Stop Six resident Perla Vidales wants to be involved in her son’s education.
“I am a single mother. My child’s education worries me,” Vidales, who works at a senior care facility, said in Spanish. “I need to make sure that his education makes him the best version of himself in the future.”
She thinks Gonzalo, her 5-year-old son who will be a kindergartener in the fall, will get that through Rocketship Public Schools, a nonprofit network of charter schools based in California that is in its second year of trying to enter the Fort Worth market. Unlike other charter schools, Rocketship only offers kindergarten through fifth grade classes.
Rocketship’s potential entrance into Fort Worth could uplift students like Gonzalo and set them on a path toward success. Supporters also say the new school could spur economic development in the area east of U.S. Highway 287 and possibly revingorate the surrounding neighborhoods.
While Rocketship has community support, some traditional public school leaders and allies oppose the organization’s plans because they believe Tarrant County has plenty of charter schools. Not only that, they say charter schools will take state dollars away from public schools and hurt more students than they help. Opponents also have raised red flags over Rocketship’s operations in California, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C.
The State Board of Education is expected to consider Friday allowing Rocketship to begin opening a network of four elementary schools with 2,776 students in Tarrant County over the next five years, according to its proposal. This will be the second time the organization will go in front of the Board of Education after members voted 12-2 to veto its 2020 application.
“We’re looking to the future. We’re super excited,” SaJade Miller, the local Rocketship superintendent, said. “We didn’t allow that setback to stop the work. We wanted to continue to press for it because our students deserve options, our families need options, and we’ve kept in contact with those families throughout this year of delay.”
Rocketship and other charter school applicants face opposition from state groups. The Texas State Teachers Association wants the State Board of Education to veto all charter school applicants Friday.
“Tarrant County taxpayers and students do not need Rocketship charter schools,” Texas State Teachers Association spokesman Clay Robison said. “There’s very little interest expressed in public hearings by the community. In a few years, they stand to take millions of dollars from Fort Worth public schools that already are underfunded. Some of these tax dollars will flow to the corporate chain headquarters in California.”
State Board of Education to decide
A technicality doomed the first application. A Rocketship board member reached out to Aicha Davis, a State Board of Education member who represents parts of Tarrant and Dallas counties. That was a violation of state rules, which call for a no-contact time period for charter school applications.
“The rule doesn’t say anything about intent. It just says no communication. It was a violation regardless of his intent,” Davis, a Democrat, said last year.
Republican Pat Hardy, a former public school teacher who represents part of Tarrant County and all of Parker County, was one of the two votes in favor of Rocketship’s application. Hardy considers herself a middle-of-the-road member when it comes to charter schools. She is neither fully against or for them — she considers each on their merits.
The rule violation, which Hardy described as the stinkeroo that sunk Rocketship last year, was a legitimate reason to not approve its application, she said.
The Republican is undecided on what to do Friday.
“I don’t know if they’ll get it this time or not,” Hardy said. “We’ve been working, as a board, on criteria for dropping our support for (some charter) schools, and I would have to look at that criteria and look at what Rocketship is doing to see whether or not they would get my vote this time.”
Hardy wants more accountability for charter schools. Some charter networks, such as IDEA Public Schools, can expand without state approval. IDEA Public Schools recently fired two of its top leaders after a financial audit discovered they had misused money and staff for personal gain. The State Board of Education needs to act as a check on charter schools, Hardy said.
“There’s really no one stopping them from expanding anywhere they want to right now because the state board doesn’t have control over them,” she said.
In an interview with the Report, Davis would not say how she planned to vote on Rocketship’s application. She said she rigorously vets charter schools as they come in front of the State Board of Education. Davis did not feel like Rocketship improved on its last application and was concerned about the school, despite its local superintendent and board of directors, being influenced by people outside of Texas.
Miller is confident Rocketship will secure approval from the Board of Education and launch in fall 2022, a year later than expected. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath will recommend to the State Board of Education to award a charter to Rocketship, which, if approved, would allow the school to begin operating in 2022 and receive state funding.
Southeast Fort Worth is an ideal place to establish Rocketship’s first Fort Worth school, said Loretta Burns, a member of the charter school’s board of directors. Rocketship would be entering an area, the 76105 ZIP code, where traditional public schools are underperforming and have low parent participation, she said.
“Fort Worth needs a boost like Rocketship and particularly this community,” said Burns, the founder and executive director of AB Christian Learning Center.
Within three miles from the proposed campus are two F-rated schools and five D-rated schools. Those were overall ratings.
Campuses performed worse on the student achievement measure the state uses when calculating accountability ratings. That area looks at student performance on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, graduation rates and students’ preparedness for post-high school life.
Twelve nearby schools had F-ratings in student performance.
“Their project is very important … in our neighborhood where we don’t expect that type of education or that high-quality education for our children,” Vidales, the mother, said.
Within five miles of Rocketship’s proposed campus, 4,462 students attend eight existing charter schools, four of which are D rated.
Public school administrators, groups concerned
Rocketship eventually wants to open a school in Lake Worth ISD, according to its application. The charter school network also has set its sights on Crowley, Everman, Arlington and Castleberry ISDs, which, along with Fort Worth and Lake Worth ISDs, make up the bulk of underperforming Tarrant County schools.
Superintendent Rose Mary Neshyba voiced her opposition to Rocketship last year and continues to do so. She sees no need for another charter school network to enter Tarrant County, which has more than 60 charter campuses.
