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The Accidental Educator

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.

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.

Personalized learning

Across the country, the need to bridge the gap between low-income and affluent students is enormous. The Nation’s Report Card, an annual assessment from the U.S. Department of Education, consistently indicates three of four low-income students fall behind grade level by fourth grade, jeopardizing their future educational and economic outlook.

Rocketship launched in 2006 on a mission to attack this societal deficiency with an innovative educational philosophy that rests on three pillars: personalized learning, teaching excellence and parent engagement.

Employing a structured blend of classroom instruction, small-group interaction and individual online tutorials, Rocketship aims to maximize the time students — known as Rocketeers — spend at their optimal learning level.

Assessments show that the Rocketship formula supports the accelerated learning needed to close the academic gap between Rocketeers and their counterparts at schools in more affluent communities.

In 2015-16, Rocketship’s 10 California schools ranked in the top 10 percent statewide in math and reading among elementary districts serving similar student populations. Another recent study indicates that Rocketship’s exclusive emphasis on elementary education — designed to give students a solid foundation — is paying off. Former Rocketeers surveyed in middle school scored a year ahead of their classmates in math and reading.Rocketship’s success in California, two schools in Nashville and one each in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., has drawn national attention, prompting a visit by former Secretary of Education John King and inspiring a book — On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools Are Pushing the Envelope by journalist Richard Whitmire.

In a time of controversy over the merits of education options, including charters and vouchers, Whitmire says it’s important to keep in mind that not all charter schools are created equal.

“There are 6,700 [U.S.] charter schools out there,” he said, “some really good ones, a lot of mediocre ones and a few hundred that should be closed.” Whitmire defines the top tier as schools producing a year and a half of learning for every year spent in school. Rocketship is in it.

“This stuff is really not easy. You’re taking kids struggling in their neighborhood school and trying to turn that around. If it were easy, districts would be doing it.”

He gives Rocketship especially high marks for pioneering the field of personalized learning and innovating ways to prioritize teacher quality and job satisfaction despite budget limitations.

Rocketship’s distinctive footprint in the educational landscape “has a lot to do with Preston and his background of social change theory,” Whitmire said. “He’s in it for the social justice.”

‘People not like me’

Preston Smith never planned a career in education reform. It just sort of happened. When he came to Carolina, looking for a not-too-cold change of scenery from Southern California, Smith channeled his high school frustrations into his studies.

“I was really angry when I went to Chapel Hill; I was driven to be successful,” he said. “And I think that helped focus me.”

Realizing that his inner-city school had not adequately prepared him for the rigors of college, Smith found tutors, spent a lot of time in the Reading and Writing Center, and ended up with straight A’s his first semester. He won a seat in Student Congress and set his sights on law school.

A semester in Brazil shifted his trajectory. “I went to the study abroad center, and they said, ‘Oh, you’re taking Portuguese, so how about Brazil?’ ” Smith recalled. “And it was on the beach, and I was like, ‘Oh, I am so going.’ I didn’t even know it was a social-justice program.”

As it turned out, the focus on activism and the camaraderie with other students intent on changing the world resonated with Smith at a deep level. What if everything he’d seen and experienced in Rialto could be different?

“Brazil changed me and my perspective,” he said. It also introduced him to his wife, Liz, a classmate in the program.

Back at Chapel Hill, Smith switched his major to Latin American studies and signed up with Teach For America at a senior year career fair. After graduating with honors (and sans drama), he set out with Liz to make an impact.

Teach For America sent him to East San Jose, a community plagued by many of the same challenges as Rialto. It felt like home. Smith had grown up dodging robberies, carjackings and drive-by shootings.

Remembering how few of his high school friends had gone to college and how many ended up involved with drugs and gangs motivated Smith to fight for his San Jose students. He wanted more for them, for their families, for their community.

“Growing up in Rialto, I had a lot of experience with people not like me. You learn to appreciate a community like that. Others are scared of it and have these stereotypes, and I understand: ‘No, I know that community. I’m from it, and I know there are incredible people there.’ ”

Smith also had learned in high school how low-income, underserved and under-performing neighborhoods like his were marginalized by prestigious colleges and universities. Despite his stellar grades and school leadership record, his application to UCLA, just down the freeway from Rialto, had been denied.

When he contacted the admissions office to ask why, he says he was told: “We know your school. We know your grades are inflated. We take athletes, not scholars, from your campus.”

