The audience at the SF Commonwealth Club, in the sold out Herbst Theater, stood for a sustained ovation Monday in honor of Sonia Sotomayor. The U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice is traveling across the country to discuss her new book, My Beloved World. Before coming to San Francisco, Sotomayor learned that her old Catholic Grammar School, where she was a valedictorian, was shuttering its doors in the Bronx. She said she cried when she heard the news.
In a NY Times article focused on the school’s closure, Justice Sotomayor is quoted as saying: “You know how important those eight years were? It’s symbolic of what it means for all our families, like my mother, who were dirt-poor. She watched what happened to my cousins in public school and worried if we went there, we might not get out. So she scrimped and saved. It was a road for kids with no other alternative.”
Fortunately, today we have many more alternatives to confront the lack of high quality educational opportunities for poor and immigrant children. These schools are publicly-funded, secular and have free tuition. Justice Sotomayor came from a family of Puerto Rican immigrants who did not speak English and were very poor, not dissimilar from many San Jose children living in similar conditions and coming from countries south of the U.S. border.
At our county Board of Education meeting last Wednesday, Rocketship’s director of community development, Jessica Garcia-Kohl, said: “Our parents truly do not have a choice.” She said most children are stuck attending a traditional public school by the zip code of where they live. Many times these zip codes are in traditional public school districts, where, I believe, faculty and staff are working tirelessly to meet the educational and social needs of students but failing to do so. The issues that poverty brings are overwhelming and resources are few.
In fact, almost 50 percent of San Jose’s students are not testing at grade level on state-sponsored testing. The Board voted 5-2 in favor of a resolution granting Rocketship Education a zoning exemption for a parcel of land on Lick Ave. in the Tamien area. In my view, this vote was consistent with the December 2011 vote to approve 20 Rocketship Charter Schools, 19 of which are scheduled to be built in San Jose over the next four years.
As expected, the Board was challenged by parents who believe there are too many elementary schools in one area; that the new Rocketship scheduled to open in August 2013 would take away students from San Jose Unified School District’s Washington School, which is doing well with an API that nearly reaches the state goal of 800; that a middle school is needed on that land more than an elementary; that traffic patterns would become unsafe for residents and children; and that a park/soccer field was promised by the city’s Master Plan, but the developer reneged.
For my vote, one of five of the “yes” votes, I agreed with the concerned parents about a urgent need for a high quality neighborhood middle school and a public park/soccer field. I committed to work over time to use my trustee seat representing that portion of San Jose to advance those two causes.
Rocketship Education is a charter management organization that has origins in the Sacred Heart community of San Jose with the late Jesuit priest Father Mateo Sheedy, Father Peter Pabst, Co-Founders John Danner, CEO of Rocketship Education and Preston Smith, President Rocketship Education. It’s Catholic roots of discipline, hard work, high expectations, compassion and the importance of family are seminal to its success.
Justice Sotomayor said she was not expected to do exceptionally well in school, according to the nuns at Blessed Sacrament, once she started attending Cardinal Spellman High School. At Cardinal Spellman she was counseled to go to Fordham College. Sotomayor had different plans. She told the audience on Monday that she only wanted to consider Yale, Princeton or Harvard—or Stanford, but that was too far away. She got into Princeton and worked 24/7 to ensure her position at the top of her class.
The culture of Rocketship schools students is similar to this. They learn they are in control of their destiny and can succeed with hard work. Justice Sotomayor eloquently told us that “every kid can find a path (to success) by trying.” Rocketship’s board, staff, faculty and funders have altruistic goals. They audaciously believe it is possible to create schools all over the country that honor the above-espoused principles. And with bold and courageous leadership, the goal of ending the achievement gap in the next decade can be realized.
According to the NY Times, “New York City’s most successful and influential Latino and black professionals and politicians is like a Catholic School All-Star alumni roster.” That said, the elected leaders and those appointed to lead school systems must ensure that children in traditional public don’t receive the educational leftovers. Our goal is to fund and support a system of publicly-funded schools, where all children—rich and poor, Latino or African-American, Asian or White, male or female, Catholic or Jewish, gay or straight—thrive in the knowledge that “trying” is the key to succeeding in life.