Antioch Planning Commission recommends Rocketship elementary charter school project for Council approval

Rendering of proposed Rocketship charter school planned for Antioch.

First net zero energy charter school in America; 5-0 vote moves project on to the City Council for final decision

By Allen Payton

During the meeting of the Antioch Planning Commission on Wed., Nov. 1, about 100 supporters of the Rocketship charter school – most of whom were Hispanic – rejoiced when Commissioners voted 5-0 to approve plans for their new facility in town. One commission seat is vacant due to the recent resignation of Sedar Husary, and Vice Chair Martha Parsons was at home ill and unable to attend. (See the commission agenda and Rocketship’s plans, here).

Approved by the Antioch School Board on a 3-2 vote last fall, the school is planned to be built on the 1.7 acre site of the former headquarters of the East County Times at 1700 Cavallo Road. The organization purchased the building, and plans to tear it down and construct a new, 31,052-square-foot, two-story facility for the 600 students in grades from Transitional Kindergarten through fifth.

Site plan for the Rocketship Antioch charter school location showing the former East County Times building and parking lot.

Public Safety Concerns

Concerns were expressed by city staff including Chief of Police Tammany Brooks about the proximity to one of the worst crime areas in Antioch, just across E. 18th Street. But, Rocketship representatives argued that they specifically target neighborhoods such as that, including their location in San Jose, and that a $14 million investment of a new school, with students, faculty, staff and parents – “more eyes”, as on representative said – can help reduce crime in that part of town. One suggestion by Brooks was that the school have an armed guard on campus was shot down by Antioch School Board President Walter Ruehlig who cast the deciding vote on the board in favor of the privately-owned charter school. He was incredulous at the idea, stating, “none of the Antioch schools have an armed guard. Lord, oh Lord. What kind of message will that send? ‘Antioch places an armed guard in an elementary school.’”

In response to concerns by the Antioch Police Department, security plans have been developed for the school. Rocketship would just prefer a guard that isn’t armed.

Parking Spaces Issue

Another and major issue was the amount of parking spaces on the site. The plan is for 40 onsite spaces, but city staff recommended a minimum of 60 spaces based on a calculation of .10 spaces per student. The average in the area is .12 spaces per child and staff which would require 73 spaces. Rocketship explained that they have on average .05 spaces per student and staff at their other schools which would net 31 spaces, so what they’re offering is more than that.

However, city staff said were concerned with the monthly community meetings and twice monthly Saturday workshops the school plans to hold.  Plus, there was “not enough (spaces) for parent volunteers and off-site parking agreements are not in place.” As such, city staff recommended the school limit their capacity to 400 students for one year.

With that and the other recommendations city staff recommended the commission approve the school’s plans.

Commissioners and city staff prepare to start the hearing on Rocketship.

Commissioners Questions & Comments

Commissioner Kerry Motts was first to comment, stating “they’ve offered some efforts to meet half-way.” Then Commissioner Bob Martin had a discussion with staff about the parking spaces and left turns from Cavallo Road into the school, as well as off-site parking.

City Traffic Engineer Lynn Filson responded, “right now there are no restrictions” on drivers making left turns from the turn lane into the school. “But if we find it’s a problem we could make it illegal.”

“With this project we are asking them to restripe the street…so they can have parking in front of their building and in front of the (adjacent) county building,” Filson added.

Martin also was concerned about barriers and fencing not being tall enough.

“Dous the police department believe that’s enough for safety?” he asked “I somewhat worry can they jump the fence if it’s only six-foot.”

Commissioner Jim Conley asked if it is “required we have a bike lane on both sides” of the street.

Filson responded that “there’s enough room to have a bike lane and parking on both sides” and that the city needs to “leave the bike lanes in place so kids can ride their bikes to school. The bike lanes are for everyone.”

Commissioner Kenny Turnage said “if anyone drops their children off at school it is almost like a game of Frogger with all the kids running around there.”

But he doubted that many children would ride their bikes to school, which he said, “I haven’t seen in the past five years.”

“It seems like a recipe for disaster,” Turnage added.

Filson responded, saying “I think it would be easier to eliminate the left turn lane.”

