Supporters of the proposed Rocketship charter school in Antioch wore purple shirts, while opponents wore yellow shirts, at the Antioch School Board’s public hearing on the matter, on Wednesday, November 9, 2016.
By Nick Goodrich
At their November 9th meeting, the Antioch School Board held the required public hearing on Rocketship Education’s petition to open a charter school in Antioch. The meeting was held at Lone Tree Elementary School instead of the board chambers, to accommodate an expected larger crowd.
Nearly 100 residents, teachers and other community members showed up to either support or oppose the petition, with Rocketship supporters donning purple shirts, and those opposing the school sporting yellow “No Rocketship!” T-shirts. While the speakers from each side were evenly split, there were many more people wearing purple shirts than yellow, in the audience.
The presentation, led by Rocketship’s Chief Growth and Community Engagement Officer Cheye Calvo, highlighted the charter school’s success in areas like math and English, in which Rocketship students have consistently outperformed other students in the Bay Area.
“By 2016, the majority of Rocketship’s students are ahead of their peers nationwide,” said Calvo, who also noted that Rocketship outranks all elementary schools within the Antioch Unified School District in the two subjects.
Despite Rocketship’s success in math and English Language Learning, questions were raised by residents and Board Members concerning the charter school’s efforts in other areas, such as Social Studies and History.
Trustee Walter Ruehlig relayed a concern that Rocketship’s rigid academic structure, involving an eight-hour school day, means that those subjects, as well as recess and playtime, get short shrift.
Calvo was quick to respond, saying that “Rocketship schools are joyful places.”
“We develop the whole child…We give a lot of attention to social and emotional growth,” he said. “Students are taught social and emotional skills through programs in both the upper and lower grades. Building a sense of joy in school is what we are about.”
Questions about Rocketship’s practice of hiring un-accredited teachers while they work toward their teaching credentials also concerned some parents, who worried that their children might not get the same quality of education at a Rocketship school. Calvo was unable to provide statistics on what percent of Rocketship’s teachers were credentialed, when asked by the Board.
Yet, AUSD does the same thing.
Trustee Fernando Navarro also noted that the proposed school’s Board meetings would be held in Redwood City, asking how much say the local community would have in its running.
Calvo told him that Rocketship is still subject to the Brown Act, which guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in local legislative bodies. Antioch residents, he said, would be able to attend the meetings by video conference without having to drive out to Redwood City, and would also be able to participate in public comments through live video streaming to the Board.
Residents, teachers and others from the surrounding community had the opportunity to speak to the AUSD Board and share their views on Rocketship’s petition, and several dozen stepped forward for each side.
Antioch resident Martha Steele Spellman opposed the school, citing charter schools’ often narrow approach to learning.
“Charter schools are by definition a niche category of learning, and they offer narrow learning opportunities,” she said. “Let’s fix what we already have.”
John Crowder, the Educational Services Director of the successful Math Intensive Program at Deer Valley High School, disagreed.
“We need Rocketship. The current system is not working for far too many of our students,” he told the Board, citing AUSD’s low state test results and performance in math and English, as a reason to give the charter school a chance. “At the student level, these numbers mean you have children in middle school and high school who can’t do basic arithmetic. Reading and writing skills are equally bad. You can change this. Rocketship is helping students like this succeed.”
Scott Benedict, a Special Ed teacher at Antioch High School, was skeptical that Rocketship would be such a big improvement over AUSD’s schools, and criticized its use of un-accredited teachers.
“A lot of things Rocketship does, we already do in innovative classrooms around the District…[Rocketship] is really big on graphs and models, but has no real data. We know how many of our teachers are credentialed, and how many are interns,” he said.
Another resident echoed Ruehlig’s concerns about recess, saying, “Rocketship doesn’t educate the whole child. Recess is important, but it’s left behind in Rocketship.”
For many parents in Antioch, however, the potential of opening a charter school presents an alternative to District schools, which are underperforming when compared to other Bay Area School Districts.
“The AUSD thought my fourth grade son’s reading level of 2.8 was okay, so they just passed him along,” said Julie Young. “Rocketship wants to bring kids up the achievement gap. Give Antioch the choice to have this particular learning model.”
Ten-year Antioch resident Jennifer Alfonzo agreed.
“I am a mother of five children, three of whom attended schools in Antioch,” she said. “I removed my three oldest children from the AUSD schools and enrolled them in private schools after years of frustration dealing with a broken system. We experienced problems with bullying and were frustrated that our kids were not learning as we knew they could. Once we moved them, they began to excel, even winning awards for academic excellence.”
The value of Rocketship, to Alfonzo and its other supporters, is in its ability to offer a different system with better results, to parents that may have become disenchanted with the District schools.
“Having a Rocketship school in our community will give parents more options,” she concluded. “Please approve the petition for Rocketship. Our children deserve to have this choice.”
With the recent opening of a Rocketship school in Concord in August, some parents advocated for more research by the Board, including waiting to measure the success of that school, before making a decision. That school was opposed by the Mt. Diablo Unified School District Board and the county Board of Education. But, it received approval by the state Board of Education, including State Superintendent Tom Torlakson, a former teacher in Antioch. (See related article)
The final vote on whether or not to approve the proposed school in Antioch will be held on Wednesday, December 7th, after the Board has weighed its options and input from the community.