12/16/11 • Rocketship Education has pitched for the opportunity to end San Jose’s education achievement gap by the year 2020. It will now have the chance.
With ambitious growth plans and the Santa Clara County Board of Education’s consent to pursue them, Rocketship is set to quickly become the equivalent of the second largest elementary district in the state’s sixth most populous county and one of the largest charter school organizations in California.
Mostly on votes of 5-2, the board granted 20 additional K-5 charters after a marathon meeting that crawled beyond midnight and into the early hours of Thursday. Together with its eight schools operating or already approved charters, Rocketship plans to open all 28 schools by 2016-17 in eight school districts. Once built out, they will serve close to 15,000 primarily low-income Hispanic students. Rocketship also has two more charters, in San Francisco and East Palo Alto, on appeal with the State Board of Education, and plans to announce an expansion outside of California sometime in 2012. Milwaukee and New Orleans are among cities vying for eight-schools.
Its geometric growth will sharply test the scalabilty of a school model that’s drawn national attention for high test scores and a blend of online and classroom learning. Rocketship recruits primarily high-achieving college graduates through Teach for America, trains them intensely, and offers them career paths as teacher leaders and administrators with higher-than-average pay in the expanding school network.
Rocketship and its supporters, who included San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, San Jose Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, and impassioned parents, characterized the need for Rocketship as a civil right and a fulfillment of the board’s commitment to SJ2020 to serve the needs of low-income children in 97 schools below the target of 800 on the state’s standardized tests.
“For my child, right now, there is urgency,” said Rocketship co-founder Preston Smith, a former teacher in Alum Rock, a district that would be most affected by the charter expansion.
But local school trustees questioned the urgency of pressing ahead with so many charters and the capacity of the county to monitor them all, and criticized the county’s granting a countywide charter as an encroachment on districts’ right to review and approve individual charters.
“I am asking you tonight to delay the approval of the 20 petitions before you in order to prepare for a slower rollout, to develop appropriate oversight mechanisms, and a method for measuring success,” said Pam Parker, president of the Santa Clara County School Boards Assn., in a letter she read, with a dozen school board members at her side.
In a hearing this fall, four district superintendents signed a letter in which they implied they would consider suing the county board over its authority to issue a countywide charter to Rocketship. The board determined that Rocketship’s plan to target its schools to low-income, English learners from any of the county’s 32 districts met criteria under state law.
Superintendents nonetheless said that Rocketship should be required to apply individually to each district and then appeal to the county board if rejected. Among those making the argument was Vincent Matthews of San Jose Unified. It rejected the first Rocketship charter five years ago but approved a Rocketship school last month, proof, Matthews said, that the district has a different mindset.
San Jose Teachers Association President Stephen McMahon, a rare union leader who praises Rocketship, even though nonunion teachers work in those charters, seconded Matthews. The county board is encouraging competition when it should be promoting cooperation between Rocketship and districts, he said.
Stating that San Jose teachers are “anxious, angry and frustrated” over roadblocks to reform, McMahon repeated a previous invitation, offering to sign off on turning over a failing elementary school to Rocketship. “This is not about unions but about student achievement,” he said. “If students succeed, the teaching profession wins.”
But county trustee Leon Beauchman said there was nothing to prevent districts from now negotiating with Rocketship over a district charter in exchange for dropping a county-approved charter. He doubted most would, so there was no longer cause for delay. Because it buys land and builds its own schools, Rocketship needs at least an 18-month lead time.
County trustee Grace Mah summed up the views of the majority of the board in reaffirming the commitment to move decisively to improve the education of underserved minorities within the decade. “And so we need a revolution,” Mah said, led by Rocketship.