About 100 people turned out for the Planning Commission hearing for the Rocketship school project.

Rocketship Presents Project

Representatives of Rocketship, including Regional Director Marie Gill and Harrison Tucker, the director of the their real estate team, provided an overview of the project.

“I represent the 100’s of Rocketship families and other partners who are supporting the effort,” Gill stated.

She shared that the new Antioch school will be the “first net zero energy charter school campus in the U.S. We are not cutting corners.”

“Safety is foundational,” Gill continued. “We have offered to place a security guard at the corner of Cavallo and East 18th Street during the first two years. More eyes on the street will result in less crime. We propose an unarmed guard.”

“Even in our most violent neighborhoods, we haven’t needed an armed guard,” she added.

Gill addressed the parking issue stating, “49 parking spaces for 34 staff…providing a BART shuttle for employees and a ride-share subsidy for those who live within two miles” of the school.

Their plans “necessitate a 600-student enrollment,” Gill shared.

Regarding the plans she stated, “this school will be an architectural enhancement” to the neighborhood, and asked that the commission “remove conditions of a façade change,” sought by city staff. She also mentioned the “solar array” and the “white arches harkening back to the early days of California” as additional, positive features of the facility.

Gill spoke of “innovative visioning” and concluded saying, “great schools unleash economic development. Together we will give our children that opportunity and they will lead us into tomorrow.”

Questions By Commissioners

Martin asked the Rocketship representatives about how many staff they expected to have living outside of East County. “We’re estimating five at this point,” Gill responded.

In response to a question by Conley of “what led you to choose this site,” Gill said, “we are here to serve low-income communities. The site meets all of our needs. We have a 1,000-foot queue on Cavallo. We did do a study on Antioch. We wanted to be within walking distance” of that kind of neighborhood.

Natalie, a second-grader at Rocketship’s Concord campus spoke with assistance by her mother.

Public Comments All Favorable

Then the commissioners heard from the public. Parents of Rocketship students, their children, and other supporters, including other community leaders all spoke in favor of the project, asking commissioners for approval so that efforts can move forward in time for a fall 2018 opening. They wore purple shirts with phrases like “Antioch community in pursuit of excellence in public education” and “Rocketship Education is

Angel Luevano who helps run an after-school math program in Antioch, was first to speak, saying “it’s just about our children and their education. Expedite this process without stifling encumbrances.”

Regular council meeting attendee, Nancy Fernandez was next saying, “I’m a 50-year resident of Antioch. I support charter schools. My grandchildren were educated in charter schools. It’s just what our community needs to jump start the Cavallo area.”

Her husband Marty Fernandez said, “I’ve seen companies driven out of coming to Antioch,” then spoke of Rocketship’s “$15 million investment.”

“Do you see anyone else investing in Antioch?” he asked. “Do something better for Antioch than a Taco Bell.”

Tom McNell said he is a “26-year resident” and that “the parking drop-off is 1,000 feet,” and that De La Salle which has 1,050 students and 800 girls at Carondolet across the street on Winton Drive in Walnut Creek, with a 430-foot right-of-way.

“Every year we have to train the freshman parents,” he said to laughter from the audience. McNell is the parking coordinator for De La Salle.

“I do not understand…it should be how do we make things work in this town not how do we deny them,” he stated. “De La Salle has 10 overflow parking spaces.”

Speaking of Rocketship in comparison to the private high school with the championship football team, McNell stated “it (Rocketship) doesn’t have 5,000 (people) coming to a football game.”

“Plus, 1,500 kids at YV (Ygnacio Valley High School,” (which has a walkway and driveway near De La Salle and Carondolet) he continued. “I’ve seen two accidents in 15 years.”

Regarding the city staff’s issues with the design of the new Rocketship school, McNell added, “the building they’re going to tear down is uglier than sin,” also to laughter from the audience.

Hans Ho, a member of the Antioch Police Crime Prevention Commission spoke as a private citizen, not in his official capacity, said he was “here to talk about the impact on crime in the Cavallo area.”

“Blight breeds crime and crime breeds more blight,” he stated. “We will have taken a giant step in reducing blight in that area. In my experience criminals do not like having their business watched by ordinary citizens.”

