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Aspen Institute and the McNulty Foundation: What's in a Prize?

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CHARTER SCHOOLS
AP

As it happens, a lot. And a lot more than just money, especially when (as in our case) the effort involves a massive, rapid transformation of public education. As co-founder and CEO of Rocketship Education, I just had the privilege of accepting the prestigious McNulty Prize, awarded by the Aspen Institute and the McNulty Foundation. This prize means big things to Rocketship, and I'm proud and excited by the opportunities it confers.

Rocketship is a network of K-5 charter schools whose mission is to eliminate the achievement gap, and we're not content to let change happen slowly. Today, we have three flourishing schools in San Jose, California; in just five years, we intend to increase that number to 30 schools, and in 10 years, we will have built out a national network of hundreds of successful schools.

So how does the McNulty Prize support Rocketship's vision? Perfectly. John McNulty, in whose name, memory and honor the Prize is awarded, was a bold, passionate man with big ideas and a limitless capacity to challenge the status quo in order to make big things happen. When I co-founded Rocketship in 2005, we had a bold dream: to eliminate the achievement gap in our lifetimes. With 13,000 failing public schools in our country, that might seem daunting to some, but my co-founder Preston Smith and I relished the challenge. We knew we needed to up-end the status quo -- miserably underfunded schools, a dearth of talented teachers, and a depressing flow of undereducated children with no prospects for earning living wages.

Fortunately, big challenges can catalyze game-changing ideas, and that's how we created the Hybrid School Model, a novel approach to augmenting outstanding teaching with tutors and technology, to meet the specific needs of each and every student.

Rocketship's hybrid school model combines individualized instruction in our Learning Lab with outstanding classroom teaching. Learning Lab uses tutors and technology to go deep on each child's individual needs and is the primary driver of basic skills mastery at Rocketship. This frees up teachers' classroom time to do project-based learning, and teaching critical thinking skills that are so essential for college and the workplace.

The hybrid school model works really well. Rocketship's students (90 percent low income, and often coming from families where English is the second language), are outperforming their peers. Last year, Rocketship students scored as high on achievement tests as the much wealthier Palo Alto Unified School District. Not bad.

And, just as important, Rocketship's hybrid model is very financially efficient. By using non-certified staff in Learning Lab, we hire fewer teachers overall. Rocketship is able to reinvest nearly $500,000 in annual savings from hiring fewer teachers right back into improving the quality of our schools, including Academic Deans, Leadership Development, and higher teacher salaries (20 percent above surrounding districts). It also lets us open new schools without the need for philanthropy.

That's where the importance of scale comes in. This would all be great, but remember those 13,000 failing schools? That's why scaling rapidly is essential. Aside from philanthropic funding to build our central office capacity and expansion to new cities, Rocketship schools do not need any additional financial support. This financial efficiency has given us the capacity for 60 percent annual growth, and over the next 10 years we hope to expand to 50 cities across the country. Rocketship's model is based on scale. Once Rocketship opens its first school in a city, we can open new schools to meet whatever the parent demand is. If you saw the movie, Waiting for 'Superman', you saw those terrible waiting lists and lotteries.  Rocketship was designed explicitly to solve this problem. We open schools quickly enough that we never build up wait lists and every parent who wants to send their child to a great school can. In San Jose for example, there are 30 failing elementary schools. We plan to open 30 Rocketship schools over the next decade as part of San Jose's SJ2020 plan to be the first city in the country to eliminate the achievement gap.

So back to McNulty and Aspen -- the immense privilege of winning this prize gives Rocketship the ability to advocate for our students, and to drive big changes -- rapidly. It drives public awareness of Rocketship and our students' accomplishments. It opens important doors for Rocketship -- doors that enable us to meet and interact with thoughtful change-makers. And when people become aware of the work we are doing, and of the amazing and wonderful things we can expect from our students, they usually get very excited. We are especially inspired by our champions in many city across the country who are making a concerted effort to bring Rocketship to their city. We know that the achievement gap can be eliminated in our lifetimes, but it will take all of us working together.