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New Study Finds Rocketship Graduates are a Year Ahead of Their Peers

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by Preston Smith
Co-Founder and CEO

When we launched Rocketship ten years ago, we decided to focus exclusively on elementary school. We believed that if we helped our Rocketeers build a solid foundation in those early years, they would thrive in middle school, high school and beyond.

But those tween years are tough. Navigating new social codes can wreak havoc on a student’s self-esteem. And learning how to manage a radical shift in academic independence takes time to develop. There’s no doubt that middle school is one of the most challenging transitions in a student’s academic journey.

So we decided it was time to examine how our Rocketeer alumni perform in middle school. We engaged SRI International, an independent nonprofit research center, to conduct a three-year study on the performance of our Rocketeers in middle school.  This study followed nearly 2,000 students in seven San Jose middle schools with high concentrations of Rocketship graduates. SRI rigorously compared academic performance, socio-emotional skills, and student confidence navigating the middle school transition between Rocketeer alumni and their peers in middle school.

The results are in. Rocketeers are a year ahead of their classmates in math and reading after the first and second years of middle school.

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After controlling for demographic differences and other key variables, SRI found that Rocketship alumni outperformed their classmates on NWEA MAP, a nationally norm referenced assessment, by approximately one year of academic growth in both math and reading. This independent evidence from a world-renowned research institute is a powerful validation of our pioneering personalized learning model. Our incredibly dedicated teachers, deeply engaged parents and purposeful approach to technology are delivering significant gains for our Rocketeers that extend into middle school. By focusing exclusively on elementary education we are giving students in disadvantaged communities a strong start to their academic journey that will carry them far in school and life.

Over 80% of Rocketeers reported high levels of self-efficacy, motivation and grit.

Of course, test scores are only one indicator of future success. That is why we embed our core core values, socio-emotional curriculum, and positive behavior interventions and supports throughout our Rocketeers’ learning experience. And while these skills are harder to measure, they still matter tremendously, especially for the student population we serve. SRI used a combination of research methods to dig deep into this tricky question and concluded that our Rocketeers now in middle school have a solid foundation of the character skills and values they need to thrive.

Rocketeers are more likely than their peers to attribute their preparedness for middle school to their elementary school experience.

The transition from elementary to middle school is challenging. Studies show that this period is period is often associated with increased stress and decreased academic performance and motivation. Successfully navigating this transition is critical to the long-term success of our Rocketeers. By helping families understand their middle school options and preparing our students with the study and social skills they need to thrive, our Rocketeers are navigating this big step with confidence. The vast majority of Rocketeers attribute their preparedness for middle school to their elementary experience on every factor SRI examined, including: preparing them to work hard (91%), learn new things (90%), work in groups (89%), study for tests (85%), keep track of assignments (88%), and learn independently (77%).

Parent power.

We believe that by engaging parents early in their child’s education we can help them become lifelong education advocates for their kids and their communities. Parents like Magali Rivera, whose Rocketeer is now a seventh grader at Downtown College Prep in San Jose, showcase the power of our engaged parents.

When Magali’s son joined Rocketship Discovery Prep in second grade, he was two grades behind. “Within the first quarter, I witnessed a noted improvement in his reading skills but also in his confidence level,” Magali says. “The staff and educators at Rocketship understood his needs and went above and beyond to build a personalized support system around him. As my son entered middle school, I sent him with complete confidence in his ability to keep up with his peers. I am so proud of how he is excelling in middle school.”

Magali is a vital support to her son’s personalized learning system. It is only by teachers, parents, and students partnering closely together that we can truly achieve our goal to meet the unique learning needs of every student we serve. And once a parent like Magali is deeply engaged in her child’s learning, that expectation for excellence is hard to extinguish.

As the SRI study shows, our alumni are on a promising path. Even adolescence can’t crack the solid foundation our Rocketeers’ establish during their formative learning years.

About the study
Researchers from SRI Education, a division of SRI International, used a mixed-methods design; analyzing student-level assessment data, conducting parent and student focus groups, and administering an online student survey. The study population included Rocketship alumni enrolled in one of seven participating charter middle schools in the San Jose area between the 2012–13 and 2015–16 school years, totaling 625 students. The comparison group of non-Rocketship peers was made up of students who did not attend any Rocketship elementary school and who attended the participating charter middle schools in the same grade level and in the same academic years as the Rocketship alumni in the study, totaling 1,294 students.The research team compared these two groups’ student achievement data, controlling for differences in students’ demographic characteristics using propensity score weighting and multiple linear regression. To compare socio-emotional outcomes, academic aspirations and satisfaction levels, the team analyzed differences in the two groups’ survey responses and further contextualized Rocketship alumni’s survey findings with focus group data.

Read the full report: Evaluation of Rocketship Students’ Middle School Outcomes.


Preston co-founded Rocketship Education in San Jose in 2006. Prior to founding Rocketship, Preston was founder and Principal of L.U.C.H.A. Elementary School, part of the Alum Rock Unified School District in San Jose, CA. After its first three years of operation, L.U.C.H.A. was the fourth highest performing low-income elementary school in California. Preston began his career in education as a Teach for America (TFA) Corps member at Clyde Arbuckle Elementary School (CA). In 2003, Preston was named “Teacher of the Year” at Arbuckle and was also nominated as one of six finalists for TFA’s Sue Lehmann award, given to TFA corps members with the highest classroom academic gains in the nation. Preston is also an Aspen New Schools Fellow.

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