[3/10/16 Update]: Despite strong community opposition and unanimous denials by district and county level school boards, the State Board of Education voted to allow Rocketship to expand their charter school chain to the Monument Corridor in Concord, California. For more background on how decisions like these can be set in motion, see here.
Why is there so much controversy surrounding the proliferation of Rocketship Schools? A brief glance at their website wouldn’t hint at any problems, and may even sway critics to want to join the team. The marketing is stellar, pitching the “rethinking [of] elementary schools from the ground up” in order to “eliminate the ‘achievement gap’ in our lifetime.” Their promises go straight to our visceral wish for the new, the shiny, the forward reaching. I know current and former teachers, parents, administrators, and community members, all of whom are hard working people who want the best for their children. Perhaps bearing witness to the community fracturing with the expansion of the schools locally (with nine campuses over the past nine years) is what makes this post both difficult and necessary to write.
So many questions abound. Do Rocketship’s claims of positive outcomes actually match reports of what’s happening on the ground? Might a narrow focus on test scores in a tech-heavy environment carry social, emotional, or physical costs that aren’t being considered? And why does the organization move with such an aggressive press for expansion when they are already struggling with such serious, ongoing (and unaddressed) issues at their current sites?
Since corporate and tech-billionaire led foundations fund the proliferation and marketing of the schools, it’s rare for the public to hear voices expressing ground-level concerns (unless one happens to follow stoprocketship.com).
In much the same way that controversies surrounding Teach For America are emerging with counter-narratives getting more airtime, concerns regarding Rocketship appear to also be growing in parallel with their expansions. The following letters and documents were among many sent to the California State Board of Education to recommend denial of the Rocketship Mt. Diablo appeal petition. They are shared with permission from the authors.
For letters written by community members, parents, and others, I am including quotes without names and contact information out of respect for privacy.
From a School Board Trustee in Franklin McKinley School District:
“Dear State Board of Education:
I am writing this letter in reference to the upcoming decision on the Rocketship Mt Diablo Charter school appeal. My school district was mentioned throughout the petition process at the local Mt Diablo Unified School District and Contra Costa County Office of Education levels. It is my opinion that the State Board of Education uphold the deny decisions of both the school district and the county office of education to not allow Rocketship Mt Diablo to be placed in said location.
Throughout the petition process, Rocketship representatives have stated a strong positive relationship with the Franklin-McKinley School District. This is simply not true and the relationship is both poor and confrontational as Rocketship continually operates in unethical methods while pursuing their growth goals.
Last year, as President of the Board of Trustees of the Franklin-McKinley School District, a petition was submitted to the district for yet another Rocketship school. This petition was denied by the school board after a thorough review due to many of the reasons outlined in Mt Diablo Unified School District report. With achievement scores declining over a four-year period, along with an unsound curriculum, Rocketship Education continues to be substandard to the education of our children of the Franklin-McKinley School District.
Again, it should be noted that there is no strong – or positive – working relationship between Rocketship and the Franklin-McKinley School District. The claims by the Rocketship organization on this subject are incorrect and I request that this be noted in your records as you consider the appeal for the Contra Costa County Rocketship school. Therefore, I urge you to uphold the denial of this Rocketship petition.”
From a Physician in San Jose:
“I am a physician at a Family Medicine clinic in a low income neighborhood in San Jose, near Rocketship schools. I see children and adults, many of whom live in this community. As part of my evaluation of children, both in well child annual exams and in office visits for acute illness, I frequently ask about school. As any doctor who practices pediatrics knows, school performance is one of several critical measures of a child’s current and predicted future well-being; in addition, a great deal can be learned about his social functioning and psychiatric health. Some illnesses like ADHD impair both social and academic function, and sometimes social dysfunction including bullying or domestic violence can impede cognitive, social, and even physical development in children.
I take care of many kids who are enrolled in both traditional district school and in Rocketship charter schools. I have been impressed with the number of children who attend Rocketship elementary schools who have presented with physical signs of extreme stress. Some come with headaches, some with abdominal pain, two have urinary problems. The stories are similar. They often involve bullying with an inadequate school response or frequent punishments for inadequate performance (incomplete homework packets resulting in detention, missing lunch and recess because of academic failures, etc.). I have asked parents to take their stressed out Kindergartners and 3rd graders to the park, to let them play and relax and have fun, to help their symptoms subside, but parents insist that there is no time after the long school day and the mountain of homework. I have attempted to call school administrators to discuss patients with them, but they do not return my calls. I have recommended that some patients seek testing for learning disabilities, but parents have told me that the school tells them they can’t have thorough testing there and they don’t have many services for children with LD so they should try a different school if they need those kinds of services. I have found traditional district schools much easier to work with, and I have not seen the same types of physical and psychological complaints among children attending these schools.”
“I worry that these issues stem from the ultra-high student to teacher ratio at Rocketship. The Mt. Diablo charter petition calls for 116 kindergarten students and 3 teachers, a student teacher ratio of 38:1 (See Appendix B) for children that are 6 years old!! I understand the rotation model, but there simply aren’t enough qualified staff at Rocketship to provide meaningful education. I believe this may be one part of the reason students experience extreme stress at Rocketship schools, and face unmitigated bullying. Worst of all, the evidence that this suffering produces meaningful outcomes is lacking. I fear than many of these kids will have lost an opportunity for a more cheerful elementary school experience, just to enter middle school and high school with no advantage from those hours doing homework packets and extended school days.
Please do not allow these schools to propagate.”
From a Community Leader (Monument area):
“… Many families have been telling me that Rocketship is like a private school and it will be free to the children in the Monument area. The families are very trusting, and they were misled by the people from Rocketship to get the signatures. I see that they want to make money using our people. The families think that the school will be located by Meadow Lane and Monument Blvd. I just found out that the school will be located by the police station. Many of the families who signed the petition live far from the police station. I am from Mexico and I am very proud of my culture and my people. Rocketship lied to get the signatures, so I don’t think that they will honor our culture and our traditions as the Mt. Diablo schools do. They schools in the Monument area are doing a great job serving the children and their families. I ask you to please deny the petition from Rocketship. Please do what is good for our children.”
From a Parent (Monument area):
“… Rocketship people were collecting signatures on the outside of shops, in parks and various places deceiving people. They knocked on my door saying they would open a school for children; the school would have much more support for students but they never said they would ask the School District for funds.”
My son is in his 9th grade at [local high school] and I am very proud to say that thanks to the help he received at Meadow Homes as an English learner he is taking advanced classes with excellent grades. For all these reasons our family does not agree on a Rocketship school, which in addition it will take away funding from schools of this district. This community does not need a school like the one Rocketship is offering.”
Many parents and community members who spoke at the Advisory Commission on Charter Schools hearing on February 9th echoed similar accounts of discontent with the aggressive push to get signatures (see testimony at 4:22:23 in the video).
The Executive Director of Monument Impact, a non-profit organization serving over 4,000 neighbors in the Monument area also sent a letter recommending denial of the appeal petition with many of the same themes described above (documenting “concern about statements that Rocketship misled Spanish-speaking parents in order to generate the “proof” of community support’).
His letter states,
“…to get various points of view, I met with representatives from Rocketship and with community members and leaders, and I conclude that Rocketship will not improve the educational opportunities for children and youth in the community. I have questions about Rocketship’s abilities to support English language learners, who are a significant group in our neighborhood, and about their responsiveness to a community that holds a lot of wisdom about and hope for our youth.”
He added concern that the expansion of Rocketship would “likely increase gentrification in the community, which would also significantly disrupt many families in the area.”
The following is my letter.
Dear Superintendent Torlakson, President Kirst, and State Board of Education Trustees,
I am writing to encourage the denial of Rocketship’s appeal petition for a campus in the Mt. Diablo community. I teach Educational Psychology in the Multiple Subjects Credential Program at SJSU, am active as a community and youth advocate, and have seen first hand the social fracturing and community divisions that have resulted in the wake of Rocketship expansions in San Jose. My research and publications have focused on school climate, violence prevention, and the promotion of healthy social and emotional learning environments. Because of my public statements and critical questions about Rocketship’s practices, parents and teachers have reached out to me to share the concerns that they have also brought to their school’s administration and that remain unaddressed. Over the past two years, I have visited two of their local campuses (Los Suenos, and Si Se Puede), and have had over 30 hours of discussions with at least 15 current and former parents, teachers, administrators, instructional lab specialists, volunteers, and substitute teachers who have worked at the Rocketship schools.
According to EC 47605(b), a charter petition must be “consistent with sound educational practice” if, in the SBE’s judgment, it is likely to be of educational benefit to pupils who attend.
“For purposes of EC Section 47605(b)(1), a charter petition shall be “an unsound educational program” if it is either of the following:
- A program that involves activities that the SBE determines would present the likelihood of physical, educational, or psychological harm to the affected pupils.
- A program that the SBE determines not likely to be of educational benefit to the pupils who attend.”
