Parents seeking to give their children the best possible start in life through a robust and well-rounded education tend to seek out above-average schools. This has led to the rise of Montessori schools and private institutions that welcome children at a young age—sometimes as early as two or three years old. But all too often, parents run into issues with full admissions or high tuition out of their price range and reach. This does not mean, however, that parents are only left with the choice to send their children to a single public school. Rocketship Education is a chain of charter schools aiming to change the achievement gap for students in lower-income areas. The organization’s goal is to help students reach potential through talent development and personalized learning.
About the Charter School System
The charter school system sets itself apart from the standard public school education and is the option many parents choose when seeking to boost their children’s opportunities and learning. An example of public asset privatization, the charter school system is unique because charter schools operate independently of the state school system. This is regardless of where the charter institution is located. This means that a charter school can have a different curriculum and setup than the public schools surrounding it. Parents have the choice to enter their children into a separate learning option by using the charter system.
Public schools—including charter schools, which are sometimes called public schools of choice—receive funding in small part from the federal government. However, the majority of the financing comes from state and local governments. Because charter schools are allowed to operate independently, they are required to uphold the promises made in their charter. They receive greater freedom in exchange for greater accountability. Funding typically comes on a per-pupil basis. Unlike traditional public schools that are free for anyone to attend, charter schools often have admission applications. Even though charter schools may enforce an application for admission, they are not permitted to discriminate regarding the students are eligible for entry.
Rocketship Education’s Story
In 2006, a few men—Preston Smith, Mateo Sheedy, and John Danner—had an ambitious goal to make public education more accessible to a wider range of students. In the earliest years of charter schools, some concerns were voiced about how effective a charter school would be at sufficiently educating children given the schools’ ability to craft different curriculums and draft individualized charters with no standardization. However, Rocketship Education soon began to earn praise as an innovative education alternative for students in low-income areas following a consistent stream of high student testing scores. Students consistently ranked equally with other schools in the Palo Alto school district, and parents began to see the value in Rocketship’s charter institutions. Another six Rocketship Education schools were added within a span of only five years, representative of the organization’s enormous potential for growth in service to low-income students.
Sometime later, Rocketship Education further expanded its services to include a preschool thanks to a partnership with Apple Tree Institute in Washington, D.C. As a sort of social movement backed by parents, teachers, and leaders, Rocketship has grown to service multiple cities across the United States from its humble beginning in California. Rocketship Education has schools throughout the Bay Area, Nashville, Milwaukee, and Washington D.C.
Students from a diverse variety of upbringings and cultures have seen great success in Rocketship’s schools, with representation from Egypt, Kenya, Somalia, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Sudan, Ghana, Senegal, Italy, Guatemala, and Puerto Rico, to name just a few. Because parents are so involved in children’s learning when they attend Rocketship’s organization of charter schools, familial traditions and customs remain represented and respected. These processes help foster a healthy environment for growth.
The Rocketship Education Mission
The main goal of Rocketship’s charter schools is to eliminate the achievement gap within this lifetime. The achievement gap is a persistent disparity among students—particularly children, though all students see its effects to some extent. Certain subgroups of students in the United States tend to correlate to specific ranges of academic or educational performance. For example, students coming from families with substantial wealth tend to score higher on the spectrum of academic achievement compared to their middle- and low-income peers.
Similarly, lower-income students tend not to score as highly as those who come from higher-income families. This is for a number of reasons: lack of access to quality schools (all related to the area’s relative income and property taxes, among other considerations), less time spent learning with the family who may have to work multiple jobs and even concerns over the availability of food and a stable housing environment. The achievement gap affects a number of metrics including grades, class choice, test scores, and drop-out rates for both high school and college. Rocketship seeks to close the achievement gap by providing a high-quality education to low-income families. 84% of Rocketship’s participating students in California are classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged.
How do Rocketship Education schools plan to achieve this goal?
One of the first and most important steps in this process is creating a scalable and sustainable public school model. If Rocketship’s formula only worked in California or only in a certain town with certain features, the organization would not be reaching its maximum potential for educational aid. Further, Rocketship has a number of key goals that it prioritizes as part of its scalable model.
