out of 4 folks elected.
Is this level of political engagement controversial?
I don’t know what people think privately. What we hear publicly is that generally it’s got to be a good thing for parents to be more knowledgeable about the system and have more voice. What’s fascinating is that as we get better and better at [parental] engagement we tend to annoy people more.
You take a group that largely has been overlooked and now when they walk in a room everybody knows they were the people able to mobilize do a huge amount of work and get people elected. That completely changes the calculus for most elected officials.
Is Rocketship replicable in other communities?
There is important local context every time you go to new district or city, but if you perfect things, like way we develop teachers and individualized learning, that should be pretty applicable in a lot of places. Next year, we’ll have eight schools in San Jose, and we’re moving up to San Francisco, Oakland, and East Palo Alto as well.
We hope to greenlight our first out-of-California school in February 2012. We feel a kind of moral obligation to go to places that aren’t happy about being disrupted and say, we’re getting these results, they’re very, very good, and it would be to the children’s benefit to give this a try.
• John Danner is the co-founder and CEO of Rocketship, a Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute, and winner of the Aspen Global Leadership Network (AGLN) 2010 John P. McNulty Prize. Jina Moore met Danner at ACT II, a conference of AGLN alumni, on a trip to Aspen whose airfare and accommodations were financed by the AGLN.
• Sign-up to receive a weekly selection of practical and inspiring Change Agent articles by clicking here.