The petition proposed for the Mt. Diablo site is effectively the same model as the sites that have been opened in San Jose. The following are examples of ongoing concerns that remain unaddressed and that relate specifically to 47605(b) (1) above. Should it be necessary, I can connect you specifically with the people with whom I have spoken and who have communicated each of the situations documented below:
- Repeated failure to respond to parent communication and requests about student safety at the schools [Multiple campuses with many parents/teachers expressing ongoing concern]
- February 23rd2016 referral from NAACP colleague by parent documenting racially hostile climate with lack of action or school-wide policy related to the ongoing harassment of a student.
- 2014 public testimony from parent documenting hostile social climates, disregard for student safety and well-being, fear of retaliation, and ongoing lack of attention by school administrators [Si Se Puede campus] http://bit.ly/1UF83zi
- Militaristic, rigid, compliance driven social climates and frequent use of shame and humiliation as behavioral control measures [communicated by current/former teachers, ILS, substitutes]
- Children required to sit in complete silence during lunch [communicated by teachers, ILS, parents]
- Disregard for students’ physical needs (children not allowed to use restrooms for extended time blocks). Teachers documented high rates of student UTIs. Parent testimony reflects the same here: http://bit.ly/1UF83zi.
- Ongoing and high rates of faculty turnover [Review documents from denial of petitions, current and former teacher reports of many teachers leaving within weeks of starting and at middle of school year.]
- Excessive screen time in the very young grades, K-2, with no protections for children expressing headaches, neck-aches or fatigue from the screen (both ILS and substitute teachers have reported being required to push students to continue “logging hours” for the software regardless of student complaint).
- Punishment for misbehavior that includes requiring additional hours of screen time, up to all day [communicated/confirmed by current/former teachers and Instructional Lab Specialists]
Rocketship claims to have an educationally “sound” model. However, to be educationally sound, a program must also be developmentally sound. Extended screen time for very young children remains unaddressed and effectively dismissed by the organization despite the fact that Rocketship students (at the youngest grades, K-2) are at a stage when their eyes and vision have not yet fully developed. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, “Focus, tracking, depth perception, and other aspects of vision continue to develop throughout early and middle childhood. Convergence, the ability of both eyes to focus on an object simultaneously, becomes more fully developed by about age seven.”
The following studies provided in links (and attached) add evidence to the concerns raised in several previous letters to authorizing boards regarding harms of screen time for young children.
I. Equity Matters Research Review document, attached, “Healthier Students are Better Learners: A Missing Link in School Reforms to Close the Achievement Gap.” There is a section dedicated to Vision (pgs 13-14) and Causal Pathways Affecting Educational Outcomes (p. 15) Also available for download here: https://www.cde.state.co.us/sites/default/files/documents/healthandwellness/download/healthier_students_are_better_learners.pdf
II. Facing the Screen Dilemma: Young Children, Technology, and Education http://commercialfreechildhood.org/screendilemma Main page has pdf links to additional research/resources. Report is also available in full and abridged forms in Spanish: http://commercialfreechildhood.org/sites/default/files/Spanish.pdf
III. Virtually Addicted: Why General Practice Must Now Confront Screen Dependency http://bjgp.org/content/64/629/610 Concern raised regarding ‘Increased screen time … evidence suggests a “dose-response” relationship, where each additional hour of viewing increases the likelihood of experiencing socio-emotional problems.’”
IV. Learning Habit Study Finds that Media Use in Excess of 45 Minutes Per Day Negatively Affects Children’s Grades, Sleep, and Social Skills http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/the-learning-habit-study-finds-that-media-use-in-excess-of-45-minutes-per-day-negatively-affects-childrens-grades-sleep-and-social-skills-273539931.html
V. A collection of research documenting additional risks of screen time http://bit.ly/screen_time.
According to the American Optometric Association,
“Extensive viewing of the computer screen can lead to eye discomfort, fatigue, blurred vision and headaches. However, some unique aspects of how children use computers may make them more susceptible than adults to the development of these problems.
The potential impact of computer use on children’s vision involves the following factors:
Children often have a limited degree of self-awareness. Many children keep performing an enjoyable task with great concentration until near exhaustion (e.g., playing video games for hours with little, if any, breaks). Prolonged activity without a significant break can cause eye focusing (accommodative) problems and eye irritation.
Accommodative problems may occur as a result of the eyes’ focusing system “locking in” to a particular target and viewing distance. In some cases, this may cause the eyes to be unable to smoothly and easily focus on a particular object, even long after the original work is completed.