“In the beginning you might see an increase in the calls for service as more crimes are reported,” Ho continued. “They’re already there.”

He added that the school will help the neighborhood experience “a reduction in crime and an increase in property values.”

Rendering of an aerial view of the proposed Rocketship school building and site in Antioch.

Scientist and local business owner Dr. Terry Ramus, who is also chairman of the Government Affairs/Economic Development Committee of the Antioch Chamber of Commerce said, “this part of town needs the $14 million investment. Antioch needs a win. I’m hoping we can hit a grand slam on this for the City of Antioch,” referring to the final game of the World Series occurring at the same time as the meeting.

“The Antioch Chamber of Commerce has endorsed the Rocketship plan,” he continued. “It will allow socioeconomically disadvantaged children to have a better education. It will allow their parents to have choice, too.”

“We need to move through the process, quickly,” Ramus added. “The school works like a finely tuned machine.”

Antioch resident Jessica Duran whose five-year-old daughter attends the Rocketship school, Futuro Academy in Concord said, “Why?” does she drive her daughter to school there?

“Because I want the best education for my daughter,” she said. “We deserve the same in Antioch.”

Next to speak with the assistance of her mother was Natalie, a second-grader who also attends the Concord Rocketship campus.

“I like reading. Math is my favorite. I like the learning lab,” she stated. “Approve the Rocketship school so my mom doesn’t have to drive so far to take me to school every day.”

Andrea LeBron, an Antioch resident and parent of a Rocketship student at their Concord school said, “the big deal is about the parking lot. We need to figure it out as a community. What we need is this school on behalf of all the parents driving miles and miles go get our children to school in Concord.”

“At Antioch High I wasn’t told ‘Andrea, you need to go to college,’” she shared. “But at Rocketship they tell the students they need to go to college.”

“Everybody, we know all the crimes in that area,” LeBron continued. “A person who owns a store there told me ‘the school will be a good thing.’ I hope you guys approve it.”

Then Ruehlig spoke, not in his official capacity, but also “as a private citizen who has a passion for equal education opportunity.”

“First, let me congratulate the parents here for taking their job so seriously,” he stated. “It is so needed in this day and age, as parents are our first and our greatest teachers.”

He shared about his own experience as a child in attending high-performing schools outside of New York City and was the reason his father was willing to commute an hour-and-a-half to work in the city.

“We have a terrific school on its way, a public charter school,” Ruehlig continued from prepared remarks. “Whether white, black or brown, good education will always be the ultimate equalizer. There’s no arguing that there are many seats at the table…traditional public schools, private schools, magnet schools, alternative schools, digital academies, home study and public, yes i emphasize public charter schools, for that is what charters are, take away misconceptions and false propaganda.”

“As such, don’t let anyone tell you that one size fits all and deny your child the right fit for their needs and the seat at the table that they deserve,” he added. “I leave you with my fond hope that the long-cherished American dream of equal opportunity and equitable education be embraced here in Antioch. And my prayer for you is that your child’s name stars in that dream.”

BART Director Debra Allen, who represents Central County on the BART Board, spoke as an Antioch property owner and East County business owner, said she was there on behalf of the “25 hard working men and women who work at East County Glass who work for me. Their children deserve a better education.”

“I’m a San Francisco BART Director and I pledge to you I will do whatever I can to make the shuttles work,” she continued. “BART has a tremendous system to get people to and from their schools and jobs.”

“Parents only get one shot at raising their kids. There are no do overs,” Allen added. “Antioch needs options. Work with this organization and work out the details.”

Commissioners Ask More Questions Then Decide

Martin seeking answers to his concerns about the safety, asked Chief Brooks about the “six-foot fencing in front of the school. Part of it has cement as a bottom” wanting to know if that would make it easier for someone to scale over.

In a light-hearted moment, Brooks was greeted with applause from the audience as he approached the podium to speak, and jokingly said “As long as I get applauded like that I’ll keep coming to meetings.”

“You haven’t even said anything, yet,” someone said. “I know,” Brooks responded with a chuckle.

