The Leaders, Innovators of Local Education

Much like the early partnership of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, which transformed the manner in which we use technology, three pairs of individuals are at the forefront of improving education for Silicon Valley’s students. These innovators and provocateurs work to challenge the status quo, and their goal is equitable, high quality education opportunities for all children.

The first nomination goes to the team of John Danner and Preston Smith from Rocketship Education. Together they started the first San Jose Rocketship school in 2007, approved on appeal by the county Board of Education after San Jose Unified School District denied their first charter.

Rocketship Mateo Sheedy serves 55 percent English Language Learners; 95 percent of the total enrollment are economically disadvantaged; and 94 percent are Hispanic or Latino. In 2011-12, the school average for all 2-5th grade students was 76 percent scoring proficient or advanced on the California Standards Test in English-Language Arts; 94 percent of all 2nd-5th grade students were proficient in Mathematics; and 85 percent of 5th grade students excelled in science. Their school Academic Performance Index (API) is a very strong 924.

The workings of Rocketship are becoming transformative for elementary schools across America. In order to demonstrate these extraordinary results, Danner and Smith are creating a new generation of elementary schools from the ground up. Their combination of high quality teaching, 80 percent of faculty come from the Teach For America program; strategic use of student data; blended learning; longer school days; paying more for the value added of teachers; and ongoing parental involvement is reshaping what is possible. Even though it was recently announced that Danner is leaving his position as CEO to lead an educational software start-up, CEO Smith carries on the work with tireless passion and wisdom.

Dr. Emmett Carson, CEO and president of Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and Matt Hammer, executive director of Innovate Public Schools, recently formed a strategic partnership to challenge the public education system, with a goal of more equitable results for all children. With the infusion of a $500 million dollar stock gift from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, SVCF can push the envelope faster and farther than other unsuccessful efforts in years past. Dr. Carson has produced a historical document on how we have 57 school districts in San Mateo and Santa Clara County. He presided over a forum a year ago which asked the question: Are 31 districts in Santa Clara County too many? Many of us answer the question with a resounding “YES.” And yet, I was the only one in that forum of 200 school board members and superintendents that raised a hand when the question was asked: Who agrees that 31 school districts are too many in the county?

Last month, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation commissioned a report on math placements in high school. The research report titled, Held Back, asserts that there is a misplacement of 9th grade students in the math far too often because of race and not on demonstrated skills. Where to place a 9th grade student in math is a life-altering decision.

Matt Hammer will be working with the county Office of Education to produce data charts on whether or not a district is moving the agenda to close the achievement gap in math and language arts by grade level. The data will be highlighted by the SVCF, so the public clearly knows who is meeting necessary targets to eliminate the achievement gap by 2020 and who is not.

The third team is Vincent Mathews, superintendent of San Jose Unified, and Stephen McMahon, the former teacher association president who in 2012 was appointed by the Board as the district’s chief business officer. The San Jose Mercury News wrote an editorial on Feb. 12, 2013, lauding the work Mathews and McMahon are doing at SJUSD.

The writer concluded that “the teachers’ association and the administration are working together on a cutting-edge agreement. It would pay the best teachers more while requiring many of them to work in low-performing schools rather than in cushier assignments. And it would allow the district to withhold a teacher’s raise if he or she didn’t meet expectations. That is very rare in public school teacher contracts. … All of this the result of a rare level of trust between administrators and teachers … but the groundbreaking agreement can be the model for what comes next.”

I am not certain if a relationship can be formed between the groundbreaking work in SJUSD and Rocketship’s non-collective bargaining charter model. Only time will tell which model works better. But I am more optimistic today with the groundbreaking work of these change agents than I was before my election to the county Board of Education in 2008.

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.

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