One of these is student achievement; this may seem obvious (how can a school that wants low-income students to succeed not focus on achievement?), but Rocketship Education takes a student-centric approach. This includes knowing each student on an individual level and matching them with the appropriate content for them at the correct time for maximum learning potential. This method works. On average, Rocketship students are a year ahead of their peers, ranking in the top 10% in both math and English language arts.
Developing exceptional educators and leaders is another key aspect of Rocketship’s accessible charter school program. Teachers spend time focusing on personal development and are consistently innovating their educational methods to best impact their students. Technology-backed education is a crucial aspect of Rocketship’s sustainable public school model, and teachers are equipped with the tools they need to scaffold their educational duties to the maximum extent. School leaders provide instructional frameworks, professional development, and real-time coaching, and teachers partner actively with parents.
Indeed, the parent aspect of Rocketship Education’s schools is another feature of its mission. By deeply engaging parents in their children’s learning experience, Rocketship fosters not only a strong system of support but also creates lifelong advocates, both in the child’s life and in the community as a whole.
Values and Features
Rocketship schools are based upon three pillars: personalized learning, talent development, and parent power. The value of personalized learning comes in the form of tailoring instruction, content, learning experience, and pace to each individual student to best support them in their academic endeavors. Students who excel are given more challenging problems to solve, and those who struggle are given support to master the task at hand. Each student’s learning experience is important, so teachers strive to accommodate their pupils’ needs—whether in the form of technological access, the method of learning, or the activity type. This includes features like independent learning, small group tutoring, and adaptive online learning programs to augment teacher-led instruction and give students the opportunity to take charge of their own education.
Rocketship Education’s focus on talent development reaches beyond just students and includes teachers and leaders as well. Students are encouraged to reach their full potential via a scaffolded network of support both in-school and out, with their families. Teachers are included in personal development education and are provided with tools to consistently improve and refine their educational methods. Investing in the growth and development of each individual is of paramount importance to the Rocketship organization. The charter schools encourage dressing for success via a dress code, maintaining an orderly space, and even shaking hands with the principal each day to encourage a community mindset of support. Teachers visit students’ homes to get to know their families, turning the gap between home and school into a bridge to success.
The power that parents have in their children’s education and upbringing is not lost on the thought leaders and administrators of Rocketship’s network of charter schools. Parents of Rocketship students champion their children’s education and are provided with support from the school itself. They are encouraged to actively participate in their children’s learning experience and are invited to hold leaders accountable and enable high-quality public schools to thrive in their community through engaged involvement. Parents name the Rocketship schools, help design the school’s enrichment opportunities to best suit the community in which the school is placed, and even select the school’s “fifth core value,” or the unique feature that a particular Rocketship charter school will hold based on its environment.
Rocketship Education’s Values
Rocketship holds five values particularly dear: authenticity, community, tenacity, innovation, and excellence. Authenticity, to the people of the Rocketship organization, means delivering transparency; growth and learning are approached with both honesty and humility to encourage a true view of the situation. A community is also central to the schools. By including a diverse set of perspectives, Rocketship schools build understanding and broaden minds for critical thinking and empathetic interaction.
Tenacity is a key feature that Rocketship strives to impart to students, teachers, leaders, and parents. Pursue goals relentlessly and plan for ambitious outcomes—this is one of the keys to achievement. Those who strive hard are most likely to succeed.
Innovation means impact on those in the Rocketship organization. Using critical thinking and a well-informed perspective, challenging the status quo is welcome and provides a platform for dialogue. Sometimes, meaningful impact requires taking responsible risks, and these skills are part of the Rocketship program for students and their families.
Each Rocketeer—a student participating in the Rocketship program—is unique, but no matter the student’s background or context, Rocketship believes that success is always an option. All students can achieve, and unleashing the potential inside every student is one of the most central goals of this charter school program.
