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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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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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

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.

Rocketship Encourages Creativity and Problem Solving with Hour of Code

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by LaToya Fernandez
Social Justice and Culture Teacher, Rocketship Discovery Prep

Rocketship is celebrating Computer Science Education Week (December 5-11) this month by hosting the global learning movement, Hour of Code, in our classrooms for a second year. Last year we noticed that our students went from video gamers to video game designers, and discovering algorithms was just as exciting as discovering cheat codes to defeat virtual opponents. Rocketship is continuously integrating enriching programs into our students’ learning to gain both exposure and opportunities for our communities. We are excited to host the event again this year, and want to continue to give our students the tools they need to take tech advancement to the next level and represent their communities at the forefront of the coding movement.

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Rising Stars Ribbon-Cutting : Celebrating our 10th San Jose School

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by Beyond Editorial Staff

On Friday September 30th, the Rocketship Bay Area community gathered at our newest San Jose school, Rocketship Rising Stars Academy. Located at 3167 Senter Road in South San Jose, Rising Stars is our 10th school in San Jose and one of 12 in the greater Bay Area.

The ribbon-cutting brought together Rocketship students, parents, teachers, national staff, board members, supporters, and community members to celebrate this new school and their focus on Rising Stars’ fifth core value of advocacy. Continue reading

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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En fotos: Rocketship celebra el Mes de la Herencia Hispana

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by BEYOND Editorial Team

¡El Mes de la Herencia Hispana se inició oficialmente el 15 de Septiembre, y nuestros “Rocketeers” han estado celebrando! Aquí en Rocketship rendimos tributo a la diversidad cultural durante todo el año, pero este mes nuestros estudiantes tuvieron la oportunidad de vestirse, divertirse, y reconocer algo de la gran historia, cultura, y tradición de la diversa cultural hispana.

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