Rocketship Gets Results in New Report to County Board of Education

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
INFO: 408.453.6500

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. “tout the lofty goal of closing the achievement gap”

    I can’t wait for the gap to close. As a loyal American, educated in public schools, informed by the mass media, and at the service of our elected leaders, I’ve grown so accustomed to being conned that they’ve finally hooked me. I’m addicted and I need a fix. If Obama doesn’t save our cities by attacking Iran soon, or provide us with better health care at a reduced price, I’m going to break out in sweats. And where is that gun law that Pelosi promised? You know, the weapons ban that is so tough and scary that even armed lawbreakers will rush to obey it. I need that law to pass. I need my dose of b.s.

    The economic recovery has given me some relief. As much as I appreciate the president’s ability to ignore our billowing debt and claim progress while the buying power of our paychecks and savings plummets, it’s hardly enough to stop my shaking. Anyone got any new draconian ideas about how we can stop global warming? I’d really like to nod off.

    This achievement gap con has great promise. Imagine the audacity required to fleece the treasury of billions while promising to do something never before witnessed? It’s as if education professionals have turned the American public into a mesmerized cult. Think about it. The achievement gap has been with mankind since the beginning of time, its impact evident in all aspects of the human story. It doesn’t matter whether one objectively examines the world of sports, technology, literature, history, medicine, or even entertainment, the presence of the achievement gap is powerful and undeniable. Our biology relies on difference, competition, winners and losers. Achievement gaps are what led us out of the jungle.

    But the school system, the same institution that produces illiterate high schoolers, promises to close the gap, put nature in her place while robbing us blind. Ah, what an inspired, splendid snow job. I think I’ll tie off right now… I feel a big fix coming.

  2. Could Rocketship’s performance be nothing more than a selection bias?  The article gives the wrong impression the students are chosen by lottery from the entire district.  To be part of the lottery, parents must first apply to the Rocketship charter school.  Could it be that parents willing to take the time and effort to apply are also the same parents who are most concerned about their child’s performance in school?  Put these self-selected students into one school and it is not hard to imagine they would do better than their peers left behind in the old school.

  3. My kids go to a charter school, not a Rocketship one, but still outstanding school.  The culture is way different and really superior to the public schools they attended previously.

  4. SteveO, to quote the great Bryce Harper, “that’s a clown question, bro”.  Selection bias?… based on having to register?  You may be aware that all students have to be registered for Kindergarten.  Everyone who went to Kindergarten in California was registered.  So registering for Kindergarten or 1st grade) at a Rocketship school is selection bias?  Come on, what about kids who get dropped off to school late?  Or those that don’t have a good breakfast?  Or those with bad allergies?  Or those without warm winter coats?  Are all of these biases that must be controlled for?  Good luck with that.

    Rocketship succeeds for 3 reasons in my opinion:  1) it successfully engages the parent(s) in supporting the education of the child (read to the child, practice the sight words, etc.); 2) it has an academically longer school day (no art, music per se and very short recess and lunch plus it goes to 4PM) and a longer school year, and 3) the staff, teachers, aides, administration work together to support the school (no “do my own thing”- it’s all co-ordinated and communicated and measured and evaluated).

    Could a public school accomplish this- absolutely.  No magic or secret sauce here.  Just commitment and community.  Extra $ and a union based on age are not required ingredients.

    Boom goes the dynamite

    • nomorewebvan, “that’s a clown answer, bro”

      Your number one reason for Rocketship’s success is “it successfully engages the parent(s) in supporting the education of the child”. 

      We both agree parents can play a key role in a student’s success.  If Rocketship schools have the students with the most involved parents, we need to understand how much this accounts for Rocketship’s success.  This is selection bias is based on parents choosing to send their children to a Rocketship school (choosing is the key, not the act of registering).  The opposite would be the school district randomly assigning students from the entire district to Rocketship schools.

      • I am not sure I can overcome your bias here SteveO.

        First off, Rocketship produces the more involved parent community.  It does not happen on its own.  I heard that Rocketship teachers visit the home or meet after school or on the weekend with every student’s family to encourage the family’s commitment to their child’s educational success.  Rocketship creates this.  That is worth understanding.  Kind of like new voters registering for the 2008 election.  These folks didn’t wake up and say “I want to vote”.  Obama’s candidacy inspired them. 

        Secondly, to suggest that the act of sending one’s child to a Rocketship school implies anything about the child’s performance or the parents commitment is, well, silly.  What if the Rocketship school is the closest school to the house?  I went to the closest school to my house… I bet you did too.  Does that make us smarter or our parents more committed?  Huh?

        Look, there may be a selection bias.  But if so, it can be shown to exist.  Show it…. or you got nuttin’ honey… (except a bias against Rocketship)

  5. No, I kind of think Steveo had it right.
    Selection bias. Definitely.
    Or, to quote the great(?!) Bryce Harper, “It’s the selection bias, bro!!”

    Kablooie goes the dirty bomb

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