There are many ways in which the Rocketship educational method is innovative to support all students on their path to success. Rather than follow the standard formula for most elementary schools, Rocketship leads students through four blocks of learning each day: Humanities, STEM, Learning Lab, and Enrichment. Because of this approach that pays equal dues to multiple types of educational niches, Rocketship can partner with and develop educators who specialize in specific areas, like STEM or the humanities. When teachers are able to teach their specialty rather than having to overextend to teach multiple subjects, they perform better, and the students will receive a more thorough and appropriate education. Teachers are also encouraged to collaborate using this method, developing classroom management strategies, lesson plans, and opportunities for parent engagement.
Rocketship has its origin in California, and that is where its first schools popped up. San Jose was home to the first of Rocketship’s institutions: Mateo Sheedy Elementary School. By 2013, eight schools were built in San Jose, and parents later petitioned (successfully) to bring Rocketship to Redwood City. Rocketship Education continued to spread through California to Antioch and to Concord, establishing both schools and even mental health service nonprofits for students along the way.
Currently, 13 Rocketship-affiliated schools call the Bay Area home. This includes two schools along the East Bay, which are called Delta Prep and Futuro Academy. Along the peninsula, Redwood City Prep stands today after 400 parents gathered together to build this cultured school. San Jose is home to Spark Academy, Si Se Puede Academy, Rising Stars Academy, Moasic Elementary, Mateo Sheedy Elementary, Lose Suenos Academy, Fuerza Community Prep, Discovery Prep, Brilliant Minds, and Alma Academy.
The first Rocketship location to open outside of California arrived in Milwaukee in 2013 at Southside Community Prep. Carleton Elementary School, also an educational institution in Milwaukee, became the second Rocketship location in the city. As of 2019, three Rocketship schools can be found in Nashville.
In an attempt to spread the Rocketship charter ideal to the eastern seaboard, Nashville was selected as the next home for the school in 2014. Two Nashville Rocketship locations were opened—the first at Nashville Northeast Elementary and the second, Rocketship United Academy, a year later. These schools include Nashville Northeast Elementary and United Academy.
Rocketship Education schools in the DC area include Legacy Prep and Rise Academy. Milwaukee is home to Southside Community Prep and Transformation Prep.
One of the earliest plans for Rocketship schools targeted the Washington, D.C. area, but the approval process was rigorous and spanned multiple years. In 2013, Rocketship’s first school in the area was approved, and by 2015, another was already breaking ground. By 2017, both Rise Academy and Legacy Prep were open and accepting students, in addition to another school in Ward 5.
These schools are home to thousands of dedicated students and teachers who work relentlessly to achieve their goals and continue the rocketship mission.
The value of New Skills: Teaching Technology and Media Literacy
Rocketship United Academy in Nashville began teaching media literacy last year as a means to teach students how to decipher the thousands of messages we see online. As part of the school’s enrichment program, students from kindergarten to fourth grade are learning how to create news stories and understand opinion from fact online. The program’s intention is to build knowledge on how to understand what a news story is and the role that journalists play in consuming information online.
In addition to teaching media literacy as an enrichment course, Rocketship Education also teaches art enrichment alongside of coding, theater, dance, music, gardening, and PE. Rocketship’s art teachers believe in the value of creativity for self-expression and compassion.
Rocketship Education is an up and coming solution to the achievement gap. Students who grow up in areas that trend toward socioeconomic disadvantage often find themselves at an educational disadvantage as well, and Rocketship seeks to overcome this obstacle using the charter school model. By developing a sustainable and scalable program, Rocketship engages communities—not just students—in the success of the educational organization and all of its pupils.
While Rocketship Education began with a single school in California, the organization has since expanded all the way to the east coast. Students who participate are, on average, one year ahead of their peers and have achieved scores in the top 10% in both math and English. The schools’ focus on talent development and belief that all students are equally capable of success if given the chance inform the educational approaches taken, which include customized learning tailored to each student and professional development for the educators who teach them. The holistic, whole-person and whole-community focus of the Rocketship Education encourages success in those students who come from socioeconomically disadvantaged households and areas, putting them on track for great achievements.