Children are very adaptable. Although there are many positive aspects to their adaptability, children frequently ignore problems that would be addressed by adults. A child who is viewing a computer screen with a large amount of glare often will not think about changing the computer arrangement or the surroundings to achieve more comfortable viewing. This can result in excessive eye-strain. Discomfort can also result from dryness due to infrequent blinking. Also, children often accept blurred vision caused by nearsightedness (myopia), farsightedness (hyperopia), or astigmatism because they think everyone sees the way they do. Uncorrected farsightedness can cause eye strain, even when clear vision can be maintained.” http://www.aoa.org/optometrists/tools-and-resources/clinical-care-publications/environmentaloccupational-vision/computer-use-needs/impact-of-computer-use-on-childrens-vision?sso=y
Furthermore, the following are “vision skills necessary for school success”:
“Vision is more than just the ability to see clearly, or having 20/20 eyesight. It is also the ability to understand and respond to what is seen. Basic visual skills include the ability to focus the eyes, use both eyes together as a team, and move them effectively. Other visual perceptual skills include:
- recognition (the ability to tell the difference between letters like “b” and “d”),
- comprehension (to “picture” in our mind what is happening in a story we are reading), and
- retention (to be able to remember and recall details of what we read).
Every child needs to have the following vision skills for effective reading and learning:
Visual acuity — the ability to see clearly in the distance for viewing the chalkboard, at an intermediate distance for the computer, and up close for reading a book.
Eye Focusing — the ability to quickly and accurately maintain clear vision as the distance from objects change, such as when looking from the chalkboard to a paper on the desk and back. Eye focusing allows the child to easily maintain clear vision over time like when reading a book or writing a report.
Eye tracking — the ability to keep the eyes on target when looking from one object to another, moving the eyes along a printed page, or following a moving object like a thrown ball.
Eye teaming — the ability to coordinate and use both eyes together when moving the eyes along a printed page, and to be able to judge distances and see depth for class work and sports.
Eye-hand coordination — the ability to use visual information to monitor and direct the hands when drawing a picture or trying to hit a ball.
Visual perception — the ability to organize images on a printed page into letters, words and ideas and to understand and remember what is read.
If any of these visual skills are lacking or not functioning properly, a child will have to work harder. This can lead to headaches, fatigue, and other eyestrain problems.” http://www.aoa.org/patients-and-public/good-vision-throughout-life/childrens-vision/school-aged-vision-6-to-18-years-of-age?sso=y#1
…“When certain visual skills have not developed, or are poorly developed, learning is difficult and stressful, and children will typically:
- Avoid reading and other near visual work as much as possible.
- Attempt to do the work anyway, but with a lowered level of comprehension or efficiency.
- Experience discomfort, fatigue and a short attention span.
Some children with learning difficulties exhibit specific behaviors of hyperactivity and distractibility. These children are often labeled as having “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” (ADHD). However, undetected and untreated vision problems can elicit some of the very same signs and symptoms commonly attributed to ADHD. Due to these similarities, some children may be mislabeled as having ADHD when, in fact, they have an undetected vision problem.” http://www.aoa.org/patients-and-public/good-vision-throughout-life/childrens-vision/school-aged-vision-6-to-18-years-of-age?sso=y
According to Dr. Tina McCarty, from the American Optometric Association, “Blue light is very near UV light in wavelength and energy and therefore there is concern for cumulative damage over a lifetime of exposure. The younger eye typically has a keen ability to accommodate and focus on close objects as the natural lens of the eye is smaller and clearer. However, the accompanying blue light is more easily transmitted to the retina, potentially causing damage.” Blue light coming from the devices is also problematic as it can interrupt sleep patterns and there is “increasing evidence to support a link between blue light exposure and macular degeneration.” http://bit.ly/1LEVKRj
Rocketship schools in California disproportionately target and recruit large numbers of students of Latino/Hispanic background. These children are already at twice the risk of amblyopia and at three times higher risk of astigmatism and according to vision researchers, the least likely to have access to vision care. Visual health is absolutely critical for learning, and is specifically highlighted in a Columbia University Equity Matters research review of health related factors at the root of the “achievement [opportunity] gap.”
Please do not allow another campus that would place children already at amplified risk of vision challenges to be mandated with extended screen time at an age prior to the full development of their visual skills. There is no evidence documenting the safety of such practices with the current technology in use and a great deal of research documenting the likely harm.
The Mt. Diablo and Contra Costa County School boards have clearly documented the failure of the petition to meet basic criteria for approval. I echo their concerns about an unsound educational model and urge you to uphold the thorough and unanimous denial decisions made by the district and county school boards.”
