Blasting Off

By 10/16/2009

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As surely as the sun rises in the east, defenders of America’s traditional schools recite the litany of demographic reasons for the racial gap in academic achievement.  Their mantra is an article of faith among many reporters, elected officials, and supposed academics.  When a new round of test scores confirms the persistence of the gap, demography is trotted out as an antidote to accountability.

Not everywhere, however.  There is no room for the demography-is-destiny spin at San Jose’s Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary School.  When its largely low-income and Hispanic student body gathers en masse every morning for the day’s “launch,” the last thing that comes to one’s mind is that these kids face insurmountable challenges and can’t succeed. They are smiling.  They are pumped.  They are disciplined.  They are ready to learn, and they will tell you so.

My wife and I had the opportunity to spend time at this inspirational school earlier this week.  The positive vibe was palpable.  Led by a corps of teachers — most with roots in Teach for America — and operating on a truly bare-bones operating budget of about $6,000 a year, this California charter school is achieving test scores that would be the envy of schools serving middle- and upper-income students.

From a press release issued last month, here’s how the school documents its achievement:

Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary School, part of the Rocketship Education network, announced it earned a 926 API in 2009, an increase of 35 points over last year. Rocketship Mateo Sheedy serves low-income students in San Jose, nearly 73 percent of who are English Language Learners and 78 percent of who qualify for the Free and Reduced Lunch program.

These scores make Rocketship the highest performing low-income elementary school in San Jose and Santa Clara County, and 3rd in California.  In competing with individual schools in San Jose Unified where it is located, Rocketship ranked number 5 of 45 schools.  The four schools that had a higher API have student populations of less than 10 percent free and reduced meal counts of students tested compared to Rocketship’s 78 percent.

One of many noteworthy aspects of the school’s non-union operation is a merit-based compensation plan that provides a higher salary than earned by those in San Jose’s traditional public schools.  In this and many other ways, the Rocketship experience lays waste to the dreary conventional wisdom that permeates so much of the K-12 educational dialogue in America.

NB: An update to this post appears here.

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