Rocketship schools tout the lofty goal of closing the achievement gap “within our lifetime.” With just two school years down, standardized test scores show that the charter chain is on a faster track to accomplishing its goal that than most schools serving low-income students, many of whom speak English as a second language.
Rocketship’s overall score on the state’s Academic Performance Index (API) was 855 in 2012. That’s well over the state-mandated benchmark of 800 and one of the highest in California for a school of economically disadvantaged and minority students, according to an annual status report going before the Santa Clara County Board of Education on Wedensday.
Seven Rocketship campuses have opened so far in the county—six approved by the county board of education and one by the Franklin McKinley School District. They collectively serve 3,800 students. Each 21,000-square-foot facility services 500 to 650 students. One of them, Rocketship Brilliant Minds on Story Road, leases space from a church.
Since the schools run on public charter, their lottery enrollment doesn’t take into account any demographic besides home address. But to focus on enlisting underprivileged kids, Rocketship physically locates in the region’s poorest neighborhoods. The resulting campus demographics are markedly different from the county’s as a whole. For example, 86 percent of Rocketship students are poor enough to qualify for free or discounted lunch opposed to 2.8 percent countywide. Sixty-nine percent of Rocketship students speak English as a second language, compared to 24 percent countywide.
Still, those standardized test results are coming in strong. Rocketship Mateo Sheedy, a K-5 campus on Locust Street in San Jose, earned an API of 924 last year. That mark makes it the top score in San Jose Unified School District and one of the highest-performing primary schools in California serving low-income students.
The average API for low-income pupils at Rocketship is 841; comparable schools across the state come in at 769. Rocketship’s English language learners scored an API average of 843; the statewide average was 762.
As Rocketship aims to expand to 20 campuses in the county and up to 2,000 across the country, there’s a lot of pressure for the franchise to live up to its promise, especially since we’re talking about public school money pouring into a privately run endeavor.
So far, so good—academically, at least.
The controversy surrounding Rocketship has more to do with land-use policy. San Jose Unified School District and a resident recently sued Rocketship and the county Office of Education over the county’s decision to grant the charter chain a zoning exemption to build an eighth campus in San Jose’s Tamien neighborhood.
The Tamien Rocketship will open next school year in temporary digs to wait out the lawsuits.
Another campus in San Jose’s Sylvandale neighborhood remains on track to open in August, the company says. It plans to open its first out-of-state schools in Milwaukee and Nashville later this year, but those, too, have kicked up some land-use controversy.
Nashville school officials voice the same worry cited in SJUSD’s lawsuit, which is that Rocketship usurped local planning authority in seeking permission from county and state boards before local district trustees.
More from the Santa Clara County Board of Education agenda for March 20, 2013:
• The sequester will cost the county office more than $1.7 million in the coming fiscal calendar, with preschool child development programs taking the biggest hit. The 5.9 percent cut in federal funding means local Head Start programs will fall $162,653 short this year and $1.1 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year.
Trustees will hear a second interim report on county education’s $197 million budget, including an update on the state and federal political climate and their impact on local funding. This year, the county is on track to meet its financial obligations, but it’s bracing for cuts to vocational education funding next year.
• Leadership Public School, a 7-year-old charter school next to Overfelt High School, will present its annual report to trustees this week. The school serves 480 students, 84 percent of them Latino.
The East San Jose charter focuses on grooming students to make it to college—many of them will be the first in their families to make it to a four-year school, says Principal Vanessa Sifuentes.
Students made some pretty big gains in standardized testing between 2011 and last year, says Sifuentes, who will talk about those improvements on Wednesday. There was a 21-percent increase in the number of students who scored proficient or advanced in Algebra I between 2011 and 2012, she says.
• Gilroy Unified School District had to borrow $3.8 million in hardship loans from the county to balance the books. The south county district will give an update about its “poor cash situation” at the county board meeting.
County Superintendent Xavier De La Torre sent a letter to the district in August warning them to fix their dire financial straits, ones that left them on course to fall $14 million short by the end of the fiscal year.
When Gilroy school officials came back to the county in December with a first interim report to update higher-ups about their financial standing, they still showed negative cash balances and had no plan to fix those shortfalls, according to a county memo going before trustees this week.
In January, the county appointed one of its own financial advisors to hold the district’s hand until it comes up with a balanced budget. The district’s now on track to regain footing by June, in time to release a final budget document for the 2013-14 school year.
County trustee Julie Hover-Smoot, who oversees the region that encompasses the embattled Gilroy district, says it’s been a while since the county’s become so involved in a district’s finances.
“The county is trying to be more proactive and work with districts earlier so we can help them as much as possible,” she says. “One of the county’s biggest functions is financial oversight, but districts do a good job on this issue so we don’t weigh in very often.”
Gilroy’s board will have to make some difficult decisions, but she trusts the competency of the district’s leadership. The county maintains a $5 million reserve to help districts in emergencies like this, she adds.
• A Silicon Valley philanthropist and lifelong educator donated nearly $106,000 to Inclusion Collaborative, a program for special needs students. For years, Charmaine Warmenhoven has been the program’s primary benefactor, donating her money through the Silicon Valley Education Foundation. The Princeton and Columbia alum has spent 25 years serving people with disabilities. She works on various community boards and commissions, including the Catholic Foundation of Santa Clara County and the Santa Clara University Ethics Advisory Committee.
WHAT: Santa Clara County Board of Education meets
WHEN: 7pm Wednesday
WHERE: Office of Education, 1290 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose