By Allen Payton
The California State Board of Education (SBE), at their meeting on Thursday, March 10th, voted to approve the charter school petition by Rocketship to open a privately operated charter school in the Monument Boulevard area of Concord. The decision reverses the unanimous vote of the Board of the Mt. Diablo Unified School District (MDUSD) on August 10, 2015 to deny the petition of Rocketship Mt. Diablo (RSMD). It also reverses the unanimous vote by the Contra Costa County Board of Education (CBOE) against the appeal by the charter school on October 21, 2015.
“The path to college starts in elementary school. The new Rocketship public elementary school in the Monument Corridor means more of the youngest students in the community will get on the right track and graduate prepared to succeed in college and beyond,” said Cheye Calvo, Rocketship’s Chief Growth and Community Engagement Officer. “The California Board of Education made the right decision to give families a choice to send their students to a new Rocketship public elementary school in Concord.”
According to the state board’s agenda, “Pursuant to California Education Code…petitioners for a charter school that have been denied at the local level may petition the State Board of Education (SBE) for approval of the charter, subject to certain conditions.”
The California Department of Education recommended a public hearing be held and then the conditional approve of the charter school for five years, from July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2021, with nine technical amendments, and under the oversight of the SBE.
The state board listened to arguments for the charter school from Calvo and Rocketship’s Chief Program Officer, Lynn Liao, and arguments against it by the Superintendent of MDUSD Dr. Nellie Meyer and Deborah Cooksey, the district’s Associate Legal Counsel, as well as a few others.
Each side was given 10 minutes to speak before public comments were received.
According to the slideshow and presentation by Calvo and Liao, “Rocketship Education is a non-profit network of public elementary charter schools serving primarily low-income students in neighborhoods where access to excellent schools is limited.”
The San Jose-based company has 10 schools in the Bay Area, with nearly 5,500 Pre-K through 5th Grade students, of which 86% are socioeconomically disadvantaged, 56% are English language learners, 7% are special education students and 81% are Hispanic.
Also according to the presentation, the results of the 2014-15 California State Assessment show the percent of students grades 3-5 classified as socio-economically disadvantaged who met or exceeded new Common Core standards in the Rocketship schools were in the 99th percentile for math and 86th percentile for the English language arts, both exceeding the students in the surrounding districts where their schools are located, and by double or more in math.
They had over 1,100 signatures of parents in support of the petition for the Mt. Diablo charter school.
Meyer stated that parents had been misled and caught in the grocery store and in church, and told if they sign the petition their children would be able to stay in Mt. Diablo School District and if they don’t they won’t be able to.
Cooksey told the board that “two local boards found it flawed. It doesn’t honor our community because the board of directors is so far from the school and that the parents would have to drive 50 miles to board meetings.”
During public comments Jeff Belle was the first of 44 speakers on both sides of the issue, who were each given one minute. Belle said he was speaking as a private citizen but that he was also a member of the Contra Costa County Board of Education.
“I can assure you we were very prudent in terms of our decision making,” he said.
Belle then spoke of his team of four advisors, including an attorney who is a former prosecutor, and special education, civil rights and English learner specialists.
“In terms of myself and my team, we did three things. First we had the wisdom to listen to the individuals,” he continued. “We visited Rocketship and Meadow Homes [Elementary School] and spent…more than eight hours at each place. The second thing we did was, we had the courage to lead and it takes wisdom and courage to do both.
However, before he could finish speaking and share what his team learned, the timekeeper said “Time.” Belle then finished with “I would ask you, that you would vote, vote no.”
He was followed by Ken Burt, the Political Director for the California Teachers Association, who was also opposed to the charter school.
One man, whose children are in Rocketship schools, spoke in Spanish and used an interpreter.
“Our children don’t have any time to waste,” he said. “We will get better education for our cities. Please approve the school.”
Another Spanish speaking parent said through an interpreter, “Because of lack of communication I don’t believe I am adequately supported. I ask your support of the approval of Rocketship.”
“This school has more communications,” she continued. “The teachers and the parents communicate better and there are more services for special needs children.”
Jonathan Eagan, Assistant Superintendent for MDUSD spoke about STEM education.
“Looking through their application, I’m not sure I see a lot of that,” he said about Rocketship. “Please vote no.”
Concord resident, Rich Ebert, spoke in favor of the school, blasting MDUSD.
“This discussion has very little to do with education. It’s all about politics,” he said. “The Mt. Diablo School Board is bigoted and prejudiced against charter schools of all kinds. Rocketship is no exception. They’ve been negative completely against the award winning Clayton Valley Charter and opposed the application at every level for the school of performing art. This is really about what they want for themselves.”
Barbara Oaks, a Board Member for MDUSD also spoke against the petition.
“I speak on behalf of a district with a proven record of success,” she said. Mt. Diablo is a high quality school district, offering a high quality education to every child. We teach the whole child with an emphasis on English learner students.”
One parent in support of Rocketship, Christina Gutierrez said she had worked over the last eight months to bring the school to Concord. She brought 60 letters of support from working families who could not attend the meeting, some handwritten, which she gave to the board.
“I helped gather signatures on behalf of Rocketship, and I habla Español very well, and there was no deception on our part,” she added.
Colleen Coll, a former Mayor of Concord, who teaches bilingual education to adults said some of her students signed the petition. She spoke of the 1,100 parents who had signed it.
“I ask you to honor it and bring Rocketship to our community,” she said.
Merle Hall, who owns property in the Monument coridor spoke in support.
“As the former Chair of the Board of Realtors I can tell you the relationship between education and property values,” he stated. “We have parents who are leaving because the schools are lousy. Please approve Rocketship.”
Some opponents wore bright yellow shirts with the words “No Rocketship” on them, including teachers from Meadow Homes Elementary School.
“Our students are doing great,” said one of the teachers. “We have a strong bilingual program. We have experienced and very qualified teachers. We are one of the turn-around schools. We are increasing our numbers every year. So I’m going to ask you, if we have all of this, what more can we do?”
“Our students are doing great. The community didn’t ask them to come,” he continued. “This gentlemen who wants to make money is the one who asked them to come. He wants to make money.”
Francisco Rios also spoke in Spanish and through an interpreter said, “I come to support the teachers and staff in general of Mt. Diablo and I want to say please vote no on Rocketship. I am a parent of three children who are in district schools. I am an involved parent and I have the chance to grow academically and personally with my children. I have been able to take advantage of the programs for parents offered by the district…to become a better parent, such as health classes, cooking classes…I have participated on a variety of committees.”
“Please vote no on Rocketship,” he added in English.
Following the public speaking period, the Board, including State Superintendent Tom Torlakson, took up the agenda item and asked questions about the conditions proposed by the CDE staff as part of their recommendation.
In response, CDE staff stated that Rocketship had agreed to have their board meetings or teleconferencing at the school, as well as Spanish language translators at their board meetings. There will also be an advisory board and 50% would be populated by parents of current students of Rocketship.
Torlakson further asked about online learning, monthly phone calls between CDE staff and school staff, as well as annual site visits.
Rocketship got a bit of a lecture from one of the board members.
“You can’t change the petition after the school board denied it…before the county school board could vote on it,” said Board Member Patricia Ann Rucker. “It was not political. They actually looked at what the petition said. That’s not racist. It’s not political. It’s fortunate in our appeal process, we have staff who are able to work with applicants, to close the gaps so that the petition can be approved.”
“I have to tell you frankly, I don’t think you know how to fix…the flaws in your petition,” she continued. “But I have to say it’s rather unusual, with the agreements the Superintendent has offered, in my time on the board, that we have done this much work to fix the situation which is what the staff allowed to do in this appeal process.”
“I understand that going forward, that this petition will be fixed and corrected and meet the quality of petitions that this board has approved,” Rucker said. “You just made a promise, today that you will pay attention to the flaws in your ELD [English Language Development] program. I’m holding you accountable for that because your petition is going to be approved.”
“Probably by the time you come back to have your charter renewed, I won’t be on the board,” she added. “But I hope your conscious of…how you tore a community apart, because of these very important facts I hope they will make you pay attention to these issues.”
Board Member Bruce Holaday stressed his point to the parents in attendance that “I do want parents to understand that if this charter petition is approved…and this charter school does exist, you do not have to attend it. And if you’re happy…you can stay in your district school.”
One more board member spoke before the vote.
“The ACCES has recommended a vote for approval. CDE is recommending approval. In my five years I’ve been on this board that’s rare.
It increases my confidence that this petition has met the requirements for being authorized.
She moved approval for the charter school with the additional conditions including a second visit during the year.
A few final speakers were allowed on the motion. The first was CTA Political Director Burt who spoke about fraud in the gathering of the 1,100 signatures on the petition and asking for the Board to look into it.
Another spoke thanking Member Rucker for addressing the ELD issue and said “Rocketship must have a dedicated ELD time.”
The man who used a Spanish interpreter, earlier in the meeting, said in English, “Please let us make a decision and put the political things aside. We need the best education for our kids. That’s why you are here for us.”
One final speaker wearing a “No Rocketship” T-shirt said, “This is about equity and serving our Latino parents.”
The Board then voted to approve the petition of the Rocketship Charter School with nine members raising their hands to vote in favor and one abstaining.
Following is the information for the item on the state board’s agenda, for the March 10th meeting:
Petition for the Establishment of a Charter School Under the Oversight of the State Board of Education: Consideration of Rocketship Mt. Diablo which was denied by the Mt. Diablo Unified School District and the Contra Costa County Board of Education.
The California Department of Education (CDE) recommends that the SBE hold a public hearing regarding the petition, and thereafter to conditionally approve, with nine technical amendments, the request to establish RSMD under the oversight of the SBE, for a five-year term effective July 1, 2016, through June 30, 2021, under the oversight of the SBE, based on the CDE’s findings pursuant to EC sections 47605(b)(1), 47605(b)(2), and California Code of Regulations, Title 5 (5 CCR) Section 11967.5 that the petitioner is likely to successfully implement the program set forth in the petition and the RSMD petition is consistent with sound educational practice.
For more information about Rocketship, visit their website at www.rsed.org.