Rocketship PCS on the hot seat at last night’s charter board meeting

As I reported regarding May’s meeting of the DC Public Charter School Board, it is becoming clear that often the most significant portion of these monthly sessions involves the public comment period that comes before the regular business section of the agenda. Participants appearing before the board are supposedly given a couple of minutes to speak but in reality there is no time limit. Therefore, anyone with a beef regarding D.C.’s nationally recognized charter school movement has an open opportunity to air their grievances for as long as they want to talk and this is exactly what they are doing.

Yesterday, it was Rocketship PCS’s turn to bear the brunt of citizen anger. The outpouring was prompted by a proposal by the brand-new Statesman College Preparatory Academy for Boys PCS, formally named North Star College Preparatory Academy for Boys, to begin its first year of operation by co-locating its facility with Rocketship Legacy Prep PCS on Massachusetts Avenue Southeast. A public hearing on whether Statesman will be permitted to begin its first year serving children at this site is not scheduled until this coming Friday at 4:00 p.m. which is in itself a highly inconvenient time for a function of this type, but this fact is only a technicality. It was as if an approaching battle prompted people to prepare for their defense and their protection on Monday night was the English language.

Individual after individual went on the attack against Rocketship and specifically its new campus in Ward 7. The remarks went on for about an hour. To save you the time of listening to the proceedings I will summarize them as the criticism that has whirled around the expansion of this charter management organization since it came to town in 2014. Citizens feel that the school has not engaged with local residents before entering their communities and has ignored their opinions while treating them as if they are irrelevant bystanders to its plans. Complaints even included the specific location of trash dumpsters and the cutting down of trees.

In fact, the DC PCSB is having its own difficulties with Rocketship. Yesterday’s supporting documentation regarding the charter’s decision to delay opening its third campus contains the following narrative:

“This is the school’s third campus postponement since DC PCSB approved Rocketship PCS’s charter on November 3, 2014. While the school was originally scheduled to open its first campus in SY 2015-2016, Rocketship PCS requested a one-year postponement, resulting in Rocketship PCS – Rise Academy opening in SY 2016-2017.

In preparation for its second campus, Rocketship PCS provided notification to DC PCSB on November 21, 2016 of its intent to open Rocketship PCS – Legacy Prep in SY 2017-2018 at a permanent site in Ward 7. However, the school was unable to obtain necessary permits to complete construction before the start of SY 2017-2018. As a result, on June 19, 2017, Rocketship PCS returned to DC PCSB to obtain urgent approval to operate at two temporary facilities for part of SY 2017-2018, until its permanent site was ready for operation in early January 2018.

Each time that Rocketship PCS has postponed opening one of its campuses or changed a campus location last-minute, the students and families enrolled at those have been affected. Most recently, approximately 22 students who were enrolled at Rocketship PCS’s Ward 5 campus through the DC common lottery were left without a school placement for the upcoming school year when Rocketship PCS announced in May that it will not open the Ward 5 campus until SY 2019-2020. (Of these, 17 were students in grades K-2, and 5 were students in grades PK3-PK4.) To help families find an alternative placement quickly, most PK3-PK4 students were placed at AppleTree PCS at Perry Street, while students in grades K-2 were provided the option to attend either Rocketship PCS’s Rice Academy or Legacy Prep. The school reports that Rocketship PCS helped 21 of these students find a suitable placement for SY 2018-2019, and only one student received an offer that was deemed unsatisfactory to the parent.

Over the past three years, DC PCSB has received several community complaints regarding the school’s lack of community engagement, which played a significant role in the issues the school faced when trying to open its second campus. Parents have also understandably complained about the inconvenience caused by delayed openings and changes in location. Thus, DC PCSB staff wants assurance from Rocketship PCS that in the immediate future the school will increase its community engagement and plan carefully for any future campus openings to ensure it maintains a sufficient timeline.”

During the period that Rocketship was before the board discussing its latest campus fiasco in Ward 5, it was revealed that its Washington Regional Director Jacque Patterson is no longer with the CMO. I cannot help but wonder if his departure is associated with the school’s problems integrating into this city.

There was one bright spot last night. Relatively new board member Naomi Shelton is beginning to show real leadership of this body. Her thoughtful comments were direct and heartfelt. She instantly connected with an inhospitable crowd. Here is someone to keep our eyes on.

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