Why Rocketship Will, Must Work

In my 38 years in public education, I never witnessed as consequential a vote as was taken on Dec. 14 and the early morning hours of Dec. 15. The Santa Clara County Office of Education Board, on a very controversial 5-2 and 4-3 vote, approved 20 new Rocketship Education charter schools in Silicon Valley.

This is a momentous time for county public education. Rocketship Education is one of the best local non.com stories ever told. The board did not make this decision lightly. We recognize that there are many ramifications to sort out, but in the end the board majority felt it was in the best interest of all students. The ultimate strategic goal is for San Jose/Silicon Valley to eliminate the devastating racial achievement gap.

Public education is at a crossroads. With the continued disinvestment in public institutions, new approaches to accomplish the mission on behalf of the children, all children, must be created. The achievement gap has not narrowed significantly for 30 years, and it is at the root of the new sense of urgency.

Yet, still too many in the education establishment don’t get the changing narrative. Trustee Jim Zito, Pro-Tem of the Evergreen School Board, spoke eloquently in denial of the petition and urged the SCCOE Board to vote “no.” Although, I think Trustee Zito now gets it. The very next night after the vote we coincidentally bumped into each other at Santa Clara University, where this Rocketship story began (see last week’s sanjoseinside.com column), and he said he is now interested in making “wine” out of the previous night’s grape mash-up.

The target should be making this new configuration of schools work well for all children, but at least five districts are threatening litigation over the decision. Using public money to finance a legal battle would be a disservice to the children.

In his new book “Class Warfare,” Stephen Brill says it will take charter schools and traditional public schools working together to fix the broken system of public education. In the last few years, I have succumbed to the belief that Brill is correct. This vote was by far the most difficult one for me to cast in my three years on the Board of Trustees.

No doubt, the vast preponderance of teachers and principals work tirelessly to see that their children succeed, yet 15-25 percent of the workforce in today’s schools are not adequately prepared to meet the complex challenges children exhibit in the classrooms of today. This is a major systems problem. Rocketship’s model of professional development, R & D, hiring, recruitment, and pay structures eliminates these challenge and places all energy on student achievement.

We have no assurances that the our decision to authorize 20 additional Rocketship schools will work to help eliminate the achievement gap in San Jose/Silicon Valley, but we do know current results have been very promising and exceeded all expectations. In the next few years, we hope to see a trend when the data is crunched. If we are right, this region will become a beacon for the nation.

Lastly, a warm thank you to Mayor Reed; Vice Mayor Nguyen; Councilman Liccardo; Fred Ferrer, CEO of Health Trust; and Dennis Cima, Silicon Valley Leadership Group, for showing up and speaking on behalf of Rocketship’s petition. Every voice in support helped pave the way for the passage. Every voice in dissent, including Cindy Chavez of Working Partnerships, was clearly heard by the Board. We will endeavor to address many of the issues raised in dissent in our Memo of Understanding with Rocketship Education and the Board of Trustees of the County Office.

Rocketship Education and their principals Danner, Smith, Kohn, and Billings have enormous work to do to make these 20 schools a reality in the next five years. They all will have to work schedules approaching 24/7 to see this through. They deserve the support of this community, for when they succeed, so will the children and Silicon Valley.

As we try to heal the divisions we might have inadvertently created by our vote last week, a sermon by the late president of Santa Clara University, Father Paul Locatelli, might be instructive. In December 2006, Father Locatelli said:

“May we use this holy season as a time to discover again the goodness deep down in human hearts, binding our lives and freedom to each other. May we choose to act locally to effect change by reaching out in love to those estranged from families and being generous to those not so well off as us. When peace is personal, it will more readily become a reality for families, communities, and our world.”

Today, I am at peace with my vote.

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. The Three Gifts

    It was a time of terrible stress, for after decades of gentle rule under their beloved king, the recently-departed Delusional the Benevolent, the tenured servants of Multicultura had been suddenly condemned to cowering under the harsh, stingy edicts of their new ruler, Realitus the Unforgiving. Intolerant of failure, unmoved by excuse, and averse to sharing any more of the royal treasury, the new king demanded reform of his academies, ordering the reinstitution of standards and expectations so that his schools might once again produce scholars and craftsmen unmatched in all the world.

    “Be damned your dreams and tender mercies,” he angrily roared at the educators upon learning his universities were crowded with students unskilled with abacus or quill. “Rid your hallowed halls of drones and dullards,” he commanded, adding, “Free those born to sweep inns and tend stables from the delusions of brighter fools, for their true salvation will forever remain with the broom and hayfork.”

    Aghast at the king’s directive, the academy leaders gathered upon the university green, its lush turf freshly dressed with sheep droppings. They knew they were up against it, that to skirt the king’s directive they’d need not just a new concept, but a perfect one. Something immaculate. They complained and paced about throughout the midday heat, spurring each other on for ideas but producing, by nightfall, little more than frustration and a fine cloud of dust swirling upward into the moonlit sky.

