After spending the better part of the past decade teaching and working in charter schools in Washington D.C. and California, I thought I had it pretty well figured out. Then, while I was searching for a new public school leadership opportunity in 2014, I met four parents who – quite frankly – changed the course of my life and what I thought was possible in education.
I met these parents while interviewing for a position as the founding assistant principal at Rocketship Fuerza Community Prep in San Jose. I remember them like it was yesterday: a parent panel of four who, in my mind, towered over me despite averaging about 5 feet 2 inches tall. Two were monolingual Spanish speakers and the others served as translators. I sat down in my chair, facing the four of them, with no table between us, and they started grilling me. The standard they held me to was inspiring but also made me a little nervous. Could I measure up? Were my answers good enough? Was I saying the right thing?
While I was uncertain what these parents thought of me, I was completely convinced that Rocketship was where I needed to be. Not a single other school I interviewed with brought parents into the selection process. And the questions and expectations that these Rocketship parents held me to clearly showed that they are deeply invested in their school community. This wasn’t a casual chat.
Now in my role as a school leader at Rocketship, I am still inspired by the depth of commitment and passion for excellent education that Rocketship families demonstrate every day. That interview day experience wasn’t a token touchpoint with parents. Our partnership with parents goes far deeper than the transactional relationship that is typical at most schools. Every single morning at launch, in every single classroom, and at every community meeting, I am reminded of that sensation I felt when I met those four parents at Fuerza. I see it when our parents return to school at 7:00 pm to pick up forgotten homework and when our teachers pick up phone calls past 8:00 pm to answer a parent’s question about the day’s lesson so they can reinforce it at home. Our parent engagement is powerful. Whether volunteering in the classroom, serving on our parent advisory committee or meeting with elected officials to demand educational equity, Rocketship parents are leaders at home, at school and in their community. This is exactly the kind of school culture I have been committed to building as the founding principal of Rocketship Rise Academy, which launched in August 2016 in our nation’s capital.
This powerful school culture of dedicated parents, teachers, and staff helped us both start and end our founding year in DC strong. Before we even opened our doors, our Ward 8 parents interviewed and helped select our founding teachers, as featured in the Washington Post. Having been through this process myself, I understand the power of this uncommon custom in creating a strong foundation for our school and an authentic connection between our teachers and parents. At the end of the 2016/17 school year, Rocketship Rise Academy was projected to place in the top tier on DC’s rigorous performance management framework (PMF). The PMF measures school performance on several indicators, including: school environment, student progress, college and career readiness, student achievement, and school mission. Earning the distinction of a projected Tier 1 school in our very first year serving students in DC is a tremendous achievement, and we are just getting started! In August 2017 we are launching our newest DC school, serving families in Ward 7. Our families named their school “Rocketship Legacy Prep”, which honors the strong legacy of the community we serve East of the River and is a promise to prepare the next generation to unleash the potential of this proud community.
Rocketship gets a lot of attention as one of the pioneers of personalized learning, but parent engagement is as core to our model as data-driven instruction. It is through parent engagement that we are able to truly deliver personalized instruction. Because nobody understands the unique needs of their student better than that student’s first teacher: their parent. Through our home visits, three parent conferences every year, morning coffees, monthly community meetings and community building events like family literacy night, our teachers and school leaders create a powerful bond with parents that translates into gap-closing academic growth for our Rocketeers.
In 2014, our dedicated team of teachers, leaders and parents transformed a vacant lot in San Jose into a school that is putting students on the path to college and a better life. We built a school that develops parents to become lifelong advocates for their children. And those parents are now transforming their community in San Jose. This is what we are bringing to wards 7 and 8 in DC. We are turned a vacant lot in Woodland Terrace into a pathway to college and a better life. Together, our team of teachers and leaders working hand-in-hand with parents will prove that zip codes do not define the destiny of our Rocketeers.
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Joshua Pacos is the founding principal of Rocketship Rise Academy in DC. Josh is a proven leader of teachers, students, parents and stakeholders of public education. He builds school cultures where students and staff are motivated to achieve excellence and parents are engaged as active partners in school leadership and their student’s success. Josh began his teaching career through Teach for America serving as a special education teacher and coordinator for a charter network in Ward 8 before joining Rocketship Fuerza as a founding school leader in 2014-15.
*This story was originally posted in June 2016, and has been updated.