The following is the Community Letter to Preston Smith requesting that Rocketship not appeal to the State (also forwarded to the State Board)
December 11, 2015
Dear Mr. Smith:
Rocketship’s recent attempt to open a school in central Contra Costa County was met with strong resistance from the local education community. After extensive review, the Governing Board of the Mt. Diablo Unified School District rejected Rocketship’s petition, citing numerous program deficiencies and parents’ lack of access to a governing board which holds its meetings in Santa Clara County, more than sixty miles from the proposed school location in the Monument community.
Rocketship’s appeal to the Contra Costa County Board of Education generated an even more exhaustive review, which included County Board members visiting a Rocketship school site in Santa Clara, as well as visits to the MDUSD public schools which would be impacted, should Rocketship’s petition be approved at the County level.
At two County Board of Education Board meetings, Board members heard testimony from parents, teachers, students, and representatives from community organizations who spoke in support of the great work being done with students in public schools in the Monument Community. These testimonials further highlighted deficiencies in Rocketship’s education model including the following:
- An overreliance on non-certificated staff
- A lack of programmatic and staff resources to serve the needs of ELL students
- No access to a local governing board for parents to address concerns
These deficiencies became even more glaring when contrasted with the expressly tailored programs and supports MDUSD schools provide to meet the needs of English Language Learners and their families.
Despite Rocketship’s assertion that area public schools are failing, the most recent analysis of test scores for Rocketship schools shows that their students’ performance on standardized tests is barely comparable to traditional public schools.
Parents, teachers and organizations in the Monument education community understand that the education students receive in area schools cannot be gauged solely by their scores on standardized tests. Our public schools celebrate the culture and traditions of the vast majority of families that comprise the Monument community and honor their native language by providing appropriate levels of bi-lingual instruction, as students make the transition to English language proficiency.
While Rocketship has stated their charter application was the result of a parent mandate, many parents have stated publicly that petitioners misled them and took advantage of their limited English proficiency in obtaining signatures on the authorizing petition. To be clear, there is no parent mandate to establish a Rocketship school in the Monument community.
Governor Brown, in signing the historic Local Control Funding Formula, stated that the new funding model was needed because “…it costs more to educate children of poverty.” Allowing Rocketship to open in the Monument community would drain critical resources from area schools, and put money and decision-making into the hands of an organization more than sixty miles away from our community.
The rejection of the Mt. Diablo Rocketship School is a response to the community’s mandate that our public schools provide a well-rounded education that is locally controlled and specific to our students’ needs. Maintaining local control of our schools assures that the winning formula of tailored support MDUSD provides to disadvantaged students and their families will allow the great work being done in area public schools to continue.
We, the undersigned, request that Rocketship Education respect our community’s wishes and not appeal your petition to the State Board of Education. After having listened carefully to what Rocketship has to offer, we have found your educational program does not fit our community’s needs.
Supporters of the Monument Education Community
cc: Rocketship Education Board of Directors
California State Board of Education
Finally, the following is an online petition led by the Mt. Diablo community further recommending denial of the Rocketship appeal.
“The California State Board of Education is poised to approve an application from Rocketship Charter Schools to start an elementary school in a socioeconomically disadvantaged area of Mt. Diablo Unified School District, an East Bay suburb in the San Francisco Bay area. Their flawed petition has been rejected by both the Mt. Diablo Unified School District Board and the County Board of Education. Rocketship’s education model prescribes crippling amounts of homework, students spending 90 plus minutes a day in front of computers without a credentialed teacher present and uses student test scores in math and English to gauge students’ success, severely limiting access to the broader grade level curriculum. Rocketship schools post students’ test scores on classroom walls to humiliate those students who don’t reach established goals and incorporate other emotionally punitive strategies which public schools abandoned in the 1960’s. Instead of providing bi-lingual instruction to English language learners, Rocketship schools only provide English language instruction, limiting immigrant students’ access to the curriculum and dismissing the rich cultural heritage from which these students come.”
Following the publication of this initial post, I received the following letter from a former Rocketship teacher and Individualized Learning Specialist who worked for two years at a Rocketship campus in San Jose.
For research on screen time and related concerns:
To view the recorded testimonies at the March 10th, 2016 State Board Meeting (Item 26):
and an Alternet article written following the decision:
For a collection of over 100+ articles on corporate charter proliferation:
Charter Schools & “Choice”: A Closer Look: http://bit.ly/chart_look
For the Rocketship-related subset within the collection, see:
Roxana Marachi is an Associate Professor of Education at San José State University. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of the Lurie College of Education or San José State University.