In the winter of 2013, Rocketship Education had aggressive plans for growth. The eight-year-old charter management organization (CMO), hailed by many as a blended learning pioneer, had taken steps to grow from nine schools in two states (California and Wisconsin) to over 50 schools across seven new cities within four years. In addition, the organization planned to increase from eight schools in San Jose, to 20 by 2020.
Plans have changed. In recent weeks the San Jose, CA-based network withdrew charter applications for eight schools in Dallas and San Antonio. Plans to expand to Indianapolis, where it had previously gained approval to build another eight schools that would have opened doors in 2015, have been delayed. Also on hold are plans to grow to New Orleans and Memphis.
Some speculate Rocketship is hitting the brakes due to falling test scores. In 2013, the average API scores across seven of the San Jose based schools dropped 46 points to 822. (The maximum total is 1,000; Rocketship’s score is still higher than the California average of 783.)
But Katy Venskus, vice president of policy at Rocketship, says that it was challenges with growing the CMO in new regions that have slowed new schools. “Moving into new regions as a national network was more complex than we expected,” she says. Navigating the maze of different regulations, funding rules, politics and community relationships in each state proved to be more than the CMO expected.
Financial complexities are part of the problem. Local funding formulas vary from state to state, and it is difficult for charter schools to anticipate the amount of financial support available to them from state and local districts, as the formulas include different variables such as the number of English language learners or special education students.
Another related--and equally significant--challenge is community engagement. Not everyone supports Rocketship’s blended learning model.
As a result of these various complexities, the CMO is choosing to focus on growth in the regions it’s already in. “The next couple of years are going to be about going deep rather than going wide,” says Venskus.
School leaders say they expect to double the size of the network from 9 to 20 schools over the next couple of years. That expansion will be focused in California, where Rocketship has already gained approval for a new charter school in Redwood City. The CMO will also continue growing the number of students it serves in Milwaukee, currently home to one school that opened in fall 2013. And Venskus says, plans are still on track to open a new school in Nashville this fall, and another one in Washington, D.C. in 2015. Other regions will have to wait.
“We need to learn how to fine tune the regional [strategy], so that we can fire on all cylinders in the places we are already in and then be ready to take on more requirements in another region,” says Venskus.
Brand and reputation, Rocketship has learned, will only take a CMO so far. “You must have a deep and comprehensive understanding of the market you’re trying to serve; the political, the funding, the regulator-, and parent-decision making...You have to give yourself the time and capacity to do that work,” reflects Venskus.