There is a game-changing local story about to take place in a few days. A decision before the SCCOE Board of Education is whether or not to approve 20 Rocketship Charter Schools on a countywide benefit charter basis. Each new school approval is listed as a separate action item on the Board’s agenda. For each item, the county staff recommends approval insofar as the petition “meets the minimum requirements for countywide charter approval set forth in Educational Code section 47605.6.”
The turf wars are just beginning. President Pam Parker of the Santa Clara County School Board’s Association sent an email on Sunday to all SCC school board members entitled, “A Call To Arms.” President Parker wrote in her email, “… I feel it is imperative that we take a stand now or suffer the consequences in the future.” Parker was asking SCC school board members to attend the meeting and voice their concern about an affirmative vote by the County Board to approve.
The seeds of this remarkable Rocketship story were planted over decade ago in a parish church a block away from where my father grew up as first-generation Italian immigrant. In 1999, Father Mateo Sheedy, Pastor of Sacred Heart Church, was commissioned by Santa Clara University to find student candidates from the parish who could succeed at a four-year university. Father Sheedy quickly learned that the public schools in the area were failing to meet the educational needs of their students. He could not find one student qualified to have the requisite skills and courses to succeed at SCU.
Working to solve this problem, Father Sheedy dreamed big. He envisioned chartering local schools that would develop models of learning with high expectations for each student. The Pastor turned to John Danner, CEO of Rocketship who co-founded Sacred Heart Nativity School, a private Catholic school in 2000 for at-risk Latino boys (and now girls) in grades 6-8. Five years later he petitioned San Jose Unified School District for a charter K-5 grade school to address the issues of underserved, mostly Latino youth in downtown San Jose.
San Jose Unified’s Board, on a recommendation from then Superintendent Inglesias, denied the charter petition. Months later on appeal to the SCCOE Board of Education, Rocketship Mateo Sheedy was authorized. This local story takes off from here, now with a national spotlight. To demonstrate how things are changing in the pursuit of a public education system responsive to all its students, in November 2011 the San Jose Unified School District Board, on a recommendation from Superintendent Mathews, voted 5-0 to approve its first Rocketship Charter School.
In its first year of operation (2007), based on the Academic Performance Index (API), Rocketship Mateo Sheedy became the highest ranked low-income elementary school in the county and seventh in the state. The learning model at Mateo Sheedy has received national attention and proven to be scalable and replicable, as the nonprofit public benefit corporation works on continuous improvement to its critical systems.
The chemistry of success for Rocketship Education and its current five schools has everything to do with:
1. Teacher quality, attracting the best and the brightest teachers using the Teach For America talent from top-tier universities from around the U.S.
2. An extended school day;
3. High expectations for each child;
4. Teacher Teaming;
5. Deep community and parent involvement;
6. Individualization for each child;
7. Blended learning using 100 minutes of instruction in a computer lab;
8. High Quality Professional Development and Coaching models;
9. Exceptional school-level leadership;
10. Quality formative assessments that inform instruction.
These critical learning systems and beliefs at Rocketship Education have been honed by two local titans of school reform: Co-founders John Danner and the Chief Petitioner for Rocketship 9-28, Preston Smith. Professionally, I have come to know Danner and Smith as two local educational leaders deeply committed to the educational needs of underserved children.
San Jose/Silicon Valley is incredibly fortunate to have them residing and working in our midst. No doubt they have been game-changers for public education and the educational needs of children living in low socio-economic areas of San Jose. I think their respective backgrounds are instructive.
John Danner is the son of retired Superior Court Judge Alden Danner and husband of Allison Marston Danner, 40, a federal prosecutor and former law school professor. John served as a teacher in Nashville public schools for three years. He was the founding director of KIPP Academy Nashville. John possesses a Bachelor’s degree and Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering from Stanford and a Master’s degree in Education Policy from Vanderbilt. Before his pursuit of education interests, he founded and served as CEO of NetGravity, an Internet advertising software company. John took NetGravity public and sold it to Doubleclick in 1999.
Preston Smith is currently the Chief Academic Officer of Rocketship Education. He was the principal and founder of L.U.C.H.A. Elementary School in Alum Rock School District (ARSD) in 2004. In 2006, L.U.C.H.A. earned an API of 881 and was the fourth-ranked high-poverty elementary school in the state. Before 2004, Preston taught first grade for three years at Arbuckle Elementary in ARSD. Smith graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Eight districts are destined for a Rocketship school if the county board votes to grant the petition in its entirety. The lion share of schools will be in San Jose Unified (6) Alum Rock (4), Franklin-McKinley (3), and Oak Grove School District (3). Single schools are slated for Santa Clara Unified, Campbell Elementary, Evergreen, and Mount Pleasant school districts.
There are detractors of the Rocketship model who use statistical data to bolster their arguments. Some call the Rocketship bandwagon corporate and cookie-cutter schooling. I am opposed to the privatization of public education, yet I believe Rocketship is a local success story, as I described above, with the right motivation for success.
How I vote on Wednesday night will be determined by three-things:
1. Do I believe what they have written in their 394-page petition?
2. Do I think the children left behind in traditional public schools will be ill served by Rocketship’s charters?
3. Will the approval of 20 schools and a potential district the size of 15,000 students decrease the level of collaboration necessary to eliminate the achievement gap? Will this be especially true in districts working cooperatively with Rocketship like San Jose Unified and Franklin-McKinley?
Here is what Rocketship writes on page 19 of its petition: ”Rocketship is committed to ensuring that its schools are widely available to underserved students who are victims of the achievement gap. Approval of RS18 and other Rocketship countywide charter schools would allow Rocketship to further partner with the SCCOE in the work to realize the goals of SJ/SV2020 to eradicate the achievement gap within these neighborhoods and communities.”
For me, this pending vote has caused much consternation. The SCCOE as an organization must support our local school districts and not be at odds with their missions. At the same time, the SCCOE Board’s focus must be about what is best for the children—all children, and especially those who have been underserved for decades. It is a very tough call for me to make. I have thought about this moment of decision for months and now the moment is here.