The core of Rocketship Education is its enthusiastic, bright and energetic teachers. They work long hours, are accessible by cellphone at night and, even critics acknowledge, are dedicated to their students and achievement.
That determination is evident on campuses like Rocketship Spark, the network's newest school, near Hellyer Road and Highway 101. Its classes run at a rapid clip during the eight-hour school day.
"We need to make every moment matter," teacher Sarah Gooding told 27 kindergartners on a recent day, before the school year ended in mid-June. She exhorted them to "sit like a giraffe" during their three-hour literacy lesson -- nearly as long as the entire kindergarten day elsewhere.
Gooding, 28, pours in unflagging energy, directing lessons on compound words, leading a dance break, assigning timed tasks and lessons, and recognizing her "scholars," as she calls them.
Asked to report on what she told assembled students earlier, kindergartner HaNgoc Dinh said, "I need to work on my fluency."
Seizing on a possible difficult word, Gooding asked for an explanation.
"Fluency," classmate Jose Dueñas Beltrán said, "means you have to talk in your normal voice, not like a robot."
Students offering the right answers get to move up their names on a rainbow-hued behavior chart -- ubiquitous in Rocketship classrooms -- and those misbehaving move their names down. And everyone's reading level is posted prominently on the wall.
Test scores count not only for students, but also for teachers, whose salaries are tied to student improvement, and for Rocketship, which promises donors proof of performance. Stellar beginning teachers can become administrators in three years. Rocketship still boasts higher average test scores than school districts serving similar populations, although surging scores in parts of the Alum Rock District surpass some Rocketship schools.
On the Spark playground recently, 500 elementary students were rocking out to Katy Perry. "I am a champion, hear me roar, oh oh ohhhh," screamed the classes lined up on the asphalt.
After Principal Jaclyn O'Brien shouted, "Who's ready for the NWEA," a revved-up chorus replied, "We're ready!"
NWEA -- Northwest Evaluation Association -- is one of several standardized tests Rocketeers take annually. Days at Rocketship schools start and sometimes end with such pep rallies, which illustrate the promise -- and some say perils -- of the charter organization's focus: bulking up children's testing prowess.
When Gooding asks students to pair off to discuss "excellence in my heart," the 5- and 6-year-olds turn immediately to partners sitting on the rug.
"Excellence is to bubble my mouth and stay quiet," said Wesley Vuong.
Cheeks puffed out in bubbles -- discouraging chatter -- arms behind their backs and fists clenched like snowballs is the Rocketship way to walk to lunch, in class and down the hall. The 90-minute computer lab is a "zone zero" with no talking.
"The discipline is strict, and more than anything, Rocketship teachers respect," said María Vázquez, mother of a Rocketship first-grader and two alumni going into seventh and eighth grades. She looks at her older children as proof of what worked. One entered second grade far behind in reading, but soon accelerated beyond grade level. Creating a school culture of order, success and striving is critical to Rocketship's mission. Gooding, who taught three years in a tough Washington, D.C., school, agrees. Rather than struggling with discipline, at Rocketship she can focus on teaching, she said: "The amount of respect and responsibility the kids internalize is amazing."
Some think Rocketship goes overboard.
"It's cruel," said Alicia Serrano, who taught at Rocketship for three years. "It's not developmentally appropriate."
It's a long, eight-hour day, with tutoring for some after that. Then there are volumes of homework.
"You could lift weights with that packet," said Alex Garcia, 12, who attended Rocketship Los Sueños.
One parent who pulled her son from Rocketship agreed; she objected to what she called rote-recall teaching. "It's nothing a wealthy school would do on the other side of town," said the mother, who works in education and didn't want her name used.
But Alex and his sixth-grade classmate Vincent Perez conceded that Rocketship prepared them for middle school at Downtown College Preparatory Alum Rock.
Parent Trang Nguyen is happy she enrolled her kindergartner and transferred her third-grader to Rocketship Spark from a high-scoring Evergreen District school. "Everyone is so open to talk to you. Teachers are so energetic," she said. When she would pick up her children in the late afternoon, the teachers were still on campus. "I really appreciate that."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/noguchionk12.