U.S. Secretary of Education Visits Rocketship
by Preston Smith, Co-Founder and CEO, Rocketship Public Schools
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 is known as a pioneer in personalized learning, but most people think that just means using adaptive online learning programs. At Rocketship, it goes much deeper than that. As Secretary King observed, our approach to personalized learning is about reaching each Rocketeer with the right content at the right time using the right method of instruction.
To showcase our dynamic model in action, we brought Secretary King to a second grade humanities classroom. He watched Rocketeers rotate across five unique learning stations: teacher-led guided reading, two different independent practice centers which were leveled to our Rocketeers’ unique needs, adaptive online learning programs, and student-led literature circle discussions. Rising Stars Principal, Kylie Alsofrom, explained how our station rotations in both STEM and humanities classrooms are grounded in a core lesson that is designed to scaffold for students who need more remediation and extend for students who are moving at a faster pace. She described how station activities ensure that students are applying their understandings from their core lessons across multiple formats and contexts. As I watched Secretary King join a small group of Rocketeers involved in a literature circle and student-led discussion, I felt a deep sense of pride in our commitment to meet the unique learning needs of all students while also ensuring that our Rocketeers could guide their own learning and achievement.
Of course, our model is nothing without our exceptional teachers and leaders who relentlessly pursue excellence in their practice. Professional development is core to our work at Rocketship, so we stopped by a Common Planning Time (CPT) session with Secretary King. CPT is a daily block of time dedicated to professional development, data analysis, and lesson planning. Secretary King watched Assistant Principal Omar Currie lead a video reflection exercise with Rising Stars’ team of first grade teachers. Each teacher watched a video of him or herself teaching, reflect on their practice, and receive detailed and constructive feedback on how to improve from Mr. Currie and their grade-level colleagues. New teachers to Rocketship always tell us that before they joined our network, they had no idea how much professional development we provide all our teachers, regardless of their experience. From real-time coaching in the classroom to weekly video reflections to intensive professional development programming delivered throughout the school year, Secretary King saw firsthand why Rocketship is earning a reputation as the place where good teachers go to become great.
We concluded our tour with a parent discussion. The power of our partnership with parents is a core component to our ability to deliver personalized, gap-closing academic growth for our Rocketeers. Secretary King heard parents talk about the importance of our annual home visits. Every fall, our teachers visit the home of every student we serve to learn more about their family, life, and experiences outside of school. By changing the dynamic from parent in a teacher’s classroom, to teacher in a student’s home we are able to develop much deeper ties with our parents that carry through the school year and beyond. Secretary King also heard parents explain how much they value our open-door policy, where parents are welcome in our school and their Rocketeer’s classroom all day, everyday. As Rocketship parents deepen their engagement in our school community, many go on to become powerful leaders who advocate for better schools for their entire community.
In closing the discussion with Secretary King, he turned to second grader Katelyn and asked what one word best described what Rocketship means to her. Katelyn took a moment to thoughtfully consider the question. She turned, and with a matter-of-fact nod of the head answered, “excellent.”
As we walked out, Secretary King raved about the strength of our teacher and student culture. “I was blown away by your students’ deep engagement in their learning and discussion,” he told Principal Alsofrom.
While he drove away, I took a moment to reflect on how far we’ve come in our first ten years. From opening our first school in a church to a network serving over 8,000 Rocketeers across the country, Rocketship has grown from an innovative idea to rethink elementary education to a collective movement of educators, parents, and organizers united by a common mission.
A mission and a movement that Secretary King himself helped inspire.
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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.
Published on December 19, 2016