The realization that college admissions could depend on attending the “right” school in the “right” neighborhood hit Smith hard and left a mark.

In San Jose, he tried everything he could think of to level the playing field for his students, to give them a chance at success in school, in college, in life.

He customized lessons, devised innovative classroom incentives and worked to engage parents. “I did a lot of family stuff. I did home visits when nobody did home visits.”Within two years, Smith had forged deep relationships with families across the community, and his students’ achievement scores had skyrocketed, earning him the school’s Teacher of the Year Award.

The mustang busts out

Smith was 24 when an appreciative and ambitious group of parents decided to open a charter school and hire him as principal.

“I told them to go find a grown-up,” he said. The parents persisted, and Smith finally relented.

They called the campus LUCHA, meaning “struggle” in Spanish, an apt description of Smith’s unexpected transition from fledgling teacher to rookie principal. Once again, as in high school, he found himself bucking the establishment.

“I got my butt kicked that first year. I didn’t know how to manage adults, and I didn’t understand district politics. In my first meeting with the superintendent, he says, ‘I’ve heard you’re a mustang. Sit down.’ And he takes his finger and draws a rectangle on his desk and says, ‘Do you know what that is? That’s a corral, and you’re going to get in it.’ ”

Smith played along while continuing to apply his innovative ideas to the new school. LUCHA offered him a laboratory to enhance and test the accelerated-learning techniques that had worked for his Teach For America students, a chance to prove that, with the right environment and resources, any kid can succeed.

Smith credits his eventual success to persistence, willingness to learn from his failures and much-appreciated mentoring from a compassionate senior colleague. (He later also completed a master’s in educational leadership at San Jose State University.)

The recipe for accelerated achievement was coming together — individualized, blended learning; parent engagement; and generous professional development leading to teaching excellence. After three years, LUCHA’s student achievement scores ranked fourth in the state for low-income students.

Meanwhile, the community organizing group behind LUCHA had introduced Smith to John Danner, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur eager to invest in a disruptive approach to education.

The two men set out to reinvent elementary education in a way that worked for children left behind by traditional schools. Combining their ideas with other proven best practices, they came up with an educational approach designed to accelerate learning and bring every child to grade level in a hurry. They named their startup Rocketship Education.

When Danner left in 2013 to pursue other ventures, Smith took over as Rocketship president and CEO, assuming responsibility for a nationwide network that now comprises 16 schools serving 8,000 students, including Preston and Liz Smith’s two children, Zeke and Phoenix.

The charter network’s meteoric rise and unconventional curriculum have drawn critics. They charge that Rocketship drains resources from established schools; that it cherry-picks data to inflate results; and that its curriculum is overly rigid, forcing children to spend too much time tied to computers or drilling in core areas — reading, writing and math — with little time left for other subjects, activities and play.

While some Rocketship schools have launched in response to requests from parent groups, one cluster of opponents successfully sued a board of education to prevent construction of a proposed Rocketship campus.

Smith is unfazed by such opposition.

“It’s similar to the situation I faced in high school,” he said. “The fight to disrupt the educational system is political. There are massive vested interests at stake. I learned early that when you fight injustice, you’re very much alone, and you’ve got to get used to the loneliness. Frankly, because of my experiences in Rialto, in the work I do now, I’m ready to be not liked.”

It’s hard to find evidence of the critics’ charges at Rising Stars Academy, Rocketship’s 10th and newest Bay Area school. It’s a cheerful, spotless campus in South San Jose shaded by centuries-old redwoods and festooned with college banners, constant reminders of great expectations. A Tar Heel flag hangs front and center over the main courtyard, a touchstone not only for Smith but for three fellow alumni closely tied to this campus: Gant Bowman ’08, project manager for design and construction; Harrison Tucker ’08, who oversees Rocketship’s new school development; and Omar Currie ’13, assistant principal, an N.C. Teaching Fellow at Carolina recruited by Rocketship.

In the main hallway, a line of fresh-faced kindergarteners files to class after lunch. They’re all wearing Rocketship’s signature green or purple T-shirts. At the door, their teacher welcomes them one by one with a warm greeting and a grown-up handshake. The practice, called “threshold,” aims to create a mental transition back to the classroom while reinforcing manners and eye contact.

“It’s not just about achieving,” Smith explained. “It’s about making awesome little citizens.”

