Judgment Day for Rocketship

There is a game-changing local story about to take place in a few days. A decision before the SCCOE Board of Education is whether or not to approve 20 Rocketship Charter Schools on a countywide benefit charter basis. Each new school approval is listed as a separate action item on the Board’s agenda. For each item, the county staff recommends approval insofar as the petition “meets the minimum requirements for countywide charter approval set forth in Educational Code section 47605.6.”

The turf wars are just beginning. President Pam Parker of the Santa Clara County School Board’s Association sent an email on Sunday to all SCC school board members entitled, “A Call To Arms.” President Parker wrote in her email, “… I feel it is imperative that we take a stand now or suffer the consequences in the future.” Parker was asking SCC school board members to attend the meeting and voice their concern about an affirmative vote by the County Board to approve.

The seeds of this remarkable Rocketship story were planted over decade ago in a parish church a block away from where my father grew up as first-generation Italian immigrant. In 1999, Father Mateo Sheedy, Pastor of Sacred Heart Church, was commissioned by Santa Clara University to find student candidates from the parish who could succeed at a four-year university. Father Sheedy quickly learned that the public schools in the area were failing to meet the educational needs of their students. He could not find one student qualified to have the requisite skills and courses to succeed at SCU.

Working to solve this problem, Father Sheedy dreamed big. He envisioned chartering local schools that would develop models of learning with high expectations for each student. The Pastor turned to John Danner, CEO of Rocketship who co-founded Sacred Heart Nativity School, a private Catholic school in 2000 for at-risk Latino boys (and now girls) in grades 6-8. Five years later he petitioned San Jose Unified School District for a charter K-5 grade school to address the issues of underserved, mostly Latino youth in downtown San Jose.

San Jose Unified’s Board, on a recommendation from then Superintendent Inglesias, denied the charter petition. Months later on appeal to the SCCOE Board of Education, Rocketship Mateo Sheedy was authorized. This local story takes off from here, now with a national spotlight. To demonstrate how things are changing in the pursuit of a public education system responsive to all its students, in November 2011 the San Jose Unified School District Board, on a recommendation from Superintendent Mathews, voted 5-0 to approve its first Rocketship Charter School.

In its first year of operation (2007), based on the Academic Performance Index (API), Rocketship Mateo Sheedy became the highest ranked low-income elementary school in the county and seventh in the state. The learning model at Mateo Sheedy has received national attention and proven to be scalable and replicable, as the nonprofit public benefit corporation works on continuous improvement to its critical systems.

The chemistry of success for Rocketship Education and its current five schools has everything to do with:

1. Teacher quality, attracting the best and the brightest teachers using the Teach For America talent from top-tier universities from around the U.S.
2. An extended school day;
3. High expectations for each child;
4. Teacher Teaming;
5. Deep community and parent involvement;
6. Individualization for each child;
7. Blended learning using 100 minutes of instruction in a computer lab;
8. High Quality Professional Development and Coaching models;
9. Exceptional school-level leadership;
10. Quality formative assessments that inform instruction. 

These critical learning systems and beliefs at Rocketship Education have been honed by two local titans of school reform: Co-founders John Danner and the Chief Petitioner for Rocketship 9-28, Preston Smith. Professionally, I have come to know Danner and Smith as two local educational leaders deeply committed to the educational needs of underserved children.

San Jose/Silicon Valley is incredibly fortunate to have them residing and working in our midst. No doubt they have been game-changers for public education and the educational needs of children living in low socio-economic areas of San Jose. I think their respective backgrounds are instructive.

John Danner is the son of retired Superior Court Judge Alden Danner and husband of Allison Marston Danner, 40, a federal prosecutor and former law school professor. John served as a teacher in Nashville public schools for three years. He was the founding director of KIPP Academy Nashville. John possesses a Bachelor’s degree and Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering from Stanford and a Master’s degree in Education Policy from Vanderbilt. Before his pursuit of education interests, he founded and served as CEO of NetGravity, an Internet advertising software company. John took NetGravity public and sold it to Doubleclick in 1999.

Preston Smith is currently the Chief Academic Officer of Rocketship Education. He was the principal and founder of L.U.C.H.A. Elementary School in Alum Rock School District (ARSD) in 2004. In 2006, L.U.C.H.A. earned an API of 881 and was the fourth-ranked high-poverty elementary school in the state. Before 2004, Preston taught first grade for three years at Arbuckle Elementary in ARSD. Smith graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Eight districts are destined for a Rocketship school if the county board votes to grant the petition in its entirety. The lion share of schools will be in San Jose Unified (6) Alum Rock (4), Franklin-McKinley (3), and Oak Grove School District (3). Single schools are slated for Santa Clara Unified, Campbell Elementary, Evergreen, and Mount Pleasant school districts.

There are detractors of the Rocketship model who use statistical data to bolster their arguments. Some call the Rocketship bandwagon corporate and cookie-cutter schooling. I am opposed to the privatization of public education, yet I believe Rocketship is a local success story, as I described above, with the right motivation for success.

How I vote on Wednesday night will be determined by three-things:

1. Do I believe what they have written in their 394-page petition?
2. Do I think the children left behind in traditional public schools will be ill served by Rocketship’s charters?
3. Will the approval of 20 schools and a potential district the size of 15,000 students decrease the level of collaboration necessary to eliminate the achievement gap? Will this be especially true in districts working cooperatively with Rocketship like San Jose Unified and Franklin-McKinley?

Here is what Rocketship writes on page 19 of its petition: ”Rocketship is committed to ensuring that its schools are widely available to underserved students who are victims of the achievement gap. Approval of RS18 and other Rocketship countywide charter schools would allow Rocketship to further partner with the SCCOE in the work to realize the goals of SJ/SV2020 to eradicate the achievement gap within these neighborhoods and communities.”

For me, this pending vote has caused much consternation. The SCCOE as an organization must support our local school districts and not be at odds with their missions. At the same time, the SCCOE Board’s focus must be about what is best for the children—all children, and especially those who have been underserved for decades. It is a very tough call for me to make. I have thought about this moment of decision for months and now the moment is here.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. You seem to sidestep the fact that most of the 20 schools are not slated to open any time soon. Some will not open for over 5 years. It seems counterproductive to approve any school that far in advance; it will not help any kid for 5 years, it might deter other charter operators to open a school nearby, it might even impede potential improvements in the targeted schools (what’s the point of improvement if the school is to be replaced by a charter in 5 years no matter what).
    If RocketShip wants to grow by 4 schools every year, why don’t you follow that progression and approve 4 more schools every year. It will give you much flexibility to allow for other charter operators, assess schools progress and see if a startup like RocketShip can really scale and live up to its early fame.

    Sure, it would make for a less impactful press release but those have nothing to with the kids.

  2. Great column Joseph!  Much has been said about this topic.  Julia Hover-Smoot and I co-authored an article in the SJMN this past Sunday, December 11th which can be found on their site, http://www.mercurynews.com

    In my 13.5 years of school board service, I’ve cast my votes with a ‘student first’ philosophy.  Student interests, before adult politics.  The County Board in it’s recruiting for the the next County Superintendent of Schools says in its job flyer it seeks a County Superintendent that ‘is strongly committed to a “student first” philosophy in all decisions.’

    I’m confident this philosophy will be the ‘North Star’ as relates to the upcoming vote and beyond to guide our journey.

    Craig Mann
    Member, Santa Clara County Board of Education

  3. As a public school advocate who has followed education “reform” and charter school for many years, I’ve watched the hyping of “miracle” after “miracle.” Anyone who’s familiar with the cycle of hype and flop should use common sense and proceed with prudence. Kids are at stake.

    The New York Times covered “miracle” cyber-charters today. The beneficiaries of the miracle are the opportunistic private investors into whose pockets these miracles are diverting our children’s education funding.


  4. We all know how this vote is going to go. No need for coy suspense.

    We also know that if you were really about kids, you’d take the elements of the Rocketship model that are scalable and replicable and spread them to all of the neighborhood schools in the county.

    Instead of building strong community schools in every neighborhood, your legacy will be their undoing.

    This isn’t creativity or leadership, it’s merely craven.

  5. I have—and continue—to support public schools, from my father’s 30 years teaching in them to more than five years of having a child in San Jose’s public schools. And I sincerely hope that SCCOE supports this effort, because in the long run it is clearly designed to benefit the children of the county—and the public schools.

    Look at the children the Rocketship schools have attracted; they are the children that San Jose Unified, for example, strives most to help—but does not serve well. A few reasons: lack of an extended school day, minimal expectations for high-achieving children, increasing lack of individualization, and abysmal leadership among school principals. (If anonymous evaluations of school leadership were offered by parents and by teachers, this would be documented in stark terms.) In addition, San Jose’s schools have in the past year taken steps to reduce the involvement of parents at elementary schools and clearly spent more time talking to lawyers (on how to retain funds for a voluntary integration program) than talking to parents about how to ensure children are receiving the best education possible.

    – Parent of a child in San Jose

  6. Public education policy is a complicated arena, with so many legitimate and competing interests and issues at play. It is a complicated world.  I wish you all the best and appreciate your public service as you consider and vote on these critical issues.  But I agree with SCCOE member Mann in hoping that “students first” is the north star guiding the SCCOE’s deliberations.  Trish Williams, VP, CA State Board of Education

    • Trish – thanks SO much for your sober advice and well wishes.  I hope you and yours (SBE colleagues) will support the parents and teachers that supported petitions to have a Rocketship school in their community.  For instance, Rocketship East Palo Alto—that community really deserves the same great education that the folks on the other side of the freeway (Palo Alto) are being afforded. I taught in the Ravenswood SD for three years and can attest to just how underserved these students are.  I was born and raised in Oakland, another commmunity that needs better schools – not necessarily more.  Anyway, I respect what you do for students statewide and I really hope that the SBE realies just how invaluable Rocketship is to eliminating the achievement gap.

      Craig Mann
      Member, Santa Clara County Board of Education

  7. All I’m saying is don’t be naive and gullible, people. Use the common sense you were born with. We have heard hype about many supposed miracles from the so-called education “reformers” over the years. Many of their “miracles” have been total flops, none have been “miracles,” and many—including this one—are designed to funnel your children’s education funding into private pockets.

    Be skeptical, vigilant and questioning. Remember, many of the forces hyping this “miracle” were hyping Edison Schools as the “miracle” 10+ years ago. If it turns out to be a genuine miracle, you can be happily surprised then. This especially goes for the press.

  8. I just got home from our County Board meeting and I am happy to report that a majority of the board mustered the courage act in a ‘student first’ philosophy and voted to approve each of the 20 Rocketship countywide-benefit charter schools tonight. Yes!… student interests prevailed ahead of adult politics smile It was a tough night and there were honorable persons that disagreed with me (the majority vote) and that is quite o.k. smile I was disappointed in some of the hyperbole, obsfucation, and canards posited by some, but it is a free country and folks are entitled to believe and say what they may. The good news, the GOOD NEWS is that students throughout our county will have 20 new schools to choose to attend beginning as early as 2013 (4 opening per year through 2017).

    Craig Mann
    Member, Santa Clara County Board of Education

    • I appreciate your focus on students, Craig.  However, what is lost in this debate is the effect on students who don’t transfer to charters.  They are left behind in underfunded traditional public schools that are being abandoned by the families with greater school involvement and academic motiviation, to remain on a sinking ship.  The effect is that a greater fraction of the students are getting less service than before as families self-segregate between charters and the rest.

      • StudentsFirst, I agree with all you’ve said here, save for the appreciation of trustee Mann. For someone who c,aims to be about kids, Mann is going to great lengths to do a lot of damage to the many more kids whose neighborhood schools will be undermined by this act through loss of human capital (the families you refer to), compounded financial loss, and the inevitable effects of academic apartheid that result from rapid, unfair competition between privately resourced agencies and financially starved public agencies.

        It won’t be long before all see the greater implications of a series of very bad decisions.

  9. No Offense to Joe DiSalvo , he’s a great guy , he’s for reform . The Newly created Charter approval is now a ‘Genie’  out of the bottle . What’s next for approval at the County office of ED ? 
    Here is some ‘statistics’ about the county office of ed’s green light for the 20 NEW RocketShip Charters:

    That’s right, twenty, all from the same chain. In effect, that would make them the second-largest school “district” in Northern California’s most populous county, behind only San Jose Unified.

    But representatives of about a dozen local school districts argue that they, and not the county school board, should be the ones weighing the charter applications. “Districts are ready to work with charters and you are trying to stop that,” said Pam Parker, president of the Santa Clara County School Boards Association….

    The board voted 5-2 on most of Rocketship’s petitions, with trustees Anna Song and Michael Chang dissenting. Song chided Rocketship as untrustworthy, for claiming to be a school district in order to skirt local planning ordinances in building its schools, and for holding board meetings in places not easily accessible by the public. Chang said he preferred Rocketship to seek charters from local districts….

    Los Altos schools trustee Tamara Logan likened the county board’s approval of Rocketship charters to generals placing soldiers in people’s homes, appropriating their food and money without permission.

    This is basically the same old charter stuff with a glitzy Silicion Valley veneer. Lots of the usual suspects are represented on their borad or as partners: KIPP, Gates, TFA, New Schools Venture Fund, Broad.



    Oh yes, the people who staff their “Learning Labs”, touted as key to their “hybrid school model”, make $14 an hour (in this high-wage market, that’s what an in-home caregiver makes) and aren’t required to have bachelor’s degrees.

    http://rsed.org/downloads/Individualized_Learning_Specialist_Job_Description Final.pdf

    And the kicker: they have a real estate arm, cutely called “Launchpad”—just like Imagine does.


    • > Los Altos schools trustee Tamara Logan likened the county board’s approval of Rocketship charters to generals placing soldiers in people’s homes, appropriating their food and money without permission.

      Tamara gets my vote for first place in the hyperbola competition.

      Otherwise, I have no idea what in hell she’s talking about.

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