The Accidental Educator

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Preston Smith, Rocketship Co-founder and CEO, won the 2016 University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Distinguished Alumni Award. This led to a feature in the University of North Carolina Alumni Review’s spring issue.

 by Sandra Millers Younger ’75

Back when Preston Smith ’01 was in high school, it wasn’t hard to pick him out of the crowd. He was the one in orange. Orange every day. Shirts, jerseys and jackets. Each one as orange as the fruit that grew in the orchards surrounding Rialto, Calif., a once prosperous middle-class community that was gutted by white flight shortly after Smith’s parents settled there to raise a family.

His penchant for orange made a great campaign gimmick, a distinguishing mark that may have helped him win the race for student body president despite his minority status as a Caucasian kid in a tough inner-city school. Then it became a thing. Preston’s thing. As if he needed to stand out more than he already did.

But Smith’s status as a campus leader didn’t protect him from political backlash when he uncovered a school scandal — a college counselor was playing favorites, stacking the competition for major scholarships.

Smith told the administration and then the media. No one believed him. Faculty members sided with their colleague and turned a cold shoulder toward the kid who’d made the accusations — even after lopsided awards-night results proved him right.

“It was a really lonely year,” Smith said. “Most of my friends had graduated the year before, and none of the teachers would talk to me.”

At graduation, after leading the Pledge of Allegiance, Smith made a farewell statement. He unzipped his standard-issue green graduation gown to reveal a second robe underneath — this one bright orange.

Pomp and circumstance gave way to pandemonium as two angry teachers jumped up and escorted their rebellious student body president off the stage and out of the ceremony. But it was too late. Smith had left his mark.

“A bunch of stuff happened after I graduated,” he said, and the scholarships started getting distributed evenly again.

Preston Smith has been fighting injustice and disrupting the status quo in education ever since. As co-founder, president and CEO of Rocketship Education, a nonprofit network of charter elementary schools based in San Jose, he has turned his restless energy toward the achievement gap — the educational disparity that handicaps students from low-income communities, often for life.

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Empowering Our Girls to Share Their Truth

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by LaToya Fernandez
Social Justice and Culture Teacher, Rocketship Discovery Prep + Queen Hype Founder

“She goes to school. Feels uncertain about who she is. Tryin to hide behind the curtain so she lashes out. Out of fear of bein’ known, inside and out.”

“Jagged” by Queen Hype from SJ Digital Arts on Vimeo.

These words come from our Rocketeers’ work in Queenhype’s award-winning short film “Jagged.” The girls who wrote, directed, and starred in this movie are only 6-12 years old. Yet they used their voices and their art to show the struggle of a young girl, in school and in her community; to be okay with who she is. The girl eventually embraces who she is, inside and out, with the help of her other ‘queens.’ Queenhype partnered with San Jose Digital Arts to write and shoot this first short film to bring awareness to mental illness and violence in socio- economically disadvantaged communities.

QueenHype is an empowerment club that acts as a safe space for girls to confront their insecurities and move forward from them by establishing a strong sense of self-love and purpose. The skills we’re developing in QueenHype are improving not only their personal lives, but also their academic success, putting them on the path to tackle college and their careers with courage. QueenHype inspires our female Rocketeer students to find their voice, their confidence, and their reason to make their mark in history.

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Poetry, Performance & Pride: Teaching Black History to Elementary Students

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by Beyond Editorial Staff

During Black History Month we have the opportunity to engage our young Rocketeers in important conversations around race, civil rights, social justice, and American history. Our Rocketeers live all over the country. They come from varied backgrounds, speak different languages, and have unique experiences. It is our job to instill in our Rocketeers the knowledge, confidence, and language necessary to talk about and appreciate difference. Black History Month is an opportunity to inspire students to dream big and become the leaders, change makers, and champions they encounter in the powerful figures and accomplishments of the Black community in this country. 

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Gratitude is a Choice We Make Every Day

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by Tatum Schultz
Third Grade STEM Teacher, Rocketship United Academy

Every language in the world has a way of saying “thank you.” Gratitude is an inherent quality that resides deep within each one of us. It is triggered by different events and crosses the boundaries of race, age, and gender. Gratitude comes from the heart. It is an acknowledgment of the positive things that we feel in our soul. When we give gratitude, we give a gift freely and unearned.img_9471

At Rocketship United Academy, our leaders, teachers, and support staff are dedicated to sharing gratitude. Within our halls a positive culture thrives. Respect, responsibility, empathy, and persistence are our core values we believe in. We build on our core values and allow our Rocketeers to grow in a community that shares a desire to exceed expectations.

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Tet Festival in Pictures: Celebrating Culture & Community

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by BEYOND Editorial Team

At Rocketship we know we cannot achieve our mission of closing the achievement gap in isolation. We are a collective movement made up of many different identities. A diverse group of teachers, families, and staff united by a common belief that all children deserve a quality education. We believe in creating supportive environments where we celebrate the rich tapestry of social identities that make up our greater Rocketeer community. That means we encourage all of our Rocketeers to learn about each other’s cultural traditions to strengthen the bonds that will help us all unite together to rethink education.