In the next building, a roomful of second-graders works intently on their humanities lesson, a blend of language arts and social studies. Some fill in worksheets; some interact with individualized tutorials on notebook computers; and some cluster around their young teacher. They’ll spend half the day here and later rotate to other classrooms for math and science, tutoring and enrichment activities, including art and music.

Smith jumps right back into the classroom vibe, squatting among a group of students, asking about their lesson and rewarding them for their answers with high fives. The teacher interrupts the class to call attention to a particular student’s exemplary display of persistence, one of Rocketship’s key values.

“He’s been so consistent all day since he walked into the classroom this morning. He’s been trying and trying, and he’s never given up,” she says. “Do you think he deserves the persistence pin?”

The class responds in practiced unison: “Absolutely!” and the little boy breaks into a shy smile.

The second decade

That’s the kind of classroom experience Maritza Leal and her husband, Enrique Esparza, wanted for their children, too. But their neighborhood school in Redwood City, about halfway between San Francisco and San Jose, just wasn’t delivering.

“When my older daughter was in second grade, her teachers were telling us everything was fine, but she was barely reading,” Leal said. “We knew we had to find a better school.”

Their search led to a Rocketship campus in San Jose, 25 traffic-choked miles away. For the next two years, they made the trip twice a day, 100 miles in all. When their daughter started catching up to grade level, they knew their sacrifice was paying off.

Sharing their excitement with friends and fellow parents prompted a big idea: Why not organize support for a Rocketship school in Redwood City?

Leal and Esparza knocked on doors, spoke in churches and eventually mustered a crowd of 400-plus parents who presented their request at a special forum staged for city council and school board members in addition to Rocketship administrators. Rocketship, which at the time had no plans to expand in the Bay Area beyond San Jose, changed course. Redwood City Prep opened in fall 2015.

Their advocacy embodies the Rocketeer Creed children recite every morning at every Rocketship campus, a pledge by students and staff alike to be leaders at home, at school and in their communities.

Preston Smith admits his own leadership transition to CEO of Rocketship forced another quantum leap in his career. “It’s been a lot of learning,” he said. “I’ve tried to be calm and humble and own where I still need to grow and surround myself with amazing people.”

“I give Preston a lot of credit for what he went through when Danner left; it was rough times,” said Richard Whitmire, who in his book documented a period of resistance to the network’s explosive early growth and dramatic classroom changes. “There are limits to how fast you can go, and they certainly met those limits. But Preston and Rocketship figured it out.”

Today, as Smith leads Rocketship into its second decade, he’s proud to see the first children to attend the network’s first school now poised to graduate from high school. And he’s stoked that Rocketship’s disruptive approach to elementary education, including whole-family involvement, is transforming not just schools but entire communities.

“I think our school in D.C. is the best example of that. It’s the first new building in 30 years in that neighborhood, so it brings something to the community they can be proud of, something they helped build and name.”

Jacque Patterson, regional director of Rocketship Education D.C., is a 21-year resident of D.C.’s Ward 8, now home to Rocketship’s Rise Academy. Patterson and his neighbors had seen a lot of promises made and broken by politicians and would-be do-gooders. “They just leave and don’t ever deliver,” he said.

But when he sat down with Smith to talk about the possibilities of revitalizing “the toughest part of the toughest ward” in D.C. through education reform and parent advocacy, Patterson knew he’d met a different kind of social activist.

“I could feel his honesty and his love for what he was doing,” Patterson said. “He’s really dedicated to helping students and families, and I wanted to be part of that.”

Patterson headed the community organizing efforts that paved the way for the Rocketship Rise Academy, which opened last September. Already, he said, it’s become a powerful symbol of hope and nexus of change for D.C.’s most crime-ridden community.

“We have not had one incident in this first year, and every single crime indicator has gone down.”

Someday, as Rocketship expands, maybe a similar transformation will come to Rialto. “I can’t wait to get back to my home district,” Smith said.

And while it may seem surprising that a kid who got kicked out of his own high school graduation has morphed into a national leader in education reform, no one should doubt Smith’s ongoing commitment to upend educational systems that prevent capable students from realizing their potential.

“What I know about me is this. I’m a pretty dangerous person to put in your organization, because pretty soon I’m going to find some injustice and disrupt it.”

Sandra Millers Younger ’75 is a speaker, author and resilience coach based in Lakeside, Calif.

Published on March 21, 2017