Aug 29, 2017

My Summer as an Education Pioneers Fellow at Rocketship

By Erica Toews T’18

Writer Clint Smith has four core principles posted in his high school English class: “Read critically. Write consciously. Speak clearly. Tell your truth.” Over the course of three workshops, my cohort of twenty-five Education Pioneers Fellows internalized this message, embracing vulnerability and engaging in courageous conversations. We read and discussed articles about education, collaborated on group projects, and heard from leaders in the education sector.

Education Pioneers connects fellows with high-impact placement opportunities at leading education organizations, including school districts, nonprofits, and charter schools. I worked in operations at a non-profit charter school network called Rocketship Public Schools. Though operations entails the non-instructional aspects of a school, it requires close collaboration between instructors and administrators. There are eighteen Rocketship schools in the Bay Area, Milwaukee, Nashville, and Washington, D.C. I was placed in D.C. and fell in love with the city: biking past the Capitol in the morning sun on my way to work, watching the fireworks behind the Washington Monument on the Fourth of July, baseball games at Nationals Park, wandering through museums absorbing art and history, and going for runs along the Potomac River.

The first Rocketship school in D.C., Rise Academy, opened last fall for kindergarten through second grade and will expand to include third grade this year. The second Rocketship school in D.C., Rocketship Legacy Prep (RLP), opened this fall for kindergarten through second grade. I had an amazing time helping to launch this new charter school. RLP is co-locating with Rise for the first six months of the school year until our new building is finished. The school leadership team went on a hard hat tour of the construction site for the new building, and everyone is excited about the progress.

The first Education Pioneers workshop focused on the achievement gap. Former Secretary of Education John King Jr. spoke about the disparity in measures of educational performance, such as standardized test scores, dropout rates, and suspensions, between black and white students and described the school-to-prison pipeline. He made eye contact with each of us and said, “Don’t lose the outrage.” Mr. King advised us to stay connected to what drew us to our work in the first place.

Rocketship’s mission is to eliminate the achievement gap in our lifetime. Most of the students, teachers, and administrators at Rocketship Legacy Prep are African American. The school is located in Anacostia, a predominantly black neighborhood with a high crime rate. However, in the year since Rise opened, crime in the immediate area has decreased. One possible explanation is that Rocketship instills core values in its students, and they spread these values to their families and communities. Jermaine Gassaway, Assistant Principal at Rise, wrote a book called Unopened Books: Multiplying the 2%. He gave me a copy, which I read, and it led to interesting conversations about why black males represent only 2% of the teaching workforce and how to bring more black men into the classroom.

The second Education Pioneers workshop centered around change management. We discussed leadership styles as “on the balcony,” or taking a high level approach, as opposed to “on the dance floor,” or being involved in the action. We considered two lenses, self and system, reflecting on both our own beliefs and challenges faced by our organizations.

The Business Operations Manager at RLP, Keina Hodge, says operations is the wheels on the bus that make the school go around. I constantly moved between the balcony and the dance floor this summer. In a single day, I might negotiate contracts with vendors such as Champions, an organization that provides before and after care for our students, conduct interviews for the support staff team that Keina manages, design maps and articulate vision statements for arrival, lunch, recess, and dismissal, create PowerPoints for teacher and staff professional development, and ensure we are in compliance to pass a Public Charter School Board audit. The last two days of my internship coincided with the first two days of school, and it was amazing to see all our hard work come to life when the students arrived.

The people at Rocketship are truly inspiring. I met the CEO, Preston Smith, on my second day, and he was so encouraging when I shared my dreams of starting a charter school network. The school leadership teams at Rise and RLP embody the core values of the organization: authenticity, community, innovation, tenacity, and excellence. I’m so grateful that I got to bond with them both at school and outside of work.

In our capstone Education Pioneers workshop, we presented projects that we had worked on over the summer. My group presented on what it takes to start a charter school, each sharing from the perspectives of our summer placements: Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), human capital, community engagement, education technology, and operations. Antwan Wilson, Chancellor of DC Public Schools, was our keynote speaker. He said we cannot ask a fourteen-year-old to decide if he wants to go to college because he doesn’t understand the opportunity or what’s at stake. We must prepare students for four-year institutions so they can make that choice for themselves when the time comes. Mr. Wilson told us, “We’re not there until we get to 100%.”