At a High-Tech School, Supportive Adults Are the Real Key to Success

Silicon Valley's Discovery Prep has state-of-the-art technology. It also has unusually engaged teachers and parents. 


At Rocketship Schools, daily awards ceremonies are as central to the routine as the much-touted computer labs. (Photos courtesy of the Discovery Prep website)

Rocketship Discovery Prep is a boxy, two-story elementary school wedged between a building materials company and a storm-water spillway in a run-down Latino neighborhood off Highway 101 in San Jose, California. It's one of seven schools run by Rocketship Education, a non-profit, Palo Alto-based charter school network founded by John Danner, a Silicon Valley technology entrepreneur, and Preston Smith, a Teacher for America veteran who previously opened his own successful San Jose elementary school. The Rocketship network now serves 3,700 San Jose students who are nearly all poor and who mostly don't speak English.

Despite their tough zip codes and challenging students, the schools have turned in strong results--outperforming nearly all of their impoverished California peers and even many of the state's more privileged school districts on standardized tests--using "blended learning," a combination of traditional teaching and computer-based instruction that has led many school reformers to herald Rocketship as the technology-driven future of education.

And many advocates of digital learning would go beyond Rocketship's blended strategy. They talk about completely replacing school-based learning with digital experiences that allow students to "go to school" where and when they want, assembling their own education with the help of the Internet and new digital tools like "recommendation engines" and customized "play lists."

The Internet certainly holds the prospect of tapping into the vast store of knowledge and teaching talent that resides beyond the schoolhouse door, addressing students' varying interests and needs more fully and efficiently. But while Rocketship attracts a steady flow of visitors hoping to glimpse education's high-tech future, I came away from my own pilgrimage to Discovery Prep believing that the school's success proves the opposite point: the younger and more disadvantaged students are, the more they need adults supporting them in many different ways day in and day out--the more they need school to be a place rather than merely a process.

Each morning at Discovery Prep and the rest of the Rocketship network, everyone gathers on the playground for announcements and a sing-a-long. Students receive recognition and rewards for outstanding behavior and achievement and teachers and students (the oldest are 5th graders) sing and dance to songs by Michael Jackson and other pop stars, surrounded by parent-volunteers. In the same spirit, teachers greet every student by name as they enter their classrooms, a routine that Rocketship calls a "threshold invite." Personal connections between adults and students are paramount.

Parents are everywhere in the life of 640-student Discovery Prep. The schools organize meetings on curriculum, instructional strategies, and student behavior to enlist parents as educational partners. They take students and parents on bus trips to Stanford, Berkeley, and other local colleges and universities to get them invested in higher education. And they ask parents to spend 30 hours a year in their children's schools and most do. As a result, students have the sense that there are always adults ready to help, that their parents care about them, and that education is important. When I visited Discovery Prep, parents were reviewing young students' rudimentary homework assignments, freeing teachers to spend more time on instruction. (Rocketship's parents have also been active in the local community, forming a political action committee to elect reform-minded San Jose school board members.)

Presented by

Thomas Toch is a senior partner at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. 

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