Justice Sotomayor Delivers Inspiring Talk on the Importance of Education

The audience at the SF Commonwealth Club, in the sold out Herbst Theater, stood for a sustained ovation Monday in honor of Sonia Sotomayor. The U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice is traveling across the country to discuss her new book, My Beloved World. Before coming to San Francisco, Sotomayor learned that her old Catholic Grammar School, where she was a valedictorian, was shuttering its doors in the Bronx. She said she cried when she heard the news.

In a NY Times article focused on the school’s closure, Justice Sotomayor is quoted as saying: “You know how important those eight years were? It’s symbolic of what it means for all our families, like my mother, who were dirt-poor. She watched what happened to my cousins in public school and worried if we went there, we might not get out. So she scrimped and saved. It was a road for kids with no other alternative.”

Fortunately, today we have many more alternatives to confront the lack of high quality educational opportunities for poor and immigrant children. These schools are publicly-funded, secular and have free tuition. Justice Sotomayor came from a family of Puerto Rican immigrants who did not speak English and were very poor, not dissimilar from many San Jose children living in similar conditions and coming from countries south of the U.S. border.

At our county Board of Education meeting last Wednesday, Rocketship’s director of community development, Jessica Garcia-Kohl, said: “Our parents truly do not have a choice.” She said most children are stuck attending a traditional public school by the zip code of where they live. Many times these zip codes are in traditional public school districts, where, I believe, faculty and staff are working tirelessly to meet the educational and social needs of students but failing to do so. The issues that poverty brings are overwhelming and resources are few.

In fact, almost 50 percent of San Jose’s students are not testing at grade level on state-sponsored testing. The Board voted 5-2 in favor of a resolution granting Rocketship Education a zoning exemption for a parcel of land on Lick Ave. in the Tamien area. In my view, this vote was consistent with the December 2011 vote to approve 20 Rocketship Charter Schools, 19 of which are scheduled to be built in San Jose over the next four years.

As expected, the Board was challenged by parents who believe there are too many elementary schools in one area; that the new Rocketship scheduled to open in August 2013 would take away students from San Jose Unified School District’s Washington School, which is doing well with an API that nearly reaches the state goal of 800; that a middle school is needed on that land more than an elementary; that traffic patterns would become unsafe for residents and children; and that a park/soccer field was promised by the city’s Master Plan, but the developer reneged.

For my vote, one of five of the “yes” votes, I agreed with the concerned parents about a urgent need for a high quality neighborhood middle school and a public park/soccer field.  I committed to work over time to use my trustee seat representing that portion of San Jose to advance those two causes.

Rocketship Education is a charter management organization that has origins in the Sacred Heart community of San Jose with the late Jesuit priest Father Mateo Sheedy, Father Peter Pabst, Co-Founders John Danner, CEO of Rocketship Education and Preston Smith, President Rocketship Education. It’s Catholic roots of discipline, hard work, high expectations, compassion and the importance of family are seminal to its success.

Justice Sotomayor said she was not expected to do exceptionally well in school, according to the nuns at Blessed Sacrament, once she started attending Cardinal Spellman High School. At Cardinal Spellman she was counseled to go to Fordham College. Sotomayor had different plans. She told the audience on Monday that she only wanted to consider Yale, Princeton or Harvard—or Stanford, but that was too far away. She got into Princeton and worked 24/7 to ensure her position at the top of her class.

The culture of Rocketship schools students is similar to this. They learn they are in control of their destiny and can succeed with hard work. Justice Sotomayor eloquently told us that “every kid can find a path (to success) by trying.” Rocketship’s board, staff, faculty and funders have altruistic goals. They audaciously believe it is possible to create schools all over the country that honor the above-espoused principles. And with bold and courageous leadership, the goal of ending the achievement gap in the next decade can be realized.

According to the NY Times, “New York City’s most successful and influential Latino and black professionals and politicians is like a Catholic School All-Star alumni roster.” That said, the elected leaders and those appointed to lead school systems must ensure that children in traditional public don’t receive the educational leftovers. Our goal is to fund and support a system of publicly-funded schools, where all children—rich and poor, Latino or African-American, Asian or White, male or female, Catholic or Jewish, gay or straight—thrive in the knowledge that “trying” is the key to succeeding in life.

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. Ms. Sotomayor, while basking in the warm reception to her just published autobiography, is truly enjoying the fruits of her achievements, despite her lifelong commitment to a principle, affirmative action, that is an anathema to the very concept of individual achievement. This woman, who admits that she didn’t have top SAT scores, and was selected to Princeton over the top two students in her school, is proud to cite her academic achievements as supporting evidence of the value of affirmative action. In other words, this educated and allegedly wise justice doesn’t even recognize the contradiction of supporting a process that, by its very definition, devalues personal achievement in the name of creating personal achievement opportunities, that can then be cited in celebrating personal achievement!