He responded to Commissioner Martin’s concern stating, “People could scale a six-foot fence.”

Asked about the issue of armed guards, Brooks responded, “I would welcome any security measure. An armed guard was a suggestion.”

To Motts question if “increased activity will decrease illegal activity,” Brooks said, “I don’t know for sure. I’ve read that can happen. But, don’t know until the school is there.”

Turnage asked if the cameras at the Cavallo and E. 18th Street intersection, can “pick up activity at the school.” Brooks explained that there are two sets of cameras, license plat readers and surveillance, which are “pan-tilt, zoom cameras that could tilt toward the school. It gets changes manually.”

Then back to the parking matter, Filson said “I have no issue with parking on Cavallo. It’s a code issue. We could pick up seven to eight spaces and about the same in front of the county building.”

She then suggested “staggered, ramp-up enrollment to 600 students in the third year. Then decrease the number of students if the parking studies don’t pan out.”

“It seems difficult to scale back” enrollment, one commissioner responded.

A rendering of the view of the proposed Rocketship school on Cavallo Road from a northeast view.

Antioch Community Development Director Forrest Ebbs said that was a “great question for a use permit hearing. I really want you to feel totally empowered to make that kind of decision,” he explained to the commissioners.

Motts then asked about the staff’s concerns with the design of the building.

City Planning Manager Alexis Morris responded, saying they were following “citywide design guidelines approved by council. Our typical requirement is to comply with the guidelines,” which are “not standards or rules.”

Turnage then asked “what’s wrong” with the design. “I grew up in this neighbhorhood.”

Ebbs responded, saying “architecture is like art. Guidelines are for discussion.”

Turnage then said, “so it’s like a Picasso. Either you like it or you see someone draw a messed up face.”

Back to the parking issue, Martin then asked, “why was the back southwest corner viewed as alternative parking?”

Morris replied, “the applicant described it as overflow parking. It’s playground space.”

Commission Chair Janet Zacharatos shared her thoughts.

“Before tonight I wasn’t familiar with Rocketship,” she stated. “I definitely think it’s an excellent project and I would like to see it go forward. It needs to work out a few details.”

Conley then went through the list of difference in conditions between the city staff’s recommendations and what the commissioners wanted.

“No armed security guards,” he stated. “Parking. There isn’t adequate parking at any school in Antioch. To regulate this school to have more stringent traffic…isn’t fair. I wouldn’t want to hurt this school economically. To cut student population from 600 to 400 would be devastating.”

Zacharatos then said the “only other item is the rezone, which sounds like a no-brainer.”

Conley then attempted to make a motion, stating “I move approval with the requirements of no armed guard, existing parking and traffic be accepted.”

But, then staff asked him about the design elements, to which he replied, “I don’t care what the county building looks at” to laughter and applause from the audience.

“So, you’re OK striking that,” asked Morris.

“Yes,” Conley replied.

Ebbs then asked to confirm what the commissioners where attempting to do, “you’ve agreed to everything in Rocketship’s recommendations” and not all of the 30 conditions in the staff report.

Turnage responded, saying, “no restrictions on the number of students and I second that.”

Then by roll call vote, the commissioners passed the motion recommending to the City Council that they approve Rocketship’s plans, and did so unanimously by those who were in attendance, garnering one more vote than the minimum four needed for approval.

The audience applauded, and some yelled out “Thank you.”

The City Council is expected to hear the matter for final decision at their November 14 meeting.

the attachments to this post:

Rocketship rendering 1

Commissioners & city staff

Rocketship rendering 3

Student speaks

Rocketship hearing at APC 110117

Rocketship Antioch site plan

Rocketship rendering 2

3 Comments to “Antioch Planning Commission recommends Rocketship elementary charter school project for Council approval”

  1. RJB says:

    This is going to get interesting

  2. Nancy Fernandez says:

    Actually RJB this will be the greatest thing to happen in Antioch in years. Many people have taken the time to tour other campus’ of Rocketship Public Schools and supported this project for a year now. We are proud to have cleared the planning commission and plan on going before the city council November 14. You can Google this school, they have many schools around the country with astounding results. The children are actually learning and their test scores are way ahead of this district.

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