Katy Venskus Discusses Rocketship's Milwaukee Charter School

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Katy Venskus Discusses Rocketship's Milwaukee Charter School

Premiere Date: 
May 2, 2014

The school's VP of policy responds to an EPI report criticizing the school.

 

Episode Transcript: 

Frederica Freyberg:

We're taking a closer look at a new charter school in Milwaukee, called Rocketship. It's part of a national network of schools, and the company hopes to expand its single elementary school on that city's south side to eight. Last week we interviewed an economist and education professor who issued a report critical of the charter school. Tonight, we check in with Katy Venskus, the policy director of Rocketship Southside Community Prep in Milwaukee. Thanks for being here.

Katy Venskus:

Thanks for having me.

Frederica Freyberg:

As we noted, this report that Gordon Lafer put out was critical of the Rocketship network, but we invite you here today to give us kind of a thumbnail of the school's mission.

Katy Venskus:

And I'm absolutely always happy to talk about what we do. So, Rocketship is a not-for-profit national network of charter schools. We operate eight schools in California, and as you noted, our first school in Milwaukee, Southside Community Prep, opened in the fall. We were founded on two basic principles, one is that every child can learn and achieve and be successful, and that each and every child in this country has a right to an excellent school regardless of race, socioeconomic status or zip code.

Frederica Freyberg:

How many students are at the Southside Milwaukee Community Prep right now?

Katy Venskus:

We have 300, and change, a few families more than 300 of our founding families at Southside Community Prep.

Frederica Freyberg:

One of the things that our camera crew who visited there yesterday noted was that there are flags and banners and big college themes in this small school.

Katy Venskus:

Absolutely.

Frederica Freyberg:

What is that all about?

Katy Venskus:

It's one of the first things you see even when you walk up to our school from the street. We have college banners hanging outside the school, inside the school. And every morning all of our Rocketeers assemble, we call it launch. It’s our all-school assembly. It’s how we start our day. And they end that launch every single day by announcing very loudly that they are preparing for college, every day. We know that, particularly for kids in under-served communities, college is often not a reality, and if we don't start talking about it in kindergarten and four-year-old kindergarten, and talk about it every day, it isn’t a reality. We want to make sure that those kids know that they are preparing for college and that they have that option.

Frederica Freyberg:

Gordon Lafer also said this, critically. He said that Rocketship is a model of school that replaces teachers with technology, that uses very young and inexperienced teachers. You take exception to that.

Katy Venskus:

I take an exception to a number of things Mr. Lafer said. And I want to be really clear. Mr. Lafer’s study was funded by the EPI, the Economic Policy Institute, and that think tank is funded and administered by some of the country's largest labor unions who are very strongly on the record as being charter opponents. So as we talk about this, I want to make sure we talk about it as a political document and not a policy document. As for the contention that we have replaced teachers, I can tell you that teachers are the centerpiece of everything we do. We believe transformational teachers change lives. And our kids are successful because we believe we have the best teachers in the country working in our classrooms.

Frederica Freyberg:

What about the idea that he posits that these technology labs are set up, and the children are taking part in kind of passive use of computers with an unlicensed teacher then kind of monitoring a very large group of students for a portion of the day?

Katy Venskus:

So, I think it's really important that folks understand why and how Rocketship uses technology to augment our model. So, we believe fundamentally that, for every child to be successful, every child has to be taught in a way that meets their individual needs. And technology allows us to augment traditional classroom instruction, it's not instead, it's in addition to. Kids use technology to sort of focus in on those fundamental skills, those basic sort of skills that they need to have mastery in. So that when they’re in the classroom teachers can focus on higher level concepts and that sort of group work that we expect from really high performing classrooms.

Frederica Freyberg:

And what about the piece, that the computer labs are monitored not by licensed teachers but by someone else?

Katy Venskus:

So, our learning lab is staffed by tutors and learning specialists. They are not always credentialed teachers. But they do get extensive training and professional development the same way that our teachers do, and they are trained in how to make sure the kids are engaging in technology. They are trained in looking at data and making sure the kids are getting the lessons they need. And it's also important to note that when the kid are in the learning lab they’re not just on the computers. They are in small group learning, they’re in one to one tutoring, and they’re in enrichment sessions. So there’s lots of different things happening in the learning lab while the kids are there.

Frederica Freyberg:

There’s a lot more that I would like to speak about, but we have less than a minute left. I want to ask what your test scores, and apparently you do a lot of testing, show about Rocketship school in Milwaukee compared to public schools in Milwaukee.

Katy Venskus:

So, we’re in our first year. I'm very pleased to say that all of our Rocketeers in our Milwaukee school, according to NWEA MAP testing, which is one of the sort of most widely accepted nationally normed tests for gauging student growth, all of our kids are on track to make and average of 1.7 years of academic growth in reading and 1.8 years of academic growth in math. That's almost two full years of academic progress in the space of a single school year for our Milwaukee kids, which is fantastic news. And I will say, in a city where 16% of our kids are proficient in reading and 20% of our kids are proficient in math, Rocketship is very pleased to see that we’re getting great outcomes with our kids,  and that we’re part of moving Milwaukee forward for everybody.

Frederica Freyberg:

We need to leave it there. Katy Venskus, thanks much.

Katy Venskus:

Thank you.


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