Superintendent SaJade Miller has high ambitions for Rocketship Texas Public Schools’ first campus when students take the state standardized test in the spring.

“Our goal is to be in the top 10% locally, state average and similar schools,” Miller said.

For the remaining school year, Miller knows he, other administrators, teachers and students have their work cut out for them. 

Students started school at a low point academically, according to beginning-of-the-year benchmark results. However, administrators plan to focus on maximizing students’ growth to create a foundation for the charter school’s inaugural administration of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.

On their beginning-of-the-year math benchmark, 8% of third-graders were on grade level, according to Rocketship data. The school also tracks student performance in the other grades it currently offers:

  • 27% of kindergarten students are on grade level.
  • 16% of first graders are on grade level.
  • 9% of second-grade students met grade level.

Overall, 15% of students at Dennis Dunkins Elementary, which opened in August and will grow to eventually have fourth and fifth grade, met grade level on their first test of the year.

The charter uses the testing group Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress exam to track students’ academic progress throughout the year. MAP is administered three times a school year: the beginning, middle and end. The test is an indicator of students’ eventual performance on the STAAR exams.

Miller and other Rocketship administrators look at the MAP results as whether students are at or below grade level. Meets grade level is one of several marks students can reach on the STAAR tests. 

To reach its goal, Rocketship determined how much academic growth students within a percentile need to achieve by the end of the year. This approach means all students will receive instruction to, as Miller describes it, maximize their growth.

For example, one group of third-graders needs to grow between one and two years in math to be near meeting grade level. Then the next group of students needs to grow about a year to meet grade level. Each group — from the lowest to the highest performing — needs to grow, Miller said.

“Even though 40% of our students are at the bottom decline, we are going to maximize their growth, understanding, though, that two years’ growth is seldomly attained,” Miller said. “But we’re still maximizing that growth, but we also want to maximize the growth of all other students.”

‘Tailored to them’

Miller slowly opened a door to a classroom. He did not want to disturb students as they worked on an assignment. 

In the back corner, a handful of students sat at a circular desk with their teacher at the center. Together, they were nailing down a concept that they had not yet grasped.

This intervention is one way Rocketship is trying to fill learning gaps. The other is acceleration. Intervening is used when students are struggling. Acceleration is when a student is at or above grade level and they get an extra push to keep moving higher.

Both of these methods are used on top of the core instruction students receive every day.

Principal Christina Hanson views this approach as double-dipping students. First, they learn their lessons in a classroom. Then, they move over into a learning lab where lessons are reinforced in practical ways.

Students play with cubes, pyramids and other shapes during a learning lab inside Rocketship Public Schools’ Dennis Dunkins Elementary in Fort Worth on Nov. 7, 2022. (Jacob Sanchez | Fort Worth Report)

For example, in one learning lab, third graders toyed around with brightly colored cubes and pyramids to apply a math lesson. 

Some days, students also receive instruction through an online learning program. Older students may receive it through a laptop, while younger grades use a tablet.

Students cycle through each of these different ways of learning throughout the week.

“Kids are moving around getting exactly what is tailored to them based on their data and lessons that are pulled from class,” Hanson said.

Many of Rocketship’s students come from surrounding neighborhoods, such as Stop Six, and previously attended Fort Worth ISD campuses, according to Rocketship. School transfer report data for the current academic year is not yet available through the Texas Education Agency.

‘We’re going to be judged’

One word comes to Miller’s mind when thinking about the first few weeks of school — rough. 

In any school, the start of a new school year means getting to know new teachers and students. But Dennis Dunkins Elementary had the added twist of being the first Rocketship school to open in Texas.

Other curveballs are headed in the school’s direction, too.

Rocketship has told parents how to monitor their students’ progress and to expect a certain amount of academic growth. But that growth, while good for students, will not be a major factor when the time comes for the state to grade the school.

In the accountability rating system, a school’s grade is based in part on whether students performed better on that year’s test compared to the previous. Rocketship does not have a previous year to which its STAAR performance can be compared.

No matter how much growth students see based on their MAP performance and subsequent STAAR results, Miller knows it does not matter in the accountability system. 

“We’re going to be judged based off of … the rating we’ll get,” Miller said. “We’re really reconciling that, and we’re communicating that upfront with our parents.”

Rocketship is expected to receive its first accountability rating in late summer 2023.

Making the grade is important for any school. However, charters have certain metrics to meet under their contract with the state to operate a school.

All charters in Texas have to meet what TEA describes as acceptable student performance. That means getting an A, B or C as an accountability rating.

If a charter earns a D or an F for three years in a row, TEA could end its agreement for running a school. A charter would be put on probation first before the state forced it to close.

Rocketship’s expansion in the area also hinges on the accountability rating Dennis Dunkins Elementary receives and its second campus, which is planned to open in August 2023 at 300 E. Loop 820 in Fort Worth. Under Rocketship’s current charter agreement, it can open two schools.

To expand, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath required Rocketship to have its schools both have either an A or B.

Laying the foundation

Looking at the first benchmark results, Miller acknowledged that they are low, but he sees a glimmer within those numbers and his students.

“They are an opportunity and the reality of how critical the work is that we have to do,” the superintendent said.

Third-graders will lay the foundation for Rocketship’s academic performance. But Miller and Hanson are looking toward the classes of pre-K and kindergarten students for what Rocketship can do for students — and the middle school they eventually attend.

“Those early grades are so important for a number of things,” Hanson said. “So much learning goes into a 4-year-old.”

Miller sees the work in pre-K and kindergarten as changing the baseline for what is possible and expected for Stop Six and the surrounding areas. 

Most children at Dennis Dunkins Elementary are students of color. 

The school is in the 76119 ZIP code where more than one out of three children live under the poverty line, according to U.S. Census data. In the neighboring 76104 ZIP code, nearly four out of 10 children live under the poverty line.

A lot is riding on the 100 pre-k students at the school. They have high expectations and could be examples of the type of student Rocketship forges. Miller certainly hopes so.

“It’s this pre-K cohort that I am confident when they become third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, it’s just going to completely change the way we think about what’s possible for students in communities like this,” Miller said.

But those pre-kindergarteners still have about three years before they have to sit in front of a computer and take their first state standardized test. 

That experience is barrelling toward Rocketship’s founding third-grade class. Six months is all Rocketship has until it hits its first STAAR.

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Jacob SanchezEnterprise Reporter

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University....