    Nearby, on a lonely road trekked three progressive operatives on return from the land of the Phoenix, where they’d once again been meddling in the affairs of others. Eyeing the rising cloud’s reflection in the moonlight, the three took it as a divine omen and reflexively drew deeply to test the air with their well-trained noses. “Ah, a fresh shit storm for sure,” said one. “We must go at once, we may be needed,” said another, and so off went the three: Mediochior, a so-so scholar; Subpar, a not-so wise man; and Chutzpazar, a master of ancient gall. 

    Arriving upon the green they came upon a truly pathetic collection of deflated men; educators—once confident and cocky, now stooped and broken, all but ready to seek from Realitus mercy for their decades of foolishness. Recognizing the educators as fellow travelers the three operative inquired as to the situation, only to be outraged to hear of the king’s demand for merit-based education.

    “This will not stand,” shouted Mediochior, thus making himself the center of attention. “I am from the Land of Diversity, and to your cause I present a gift: the gift of Myth, granting you the authority to proclaim all human differences as surmountable!” The crowd roared in appreciation, for few coveted myth as do those in education.

    “And I am Chutzpazar, from the Kingdom of Duplicity, and I give to you the gift of Nonsense, granting you the power to brand failure as achievement, brilliance as advantage, and preference as fairness.” The assembly cheered in appreciation.

    Subpar arose, projecting an air of confidence and a demand for respect. The crowd took notice and quieted.

    “I am Subpar, from the Empire of Bureaucracy,” he stated resolutely. The crowd gasped, for they knew that Bureaucracy was the land of the gods. “I bring you that most cherished of gifts, the gift that will allow you to disguise to all Mediochior’s Myth as fact, Chutzpazar’s Nonsense as wisdom, and most importantly, your own progressive beliefs as reality. My gift, of course, is Gold; taken from the purses of the less deserving—those servicing the established wisdom rather than working to achieve our most impossible dreams.”

    The educators went wild with a mix of relief and excitement. They now had the tools to deceive Realitus the Unforgiving. They could now announce the birth of a new solution—a new program, and however they proposed it or whatever they christened it wouldn’t even matter, for with the heavenly gifts of Myth, Nonsense, and Gold, they were free to call it anything they wanted…

    Hell, they could even call it something as stupid as Rocketship.

  2. Well, it has to now doesn’t it. Otherwise you and your colleagues on the Board will have misallocated millions of public dollars and irreplaceable time in the education of disadvantaged children. Personally, I would have wanted evidence from more than 2 schools. Remind me again, why did Rocketship need 20 schools approved now? Wouldn’t approving 5 per year, based on continued academic success, have worked just as well?

  3. Every voice in dissent, including Cindy Chavez of Working Partnerships”

    Cali teachers union was dead against it – so I think they’re on to something, and anything that chips away at CTA’s chokehold on education is a good thing.

  4. BS Monitor:  excellent tale, gallant sir!

    My take on this decision:  SCCOE will do anything to avoid school vouchers.  My family is of the target ethnicity for Rocketship (am I allowed to say this dirty secret in a public forum?) and applaud this step to go around the current bureaucratic version of public education that has made a hash of the East Side schools, but I think I will continue to sacrifice for my children’s parochial school education.

  5. There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.
    Niccolo Machiavelli

    How forsaken is the role of today’s moderate who is earnestly seeking to ways to address the tragedy of millions of students failing to receive a quality education, equally condemned by the defenders of the education status quo on the left and the those who seek to abolish government schools on the right.

    Now I don’t know if Rocketship Schools are part of the answer, but I hope so. And I hope so not because that mean one set of ideologs is right or wrong, but because millions of students deserve better, and as a country we need to do better. So board member DiSalvo, keep up the good fight, give every school the opportunity to succeed. Keep searching for the right combination of things, curricular, instructional and structural that work.

  6. The irony of adult politics is perplexing.  Just a few weeks ago, the County Board of Education voted 7-0 to approve Rocketship 6, 7 & 8 countywide-benefit charter schools with great enthusiasm and fanfare, without any drama or vitriol from any board member. Then on December 14 the tone of certain board members changed when we had the 20 countywide-benefit Rocketship charter schools on the agenda. The majority of these schools, 18 of 20, will be located in three trustee areas: 7 schools in my trustee area; 6 in DiSalvo’s and 5 in Hover-Smoot’s respective trustee areas. Trustees Beauchman, DiSalvo, Hover-Smoot, Mah and Mann voted yes.  Another member of the board expressed their concerns about a ‘zoning’ position Rocketship asserted on a previously approved school site, but in my view unnecessarily excoriated them at a very,very personal level for acting on a legal opinion in their pursuit of zoning waivers with the City and/or County and voted no.  Another colleague’s position sounded more like ‘why 20, why now?’ and more circumspect, politic and polite in voting no.  Honestly, I was both very proud and sadly embarrassed.  I was very proud that s student-interest first philosophy ultimately prevailed over adult politics, but I was sadly embarrassed by the mean-spirited side-show we had to suffer through to get there.  We must do better moving forward in how we do, carry out the people’s business.