This month, we have the opportunity to celebrate both Black History Month, as well as the Tet Festival, the Vietnamese version of the Lunar New Year. Vietnamese people around the world consider Tet to be one of the most important celebrations of the year, and we were honored to share this important time with our Rocketship community. Several of our schools welcomed the year of the rooster in with special events. The Rocketship Mosaic Vietnamese Parent Association (RMVPA) hosted a large event at Mosaic Elementary that showcased student performances and even a surprise visit from San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and District 7 Councilman Tam Nguyen.

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Keeping Kids in Class

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by Beyond Editorial Staff

Central to our mission is the belief that all students can achieve, both academically and through upholding our core values as respectful citizens. This belief is put into practice every day in Rocketship classrooms. Some of the most obvious ways in which this is implemented is through our very low suspension rate and our special education inclusion model. We put incredible time and effort into bringing all students into the classroom and supporting them to thrive there.

Rocketship Has Never Expelled a Student

We don’t kick kids out of school. That has been our stance since we opened our first school ten years ago. And while we have grown from a single school serving a couple hundred kids in a church basement to a national network serving nearly 8,000 Rocketeers, we have still never expelled a student at any school in any year.

Rocketship’s Network Suspension Rate Was 2.6% in the 2015-2016 School Year Continue reading

They Can Take Away Our Garden But They Can’t Take Away Our Unity

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by Marie Issa Gil
Bay Area Regional Director
“Our children feel like second class citizens.” This feeling comes from Rocketship Futuro Academy parent Sasha Hickman, Principal Jason Colon, and a host of other Futuro community members. Why? Because the local school district has routinely targeted the school, students, and families with discriminatory language and action.

The first Rocketship school in the East Bay, Rocketship Futuro Academy has only been open a few months and already our parents have created a community of pride around their school. Rocketship Futuro Academy is co-located on the Ayers Elementary campus in Concord. Made up of six portables, the Futuro campus houses Rocketeers from kindergarten to second grade. ‘Purpose’ is the school’s fifth core value, as chosen by the Futuro parents and community supporters.

Rocketship Schools Named Top Bay Area Public Schools for Underserved Students

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by Beyond Editorial Staff
The accolades keep rolling in for our Rocketeers! In the fall, Innovate Public Schools released their 2016 report titled “Top Bay Area Public Schools for Underserved Students.” Their findings show that for the third year in a row, the majority of Rocketship schools made their lists for top schools closing the achievement gap. Six Rocketship schools in San Jose made at least one list of top schools getting results for low-income Latino or African-American students. In math results for low-income Latino students, six Rocketship schools made the list of the top 18 schools, the most of any district or charter management organization. We are so proud of our Rocketeers who are beating the odds and getting on the path to college and career. This report is just one of many testaments to the results our Rocketeers achieve through their hard work and dedication.
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2015-2016 Rocketship Year in Review

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by Beyond Editorial Team

In the 2015-16 school year, 90% of our Rocketeers returned to our schools. We are humbled by this remarkable vote of confidence and work relentlessly to deliver on the promise our families see in our schools every single day. But what is it about Rocketship that drives this remarkable loyalty? Find out in our 2015-16 Year in Review.

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They Deserve a Dream: A Reflection

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by Dr. Bianca Jones
Principal, Rocketship Nashville Northeast Elementary 
Editor’s Note: Dr. Jones originally wrote this piece as part of Rocketship’s weekly Thursday Reflection, in which selected staff reflect on their practice and current topics and share with the larger Rocketship staff. All names were changed to protect confidentiality. We’re reprinting these inspirational words in celebration of Black History Month.

The Power of Choice: Fourth Annual Middle School Expo

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by Michael Yeung
Fifth Grade teacher at Rocketship Fuerza

At Rocketship, we focus on rethinking elementary school because we believe a solid foundation in the early years is critical to success in the future. As we start this new year, many of our families are beginning to think about the next steps in their Rocketeer’s education. Middle school is a critical time, with challenges ranging from the academic to the social and emotional arising as students navigate this change. It is a time of great transition and often where the achievement gap between students widens. We are committed to helping our families navigate through this transition equipped to make the right choices for their children. Continue reading

U.S. Secretary of Education Visits Rocketship

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by Preston Smith
Co-Founder and CEO31007203240_431e252d8f_o
 As I opened the door to welcome the United States Secretary of Education, John B. King, Jr., to Rocketship Rising Stars Academy, he turned to me and said “I’ve wanted to visit Rocketship for a very long time.”

Appointed by President Obama, Secretary King is an inspiring and proven leader in our movement to close the achievement gap. He began his career as a high school teacher and went on to co-found Roxbury Preparatory Charter School which became one of the highest-performing urban middle schools in Massachusetts, closing the racial achievement gap, and outperforming schools in Boston’s affluent suburbs. Roxbury Prep later joined Uncommon Schools, where Secretary King served as managing director before becoming Commissioner of Education for the State of New York.

Secretary King knows what it takes to run a high-performing public school network in underserved communities. As we walked the halls of Rising Stars he told me he’s heard great things about Rocketship but wanted to see for himself what is driving our impressive performance.