CDE recommending denial of Rocketship charters in SF & OAK

The California Department of Education is recommending denial of a successful charter organization's appeals to open new schools in Oakland and San Francisco.

A third school plan from Rocketship Education to open a charter in East Palo Alto is being finalized for future presentation to the state's Advisory Commission on Charter Schools, which makes recommendations on charter issues to the California State Board of Education.

The Advisory Commission on Wednesday is scheduled to take up Rocketship's petitions for new K-3 schools - one in San Francisco and one in Oakland. Both were denied by the local district boards in those cities earlier this year.

Rocketship Education, a Palo Alto-based charter management organization, has gained widespread attention for dramatically improving test scores at its schools, which cater to low-income, minority students.

Rocketship operates five San Jose charter elementary schools serving some 2,400 students, of whom 90 percent are low-income and 75 percent are English language learners.

Despite opening its first school in 2007, Rocketship now boasts some of the highest elementary test scores in the state and is poised for explosive campus growth with plans to open as many as 20 schools in Santa Clara County and more across the nation.

Slowing it down, however, is rejection by some local school districts, which have authority to approve - or deny - proposed charter schools within their boundaries.

If denied, a charter school may appeal to the state board, which has traditionally been more accepting of charter school applications than some local districts.

However, CDE staff is recommending that the Advisory Commission deny Rocketship's Oakland and San Francisco proposals because the charter management organization failed to provide sufficient detail to determine whether the budget is fiscally sound."

Evan Kohn, senior policy manager for Rocketship, said the company remains undaunted in its efforts to bring quality education to some of the Bay Area's poorest neighborhoods.

"Thousands of families in West Oakland and the southeast corridor of San Francisco are looking for high-quality public school options, and we look forward to serving them," said Kohn. "We're not going to give up on them."

Although Rocketship submitted 377-page petitions outlining its plans for operating the new K-3 schools, CDE staff noted several findings that left questions about how the new schools would be financed:

  • The relationship between Rocketship Education and the charter school and whether the [charter management organization] would cover debts or liabilities in the event of school closure is not sufficiently described in the petition.

  • Details are unclear regarding local revenue in each year. Grant award letters addressed to Rocketship Education from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (Hastings/Quillen Fund) and the Charter School Growth Fund were provided as evidence of local grant funding, however, no details regarding the use of funds for individual school sites was included.

  • Debt service payments for two loans (i.e., financing cash flow) do not appear to be included. The first is identified in the budget narrative as a $250,000 start-up loan in Year 1 from Rocketship Education; details are not provided for the second financing source of $100,000 in Year 2.

  • No detail is provided regarding the management fee totaling 15 percent of the school's revenues. It is unclear what services are provided for this fee, therefore, it cannot be determined whether additional funds need to be budgeted for other purposes such as back office or administrative services.

Kohnnoted that Rocketship looks forward to addressing the concerns raised by CDE in its staff report, and to "partnering with the state to continue to close the achievement gap in those neighborhoods."

Rocketship has faced both success and adversity in its dealings with local school districts and county boards of education.

Just this month, the charter group won approval from the Santa Clara County Board of Education to open three more elementary schools in the San Jose area.

Earlier this year, however, Rocketship lost a lengthy battle with the East Palo Alto Unified School District and San Mateo County Board of Education, which denied its petition to open a new school there.

Rocketship has appealed that decision to the state as well, said Bonnie Galloway, an education administrator in CDE's Charter Schools division. That appeal will likely come before the board sometime early next year, Galloway said.

Rocketship's academic approach combines traditional classroom learning with individualized, online instruction.

Students spend a quarter of their day in Learning Lab, where they are one-on-one on computers using adaptive, educational programs to master reading and math skills, as well as in tutor-led small groups.

This approach has led to impressive academic gains. Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary earned an Academic Performance Index (API) score of 925, the same as neighboring Palo Alto School District. Si Se Puede Academy earned an API score of 886. The schools placed fifth and 15th, respectively, for all California schools with similar low-income populations.