Rocketship gets approval to build first school in D.C., despite opposition


NEW SCHOOL; Rocketship Education gets approval for first school in D.C.

By Moriah Costa |

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rocketship, a California-based charter operator, received approval from the District of Columbia Public School Charter Board Monday night to open its first school in Washington, D.C., in 2016, after facing vehement opposition from some officials and community members.

Darrell Gaston, a D.C. commissioner from Ward 8, told Rocketship CEO and co-founder Preston Smith he would do everything he could to stop the school from opening.

“You’re not going to open up your school as long as I’m a commissioner and you need approval for permits,” he yelled at Smith after the board approved the 15-year charter agreement in a 4-0 vote on Monday, with one abstaining and one recused.

Gaston and other D.C. officials and community members said they aren’t opposed to charter schools, but brought up concerns about the safety of the future school’s location, across from a halfway house. They also voiced worries about the lowered academic performance of the eight schools the company operates in California.

“In D.C., I want a school that is going to outperform other schools,” Gaston told the board.

The vote for the charter was postponed from an Oct. 14 meeting to give the operator time to address concerns and provide letters of support from the community, including D.C. Councilmember Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). It also submitted a security plan and a memorandum of understanding with Hope Village, the halfway house across from the 2335 Reynolds Place SE location in Anacostia.

“We’re really proud of our community outreach and partnership that we’ve done in other communities and it’s very clear that in D.C. we’ve still got some work to do and we’re committed to get that right because we really want to partner with the Ward 8 community and make sure we’ve got a great school and a safe school for the kids,” Smith said.

There are an estimated 22,130 students on the wait list to attend charter schools in the district in the 2013-2014 school year, according to a report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. About 44 percent of D.C. students attend charter schools.

Rocketship opened its first school in California in 2008 and uses a “blended” learning model with students using technology for part of the day and a traditional classroom the rest of the time. The online learning model has come under fire after a drop in test scores and a concern the schools are expanding too quickly.

According to a 2013 School Quality Snapshot from the California Department of Education, the Academic Performance Indicator of all schools fell in the 2012-2013 school year. The scores range from 200 to 1,000, with 800 as the statewide goal for all schools. The API score for Rocketship schools ranged from 790 to 893, but many fell about 20 percentage points from the prior year, with one school falling 73 percentage points. However, the index for the school’s overall network performance rose in 2014, from 823 points to 841 points.

Those charters outperform other schools in the area in API scores. Three charter schools are among the highest performing for low-income students in California.

Smith told the board the lower scores in 2013 were due to a transition to an online assessment system that made it difficult for school officials to track the bottom 25 percent of students and provide them with extra tutoring and support.

“Our schools still significantly outperform local schools and still significantly outperform schools for low-income students and students with free and reduced lunch,” he said.