History repeated itself Tuesday night when the Board of Education voted 6-1 in front of a modest audience to shoot down a second charter organization’s request to open a school within district boundaries by fall 2014.
Major problems with Redwood City-based Rocketship Education’s petition, according to Interim Superintendent Steve Betando’s nearly two-hour Powerpoint presentation with 98 slides, include: an unrealistic target student population; unfamiliarity with the Morgan Hill community; inadequate facility proposal; low teacher retention rate; disingenuous collaboration overtures; and an unsound educational model.
“I really believe this has been a mis-step into this community and would respectfully request that you go elsewhere,” said Board Vice President Shelle Thomas, directing her comments toward Rocketship’s Director of Development Jessica Garcia-Kohl, who sat in the front row among an audience of about 50 people.
Trustee Rick Badillo, who also cast the lone vote back in October to approve a separate charter petition from Gilroy-based Navigator Schools, was the only trustee who voted in favor of Rocketship. His motives stem from the fact that, like Navigator, Rocketship will now appeal to the Santa Clara County Office of Education, which will first review Navigator Schools’ petition that was submitted on appeal last week. If the County approves Rocketship’s and Navigator’s petitions, those schools will be under the oversight of the County and not MHUSD. Badillo isn’t comfortable with that possibility.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Betando and his administrative staff picked apart nearly every aspect of Rocketship Education’s petition, even asserting that the national organization funnels money to its Board of Directors by paying its teachers low-end salaries.
Garcia-Kohl says Thomas “missed the point” on Rocketship’s intentions, which is to meet the demand of more than 1,000 Morgan Hill parents who have already signed an intent to enroll or transfer their elementary-school aged children into a Rocketship charter school next year, if it opens.
Garcia-Kohl said it’s about more than her position. She wants a better educational option for her niece who lives in Morgan Hill.
“It is about my niece and every Morgan Hill family that wants a better education for their child, but can’t get it because they live in the “wrong zip code,” she said, noting that most of those families tried their luck in other nearby charter schools such as Charter School of Morgan Hill and Gilroy Prep but failed to get in.
Charter school enrollments are lottery based and children who live in the actual city of the charter school have a better chance of getting in.
“Morgan Hill parents are literally leaving the district to look for alternatives,” Garcia-Kohl added. “That collective voice for choice is being overlooked.”
She said Wednesday that Rocketship’s petition will be submitted to the county “within the next 24 hours.” She also expects to hold another public hearing for a $50 million bond issuance for the construction of a Rocketship Morgan Hill facility – and another in San Jose – before Morgan Hill’s City Council sometime in January.
Both charter organizations, intent on opening new schools in Morgan Hill for the start of the 2014-15 school year, also submitted their Proposition 39 requests to the MHUSD district office. Under that measure, school districts are required to make “reasonably equivalent” facilities available to charter schools upon request.
Thomas’ diatribe toward Rocketship highlighted the organization’s alleged poor judgment in petitioning MHUSD. Thomas says Rocketship strayed from its mission to serve “urban” communities; was insincere in making an effort to collaborate with MHUSD since “we never had a relationship to begin with”; aggressively solicited parents outside of the Cochrane Road WalMart store; and targeted a specific area of town to mine enrollment.
Morgan Hill teachers, as well as other community members, have also taken an active role in soliciting signatures from parents in opposition of the charter movement. Last week, some teachers greeted parents as they arrived to pick up their children from school with anti-charter informational material and an invitation to sign their petition. According to parent and petition creator Manuel Banuelos, they have acquired 545 electronic signatures plus another 519 on paper.
Earlier in the night, Garcia-Kohl – one of five who spoke in support of Rocketship’s petition – attempted to identify the link between MHUSD’s goals and Rocketship’s experience. She touched on the district’s new technology plan that coincided with Rocketship being the leading national model in blended learning, which incorporates computer-based methods. Additionally, she touted Rocketship’s status as being in the top 5 percent of state schools serving predominantly low-income students.
“Regardless of whether you decide to approve or deny a charter, I expect you to push for improvement in our schools by learning with and from charter schools,” said parent Stephen Boyd, who has six children attending three MHUSD schools. “My children and those of so many families who care deserve better.”
On the contrary, Betando pointed to the declining Academic Performance Index scores – California’s yardstick for student achievement – at four Rocketship schools from the 2011-12 to the 2012-13 school years, including a network-high 74-point drop at Rocketship Mateo Sheedy in San Jose.
Mateo Sheedy, however, remained above the state’s benchmark with an 851 API, as did two other Rocketship schools: Si Se Puede (837) and Alma (809). Of MHUSD’s eight traditional elementary schools, three eclipsed the 800 standard: Nordstrom (892); Paradise Valley (854); and Los Paseos (822).
Putting state test scores aside, MHUSD trustee Ron Woolf was “appalled” by Rocketship’s plans to build a Morgan Hill school on 1.66 acres just off Monterey Road at the corner of San Pedro and Church avenues. The retired educator noted that all MHUSD elementary schools are on 10 to 11-acre properties and Britton Middle School’s 25-acre location that serves 640 students is “17 times larger than the proposed Rocketship site.”
“I wouldn’t put my child in that school. No way,” declared Woolf, who also was concerned with Rocketship’s use of limited certificated teachers at a 37-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio.
District staff questioned Rocketship’s educational effectiveness in having students work 90 minutes per day in a computer learning lab and pointed out that Rocketship’s “learning lab” is run by non-certificated staff and does not promote critical thinking and problem solving skills.
As far as demographics, district staff concluded Rocketship’s target for serving 70 percent English Language Learners and 70 percent free-and-reduced lunch students was “unrealistic” since MHUSD’s district-wide percentages in those subgroups are presently 28 percent and 22 percent, respectively. Issues about Rocketship’s use of teachers with limited experience and a 70 percent teacher retention rate were also raised.
“I feel this is an unsound educational program and one not suitable for the children of this district,” concluded Board President Don Moody before the petition was put to vote.
When it came to finances, district staff questioned Rocketship’s compensation model, which included only 44 percent of its overall budget going to staff. MHUSD spends 85 percent of its budget on staff.
Betando’s presentation suggest the money saved in teacher salaries will be used to compensate Rocketship’s Board of Directors, stating “it is unclear if local funds would be used to financially support a Board of Directors serving other schools and in a multitude of states.”
Scott Forstner is a general assignment reporter who covers education and other community issues for the Morgan Hill Times. Reach him at (408) 847-7158 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org