“Rocketship’s documented record in California raises serious concerns in the areas of finance, teacher turnover and student services,” Neshyba said. “At this time, they have identified one location and three undisclosed locations in Tarrant County for proposed campuses.”
In 2018, the California State Board of Education denied a proposed expansion of Rocketship over concerns about the school’s financial and educational plans.
In its Texas application, Rocketship said it was in good fiscal shape, including $142.5 million in revenue last year. It also touted securing $12.9 million in funding commitments from Tarrant County organizations. Nearly $11 million of that comes from the Fort Worth Education Partnership, a new nonprofit organization funded by the Walton Family Foundation, Sid Richardson Foundation, Kleinheinz Family Foundation and The City Fund.
The Texas Association of School Administrators opposed Rocketship’s plans. Last year, the organization estimated the new charter school network would cost the state $6.8 million during Rocketship’s first five years. During its first decade, the association said Rocketship would cost nearly $18 million.
The public school group estimated Tarrant County school districts would lose up to $26.8 million in revenue every year once Rocketship is at maximum enrollment.
Supporters say that state funding is already leaving public school districts as parents search for better alternatives. Rocketship leaders say they have had a strong positive response from interested parents at public meetings.
“That supercharged parents,” Burns, Rocketship board member, said. “That made a huge difference. That’s what got the community charged, and our community is so word of mouth (based).”
‘Students make leaps and bounds’
Miller, the local Rocketship superintendent, said the charter is not meant to fully replace traditional public schools.
Charters vs. ISDs
In Texas, charter schools are public schools that operate through contracts approved by the State Board of Education. While they are privately managed, they are funded entirely by the state or donations.
Independent school districts also receive funding from the state and can levy a property tax. Elected board of trustees provide oversight for traditional public schools. Charter schools have an appointed board of directors.
Traditional public schools must offer services, such as lunch, transportation and special education, to fit the needs of all students. In most cases, charters are not required to do so.
Like ISDs, charters must meet state accountability requirements and will receive an overall letter grade for the network, as well as a grade for each campus in its system.
Miller knows the Stop Six community very well. It’s where he grew up. In addition, he was once a teacher in Fort Worth ISD, becoming the principal of Dunbar High School and later worked as the district’s assistant superintendent of innovation.
“With my heart and soul still being at Dunbar High School, we can come back to this community and infuse innovation, have students make leaps and bounds and astronomical growth and then go back to a middle school partner or the high school in their neighborhood. That’s super exciting,” Miller said.
Rocketship will make annual home visits to meet parents and discuss their issues.
School days are longer, allowing students to have more learning time. Students get to spend time in a learning laboratory where they can put their lessons to work through hands-on activities.
Teachers can specialize in either humanities subjects or science, technology, education or math. Students rotate through those subjects throughout the day and receive specialized instruction.
In California, where Rocketship started, this model has seen some mixed results. A 2016 study by SRI International, an independent research organization, found Rocketship students in California performed better on the state’s math test than their nearby public school counterparts. Results were more mixed on students’ performance on California’s English language arts test, with both performing similarly.
Another standardized test, one Fort Worth ISD uses, saw Rocketship students being more than a year ahead of traditional public school students.
On the Northwest Evaluation Assessment in middle school, Rocketship students scored higher than non-Rocketship students. SRI International found students who attended Rocketship for elementary grades were a year ahead of students who only attended public schools. Non-Rocketship students eventually caught up by their third year of middle school.
Robison, the Texas State Teachers Association spokesman, said the more involved parents are with their student’s education, the better a student will perform on a standardized test.
A parent must submit an application to send their child to a Rocketship school. Students are then picked through a lottery.
‘Provide another option’
If the State Board of Education signs off on Rocketship’s plans, the charter will spend the next year building the new school on a lot where a former grocery store is located.
“It has been a while since something new has been added here,” Miller said. “Not only will this serve as a sort of a beacon of light for the investment in education that we want to provide here, but also hopefully it’s the impetus for economic development in this southeast sector of the community.”
Miller’s goal is to eliminate barriers for students, regardless of their situation, to have access to a good education. Rocketship will provide transportation for students and work to connect parents to community services they may need.
Burns, the Rocketship board member, said this charter school aligns with the education goals, which includes having all third-graders reading on grade level by 2025, set by Fort Worth ISD and the city of Fort Worth.
Miller does not want an adversarial relationship with Fort Worth ISD — or any public school district. He has worked alongside the teachers and administrators who are trying to improve children’s education. Through Rocketship, Miller wants to be sure the charter school is sending students who are better prepared for when they go back to traditional public schooling.
“There’s no competition. Every school is not perfect for every single student and, from working in this community, I know that more than most,” Miller said. “Our job is to provide another option in partnership and in concert with the existing efforts that are going on.”
However, Robison pushed back on that, arguing the entire charter school model is based on competition. Charter schools that want to enter an area should work with the local school district and go into communities where there is overwhelming public support from parents, he said.
“Most parents in these neighborhoods where Rocketship is going don’t even know who Rocketship is and do not know that they’re going in, much less that they will be taking some of their tax dollars when they start taking kids away from the public schools that are already there,” the Texas State Teachers Association spokesman said.
Miller wants the State Board of Education to focus on Rocketship’s application and consider the children and families the charter school could help.
“In terms of merits, we’re extremely hopeful,” Miller said. “But we do know that it is a process and we hope that the merits of our application, the quality of our experience, the depth of our experience stand on its own when the state board is deliberating whether or not to accept the commissioner’s recommendation.”
Fort Worth Report photojournalist Cristian ArguetaSoto contributed to this report.