REDWOOD CITY -- Rocketship Education founder John Danner is stepping aside to return to his roots as a software entrepreneur and develop programs for online learning.

Rocketship's President Preston Smith, 33, is taking over as CEO, overseeing not only Rocketship's eight schools but also its ambitious expansion plans. The Redwood City-based charter operator has approval for more than 20 additional K-5 campuses in Santa Clara County and is seeking to open schools elsewhere in the country.

Announced Thursday, the changes are effective immediately.

"It's a good day when you don't have to do politics every day," said Danner, 46.

In January, after a months-long campaign, Rocketship won permission from the Santa Clara County Board of Education and the city of San Jose for a school site in the Tamien neighborhood, overcoming neighborhood and school district opposition.

Danner said his new company, which doesn't yet have a name or an office, grew out of frustration with online programs for teaching children. Rocketship uses a "blended learning" model, where students spend part of their day in a computer lab learning and practicing skills. Rocketship has not found computer tools that are appropriately individualized to each student, he said.


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Rocketship, which focuses on teaching underprivileged youth, has posted impressive gains on state standardized tests. It has become one of the stars in the competitive charter world and almost daily fields calls from throughout the nation inquiring about opening a school in their city.

Danner's no-name company -- which besides himself includes two programmers in Bulgaria -- will begin testing its first prototype next week at one of Rocketship's schools, he said.

The field of educational technology offers many possibilities and applications. Learning won't be concentrated in institutions, he said, and will spread to mobile devices.

Fourteen years ago, Danner sold his online ad-surfing company, Net Gravity, then went back to school to get a master's in education. He taught second grade in Tennessee then founded Rocketship, which, much like its students' test scores, has taken off.

Now he envisions schools being partners with his company and using its products for free. But he also has his eye on the promising online learning market, part of the $4 trillion education market.

Even report cards and teacher conferences give only a cursory peek at student performance, he said. For his own 8- and 10-year-old children, he said, "I don't really know how my kids are doing."

But with the right tools, families could help continue learning at home. "I'm pretty sure once you empower students and parents with better information about what's going on, a lot of them are going to be willing and interested to deal with (academic) deficits and work on areas where they're strong."

Danner compares where the online learning market is now to where the Internet was before Yahoo showed people how to browse the Net and before Google emerged as the premier search engine.

Salman Khan, with his popular online videos, showed the potential for tools enabling people to learn. His Khan Academy is used in schools and homes around the world and has a free online library of 3,900 video lessons covering math to humanities, plus tools for teachers to track students.

Now, Danner said, it will be a contest in building learning algorithms and methodology to serve students. "We're in this race to build Khan 2.0," he said. "It's going to be a pretty tremendous opportunity."

Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.