Rocketship’s bold expansionParents urge approval; districts skeptical
Rocketship Education is running three charter schools in San Jose today. It wants to have 29 operating in the city and surrounding communities within seven years.
That prospect thrilled at least two of the seven members of the Santa Clara County Board of Education; saying closing the achievement gap is a civil rights issue that cannot wait, they were ready to say yes after a three-hour hearing Wednesday night, even though the board vote is two months away. (Trustee Craig Mann intends to enter Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” into the board minutes to explain the urgency.)
But the magnitude of Rocketship’s proposal – unprecedented in one county – gave pause to other trustees, who questioned Rocketship’s ability to bring its charter model to scale so quickly and pondered the political dilemma of approving so many charters against the wishes of superintendents and trustees in some of Rocketship’s target areas.
“I too support good charter schools,” said trustee Anna Song, “but you have put us in a very uncomfortable spot with 20.”
Song and the board have already granted Rocketship a countywide charter for five schools, and it has four more either up or in the works. It’s now seeking four more per year for five years, starting in 2013-14.
County’s API leader
The intent, Rocketship’s Chief Achievement Officer Preston Smith said, is to play a leading role in ending the achievement gap – and realize the aim of SJ2020, which set that goal for San Jose by the end of the decade. Founded five years ago, Rocketship has earned the bona fides to claim that. Of the 91 elementary schools in Santa Clara County where a majority of students come from low-income families, only two schools have an API score above 875, establishing that the majority of students are proficient or advanced in math and English language arts. Those two are Rocketship’s first two schools, whose students are predominately English learners and low-income Hispanics: Mateo Sheedy Elementary (API 925 two years straight) and Si Se Puede Academy (API 886).
Rocketship has drawn national attention for a hybrid school model that blends classroom instruction with a computer lab that accelerates individual learning. Foundations and individuals have donated millions of dollars to develop the software and information system for teachers. Rocketship has an extended day and fosters parental involvement through visits to the home of every student.
Rocketship would locate its schools near some of the 61 low-performing elementary schools in 11 districts – those with clusters of students scoring below basic and far below basic and API scores below 775. Smith promised to give districts a year’s notice before opening a school and six months’ notice on the exact location. In an unusual promise, Rocketship has invited the county board to withhold its right to start the next school if its own charters haven’t reached the 875 goal within three years of opening. And it vowed to collaborate – including paying market rent for school buildings – in districts willing to work with it.
But that didn’t assuage superintendents who testified at the hearing.
Saying Rocketship has no roots in his community, Sunnyvale School District Superintendent Benjamin Picard said that Rocketship “would be a distraction diluting our resources.” San Jose Unified Superintendent Vincent Matthews, who once was a charter school principal, said that replication is difficult and Rocketship lacked a track record showing it could handle it. He urged Rocketship to seek charters through individual districts. “It is important that we collaborate, so I encourage you (the county board) to push Rocketship to come back to us.”
More receptive was Darcie Green, a trustee from Alum Rock Union Elementary School District, where Rocketship’s second school is located. While not taking a position on the 20-school expansion, she said, “Rocketship has made our district better” and encouraged a partnership that would help to “best utilize talent within the district.”
Whose ‘hot potato’?
Referring to Rocketship as a “hot potato,” Song said she would like to pass the applications back to local districts but wondered aloud whether local boards would have the courage to approve Rocketship. “I don’t see a proven record that boards would do the right thing,” she said.
The boards in both Alum Rock and San Jose Unified originally voted down Rocketship’s charter applications, sending Rocketships to the county on appeal. Rocketship could waste a year returning to districts for more charters to have the same result again.
Because Rocketship has an established relationship with the county office of education and a distinct instructional model, it can qualify for an expanded countywide charter. John Danner, Rocketship’s CEO and founder, said that approval of the expansion could actually jump start relations with districts. When it is no longer a question of whether Rocketship will come but when, “then the conversation changes,” he said. “This will cause collaboration. “
Those testifying on Rocketship’s behalf included a former mayor, a former San Jose Unified superintendent, Linda Murray, and the current councilmember representing downtown, Sam Liccardo, who said Mateo Sheedy Elementary had become “a touchstone for hope in the community.” An aide for U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who represents San Jose, read a letter of support as well.
Most compelling were poignant remarks of Rocketship parents, including an East San Jose mother who said it “breaks my heart that my three oldest sons did not have the opportunity that my youngest has. Please approve more Rocketships for my community.”
Rocketship has until late June to respond board questions about its operation and plans.
Update: Since one of TOP-Ed’s readers charged that Rocketship pushes out its least skilled students in the spring, before California’s standardized tests, the CSTs, my colleague at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, Bob Nichols, did some data crunching for Rocketship’s two schools that were open last year, Mateo Sheedy Elementary and Si Se Puede Academy. He compared the official student attendance by grade in October with number of students who took the CSTs the following spring and found nothing to substantiate the allegation. The numbers were nearly identical. You can see them below.