Rocketship eyes Florida for charter school expansion

It’s early in the process, so early that Kristoffer Haines of Rocketship Education hesitates to share too much about the charter school network’s potential to come to the Sunshine State.

rocketshipYes, Rocketship recently won a $100,000 grant from the Florida Charter School Growth Fund, a partnership that philanthropists and education leaders created to help lure high-impact charter operators to the state. Yes, the California-based chain is looking at the Miami-Dade school district as the site of one of eight possible schools in Florida.

“But it’s mostly been exploratory in nature for us,’’ the senior vice president of growth and development told redefinED recently. “We’re really doing work on the front end trying to engage the community and understand what the needs are, who the providers are.’’

That’s a trademark move for Rocketship, a high-performing K-5 charter school network devoted to closing the achievement gap for low-income students. The concept started in San Jose, Calif., where there are eight schools. This year, the network expanded to Milwaukee, with one school that opened in August. Another school is set to open next fall in Nashville, and Rocketship is working with communities for possibly more schools in Indianapolis, Memphis, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans.

And, maybe, Florida.

Kristoffer Haines

Kristoffer Haines

“It’s incredibly, incredibly early in the process,’’ Haines said.

State education leaders had hoped such a move would happen sooner, after ponying up $20 million of Florida’s Race To The Top funds and signing on with the Colorado-based national Charter School Growth Fund to start a grants competition in 2011. The goal was to award dollars to the Rocketships, KIPPs, Yes Prep Academies and other successful national chains wanting to set up shop in the poorest neighborhoods. So far, most of the recipients have been home-grown charter operators – a few with a lot of promise, but little experience running a school.

Haines said Rocketship, which combines high-quality teachers with a personalized learning approach and strong parent-engagement focus, has always been interested in Florida. “We like working with states that are progressive, thinking outside the box,’’ he said.

But the outfit also likes to do its homework. More than two years before its Milwaukee school opened, Rocketship organizers were busy meeting with community leaders and parents, studying the city’s other educational opportunities and laying the groundwork.

In Florida, that has meant numerous trips to Miami to meet with Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, and city and community leaders. Haines anticipates several more years before any plan is in place. And there is a chance it won’t happen at all.

Haines attended a meeting in Orlando earlier this summer to talk about some of the hurdles for charter school operators that included low per-student funding (Rocketship schools rely solely on public funding), but he declined to elaborate on any roadblocks to date. “Every place has its own unique hurdles,’’ he said, noting everyone at that meeting was “actively committed to resolve those items.’’

If all goes accordingly, Rocketship hopes to start with one school in Miami-Dade and open another seven within five years. It’s all part of the network’s master plan to serve 35,000 students in nine regions by the 2018-19 school year.

“We want to eliminate the achievement gap in our lifetime,’’ Haines said. “And the achievement gap doesn’t exist in just California.’’

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