Unanimous for Rocketship

Undeterred by the threat of a suit by local districts and at odds with a staff recommendation, the Santa Clara County Board of Education unanimously approved three more Rocketship Education K-5 charters Wednesday night, bringing to eight the number of Rocketship charters it has approved and signaling a receptiveness to granting as many as 20 more in the next two months.

Board President Joseph Di Salvo, calling Santa Clara County “the epicenter of  change” in education, and other board members said bold action – opening up to a high-performing charter organization – was needed to meet the goal of SJ2020, closing the achievement gap in an area where half of students do not perform at grade level.

“We are moving in the right direction,” said Board member Leon Beauchman. “We cannot wait for the perfect solution.”

The 7-0 vote was loudly applauded by many of the nearly 700 Rocketship parents, students, and supporters who filled the boardroom and spilled over to another room and a cafeteria to watch the hearing on TV. A dozen parents implored the board to act, with personal testimonies of what Rocketship had meant to them and their children. “Rocketship is closing the achievement gap, empowering children, giving parents hope,  and having us believe in our kids,” said Karen Martinez, whose two daughters attend Rocketship Si Se Puede Academy in the Alum Rock Union School District.

The board acted under its authority to grant a countywide charter, an infrequently used power that lets a charter organization open multiple sites without first going to districts for approval. Five Santa Clara superintendents challenged the board’s guidelines for doing so and implied they’d sue over the issue. While not signing their letter, San Jose Unified Superintendent Vincent Matthews said that Rocketship should come to his district and be part of its portfolio of schools, and turn to the county board only if rejected. “Our mission is to close the achievement gap and teach 21st century skills. We are aligned with Rocketship,” he said. As proof, he said that at a board meeting tonight, he will recommend that his trustees grant a charter to Rocketship.

Advantages of a countywide charter

The staff of the Santa Clara Office of Education recommended denial, based largely on an analogous state appeals court decision that restricted the authority of the State Board of Education to grant statewide charters.

But, Jerry Simmons, an attorney for Rocketship, countered that county boards have fewer restrictions under state law, and Rocketship has satisfied the threshold: that services to those benefiting from the charter “cannot be served as well by a charter school that operates in only one school district.” The law for statewide charters demands a higher burden: substantial evidence that a statewide charter provides services that cannot be provided in only one district. An example might be an arts school requiring a near-professional level of talent.

Rocketship’s mission is to serve low-income, disadvantaged students throughout the county. If it had to be chartered by a district, co-founder and Chief Achievement Officer Preston Smith said, Rocketship might not be able to do this. Students from the chartering district, including wealthy students that Rocketship doesn’t target, would get priority over low-income students from another district under rules for an admissions lottery. If too many of those students attended, Rocketship would lose Title I funding needed to educate poor kids.

SJ2020 is a countywide initiative and a “moral imperative,” Smith said. With 32 districts in the county, not all will have a Rocketship school. Low-income students in low-achieving schools anywhere in the county should have the right to attend Rocketship, he said.

In the two schools that are already operating under a countywide charter, a quarter of the students come from other districts, Smith said. Rocketship will continue to locate its schools near district schools with API scores under 775, but it will be able to market to nearby districts as well – like Sunnyvale Elementary School District, where the 712 API scores for Latinos is 111 points below the district average and nearly 200 points below the average for white students.

Rocketship has identified seven districts for its remaining 20 schools, including a half-dozen in San Jose Unified, the largest district in the county. It’s also promising to hold its own schools to a high standard: For every Rocketship school that fails to make 775 API the first year and 825 the second year, it will postpone expanding a school. Two of the three schools approved Wednesday will open next fall, one in San Jose Unified and the other in Alum Rock.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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