    What’s next? Are we going to force rich bachelors to marry ugly women to give them access to the expensive plastic surgery that will change their appearance and allow them to go about and proudly parade their newly acquired beauty? If we do, you could be certain that the newly plasticized could be counted on, just like Ms. Sotomayor, to enjoy their good fortune without ever shedding a tear for those with natural gifts who got tossed aside.

    Ms. Sotomayor will be around for a long time to come; one can only speculate, with horror, at the brand of wisdom and colorblind fairness we can expect from this towering intellect.

    • > Ms. Sotomayor will be around for a long time to come; one can only speculate, with horror, at the brand of wisdom and colorblind fairness we can expect from this towering intellect.

      A cogent and worrying assessment, Mr. Finfan.

      I, too, am frustrated by the prospect that you are probably right on the money.

  2. According to the NY Times, “New York City’s most successful and influential Latino and black professionals and politicians is like a Catholic School All-Star alumni roster.”

    And what are the Catholic schools doing?  Students have phonics, grammar, vocabulary, punctuation, penmanship, spelling, reading, and writing. They have to know their math facts.  Catholic schools don’t swing with the educational theory pendulum like public schools do. In Catholic schools, students get all of the basics to become successful.  Not like our public schools, where big elements of the basics (think phonics/spelling/math facts for example) are left out, and the curriculum is watered down.

    Example: at my children’s public elementary school, parents were told that if we wanted our children to memorize their math facts (such as multiplication tables), parents would have to drill their children at home, because the teacher wasn’t going to spend time in class working on math facts. The end result was that when children got into 4th and 5th grade, and math started getting harder (fractions/long division), math test scores took a nose dive because students didn’t have the computational foundation they needed to handle more complex mathematics.

    Parents were also told by the teachers not to teach their children to ‘carry’ and ‘borrow’ because “we have other methods.”  Such as instead of teaching children to solve a multi-digit subtraction problem by ‘borrowing’, my kids were taught in public school to start at the smaller number and add up to the bigger number to find the difference between the two.  What a waste of time, and what a way to confuse kids into thinking that subtraction is addition. In contrast, the Catholic school close to our home teaches children to ‘borrow’, and kids who struggle are given support and just keep working at it until they understand how to subtract multi-digit numbers.

    The discussion needs to move to curriculum and instruction.  What are our public schools missing in terms of teaching the basics?  If Rocketship is using a more Catholic schools model – to me that means teaching all of the basics, and expecting all students to master the basics.  There’s no reason – and no excuse – for our public schools to not teach all of the basics.  There’s no reason – and no excuse – for our public schools to water down curriculum. There’s no reason why our public schools have to be married to curriculum and instructional methods which clearly aren’t working.  What curriculum and instruction materials move schools out of program improvement status? Why aren’t we talking about that? Why are the decisions of school district administers considered sacred cows which cannot be questioned? 

    It isn’t only charter schools which should be innovative.  We have to ask what’s stopping our traditional public schools from making the curriculum and instruction changes necessary for all students to be proficient in reading/writing/math etc.

  3. No offense, but if you really want to make a difference, you need to get off your rear end and do some homework.

    In the short time that I’ve been reading your posts, I’ve read stuff an appointment gone bad (Ms. Green), a condo mortgage gone bad, and an alternative school gone bad.

    Caring is wonderful, but a lot of people that don’t care are compiling results like yours.  They probably don’t feel that bad about it though.  Do you?

  4. Santa Clara County 7’s posting above is absolutely on point, yet not being discusssed openly about pedagogical processes, strengths and differences.  Not all Catholic parochial schools are perfect, and I saw many where I grew up in LA that were challenged, yet there is a perception of success.  I attended a Congregationalist grammar school and, like you Joseph, a Jesuit high school.  Joseph, you and I both were encouraged to be “Men for Others,” and I hope we step up, not to foster elitism, but to ensure broad public success.

    So, what to replicate?  The Catholic parochial schools in the San Jose Diocese could be a group to invite for discussions, while noting their PEL levels are much higher than anytime in their history and they have a smaller Latino enrollment than either the general population or parish participation might expect.  Is their success an issue of leadership, structure, pedagogy or old-fashioned time on task?  What can we learn from today’s structure, which is quite different from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s?

  5. From what I’ve been able to gather from reading DiSalvo’s posts among other things, the modern public education establishment has an intense objection to the idea of teaching facts. The only fact upon which they place any importance is the so called “achievement gap”.

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