    Craig Mann
    Member, Santa Clara County Board of Education

  7. Let’s suppose that RocketShip movement takes off and wants to set up charter schools in other Districts ?
    How far will Santa Clara County Office of Education Board go………….boldly . We have all heard of stories of how organizations , parents have petitioned SCCOE to start a charter school, and the board rejected the petition. Local School boards don’t like charters . They know that there is a lot of legal hoopla on the money and the issue that charters have to have adequate facilities to operate . Most school districts lease property to private schools . Charters are no exemption , and they can’t set up shop at a school site for free . One example is Discovery Charter in Moreland , that charter school pays 200,000 a year to the school district just to lease property in portables . So what gives to 20 Charters to find property to be housed in order to succeed . I believe that over time those 20 charters will be watered down to 5 because of housing issues , and ‘deals’ with the school districts . Let’s not forget nothing is free even for charters.

  8. Joseph,

    You quote Fr. Locatelli as saying “May we choose to act locally to effect change by reaching out in love to those estranged from families and being generous to those not so well off as us.”

    The philosophy of “act locally” merits further discussion – given that “locally” legislatively is defined as within the boundaries of official public school districts.

    I support many Rocketship pedagogical approaches – including longer school days and technology-integrated learning.  Some charter schools serve children well.  Rocketship seems to provide that beneficial service.  However, how will local education leaders – including County office leaders – champion Rocketship’s successes and replicate them within neighborhood public schools?

    The expected court battles ahead regarding these 20 county-benefit charters likely will focus on the differences between district-benefit charters and county-benefit charters, highlighting the indisputable fact that taxpayer-funded charter schools exist in California only because the details of Legislature-authored statutes give them permission to do so.

    Perhaps the courts will minimize discussion of Education Code details in favor of weighing what each judge believes is “better” for students.  Or perhaps the courts will focus on the specific language of the statutes to determine the merits of the lawsuits – regardless of school performance.

    Given the courts’ reluctance to legislate where state legislation already exists, my sense is judges will take a strict constructionist approach and apply the exacting language of the statutes.

    I hope the County Office doesn’t end up spending millions of public dollars on attorney costs to defend this decision, rather than on direct benefit to public education.  If Rocketship had submitted district-benefit charter applications – one-at-a-time – district-by-district – charter opponents would have a more difficult time in challenging SCCBOE for granting each charter uniquely on appeal.

    As an observer, I find little legal merit to the suggestion that district-benefit charters must grant admission to all residents of a district prior to considering impoverished residents of neighboring districts because none of these county-benefit charter will consider the economic status of ANY applicant prior to the random admission pull.

    So where’s the claimed socioeconomic difference between students who apply from across the county and students who apply from within a single district?

    Ironically, district-benefit charters provide more local benefit to “those not so well off” – per Fr. Locatelli’s quote – because neighborhood residents in impoverished districts would have the first chance at admission before better off students from other communities.  Well-off families who are happy with their neighborhood schools will not apply for Rocketship.  However, well-off families who are not happy with their neighborhood schools will be quite likely to apply for Rocketship – and to have the transportation means to drive their children to any of the 20 locations.

    Under this set of 20 county-benefit charters, any resident of the county must have equal chance at admission to any or all of the 20 charter schools to which they choose to apply.  And, it’s not even clear to the public if a single application will cover all 20 of these charter schools or if each distinct school – with a separate CDE number – will require a separate application.  What about the other 8 Rocketships – some of which are district-benefit charters?  I think Mateo Sheedy himself would have been disappointed to learn that residents of a underperforming district now will have to compete with wealthy students from neighboring districts for Rocketship admission.  The first SCCBOE-granted Rocketship was and is a district-benefit charter that exists because of the appeals process.  Would it have been impossibly difficult to replicate success if serving students really comes first?

    As a side note from my perspective as a Santa Clara resident, the signatures submitted with the Rocketship charter expected to be sited in Santa Clara contained hardly any Santa Clara residents.  Do we really expect those Santee and East SJ residents all truly believed they were pledging interest to transport their students for six years to school in Santa Clara?

    And, if county-benefit Rocketship Santa Clara intends to enroll and in fact primarily enrolls non-Santa Clarans, how would Fr. Locatelli expect that outcome would benefit underserved students within the City of Santa Clara – surrounding Santa Clara University itself.  I don’t see the connection to “act locally.”

    None of these discussions or decisions are easy.  And, surely the whole County Board and all affected local School Board Trustees know this one set of votes on one night is only the beginning of what now will be a multiyear passionate court battle.

    The urgency for all Trustees to solve while the legal process goes forth is how our neighborhood public schools can overcome obstacles to partner with the community and close our County’s too-glaring achievement gaps.

    Wishing you peace, generosity of spirit and inspiring discussion for the coming year.

    – Chris Stampolis
    Trustee, West Valley-Mission Community College District
    Member, State Board, California Community College Trustees (CCCT)
    408-390-4748 *  [email protected]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *