Slam Dunk! Santa Clara County’s First-Ever Special Olympics

Hannah Gray, an Integrated Special Education Specialist at Mosaic Elementary, teamed up with the Special Olympics of Northern California, the YMCA, teachers and enrichment coordinators across the network to host this inaugural event.

by Nikki David | Associate Editor, Beyond

If you’re into March Madness buzzer beaters and Cinderella stories, Rocketship’s tournament was one for the ages.


Cheers erupted from both sides of the court as fans watched several three-foot-something kids soaring impressive  slam-dunks into a net three times their height — with a boost from their P.E. coach, of course.


This stunning spectacle, with students, teachers and parents of all backgrounds and abilities cheering both teams on, perfectly encapsulated Santa Clara County’s first ever partnership with the Special Olympics.


About 100 basketball stars from Mosaic Elementary, Discovery Prep and Brilliant Minds faced off in late March at the East Valley Family YMCA, including several players from Rocketship’s Specialized Inclusion Program (SIP). Dozens of other students also came to cheer on their classmates, showing their school spirit from the sidelines with colorful handmade signs. Just as the Special Olympics aims to empower and unite athletes with and without disabilities, the SIP model helps students with moderate to severe disabilities learn alongside their general education peers for most of the school day.


Mosaic parent Tanisha Kruger saw the event as a unique learning opportunity for her son Bryce, a student in the SIP program.


“People don’t always understand that just because someone has a disability, it doesn’t mean the rest of them is disabled. They’re still whole, and they just want to play with their friends, be a part of the competition and feel included,” Kruger said.


Throughout the tournament, students of all grades and abilities showed off their teamwork in games against the other schools. They also participated in a skills competition for dribbling, passing and shooting. P.E. coaches conducted weekly practices for the six weeks leading up to the event, and for many players, it was their first experience being part of an athletic team.


Integrated special education teacher Hannah Gray, who coordinated the event to engage her students outside the classroom, watched all the players — both students with and without learning disabilities - grow and learn.


“It was great to hear kids tell me how excited they were for basketball practice after school. The practices were pretty exhausting, but seeing all of the hard work pay off on the faces of the kids was totally worth it,” Ms. Gray said.


After this pilot season with three schools, the Special Olympics partnership will include two events in the 2015 school year. Kruger and Bryce are excited for more fun and inclusive opportunities to meet families from different schools in the future.

WATCH: Rocketeers share their Special Olympics experience

“People don’t always understand that just because someone has a disability, it doesn’t mean the rest of them is disabled.”


- Tanisha Kruger

Rocketeer Parent

Meaningful Inclusion

At Rocketship, we believe all students deserve access to high quality instruction alongside their typically developing peers. Meaningful inclusion, coupled with specially-designed individual supports, is an evidence-based best practice for the education of students with disabilities. We make a promise to our Rocketeers and their families that we will approach special education from this philosophy.

Rocketship Alumni Win National Samsung Solve STEM Competition

Faced with the worst drought in CA history, two Rocketeer alumni design a rainwater storage system to help their community conserve.

by Maya Diaz & Pedro Castillo | High School Rocketeer Alumni

Rocketeers learn how to solve problems and blast beyond the status quo long after they graduate. As our teachers work tirelessly to prepare students for lifelong success, stories like Maya Diaz’s and Pedro Castillo’s fill us with pride.


Graduates of Mateo Sheedy Elementary and current Downtown College Prep Alum Rock High School students, Maya and Pedro have already gained national recognition for solving problems. Faced with the worst drought in California history and a county-mandated 20 percent reduction in water consumption, Maya and Pedro helped their school’s engineering club design a gray water system and rain water storage system to help their community save water.


Their project sailed through five phases of competition in the nationwide Samsung Solve For Tomorrow contest, beating out thousands of other STEM projects to win $150,000 in technology for their school. Here, the students recap their once-in-a-lifetime experience in their own words and explain how Rocketship helped them on their journey.

Maya Diaz

10th Grade

In response to the extreme drought and the changes we’ve all witnessed in our communities, we designed an affordable gray water system that would enable residents to save up to 37 percent of fresh water use.

Our engineering team was thrilled and excited when we made it past the first round of the competition. We continued to work on our project, meeting up on the weekends and breaks.


It paid off. We continued to make our way through the stages of the competition and gained more excitement with each step. After we were admitted as one of 15 national finalists, we were all determined to win. We got the opportunity to go to New York and see the 14 other creative presentations.


When I learned our team was one of the five national finalists, I was excited and surprised that, as a group, we were able to accomplish such a big thing. Being in this club and competition has given us so many opportunities and opened so many doors for us that we would have never thought were possible. We went to New York and visited colleges that we’ve only heard about, and we went places I’ve only seen in the movies. This competition has really shown me that I can uplift my community using STEM and solve problems we face every day.

Pedro Castillo

9th Grade

After everything we have experienced, the wind milling punches of shock and awe that came with winning $150,000 in technology for our school, being able to visit New York and building an accessible gray water system, I can say these experiences changed our lives.


Personally, this is credited to being raised in an environment that nurtured our desire for education. Without the help of my education at Rocketship and the wonderful teachers that supported me along the way, I would have not been able to arrive at where I am today. I thank Rocketship for pushing me to expand beyond the normal capabilities that would be called for in “average schools.”


Rocketship has nurtured countless other futures and given children a fighting chance to receive a quality education. I’ve noticed it along the countless street corners where the chances of a better education are expanding as more Rocketship schools expand. It always brings me joy to know that we were a part of a great experiment that turned out to be amazing. I only ask for you to continue to fight to close the achievement gap.

SRI International Study Finds Rocketship Alumni Outperform Their Peers

Rocketship teamed up with SRI International to conduct a longitudinal study of our alumni in middle school. The preliminary findings reveal our Rocketeer alumni are prepared to excel in middle school.

Rocketship Alumni...

Outperform their peers in the first year of middle school


Have strong social-emotional mindsets


Are college focused

How Teacher Voice Shapes Rocketship

Veteran teachers form teacher advisory group to drive positive network change

by Sheena Shirakhon | Rising Assistant Principal, Sí Se Puede Academy

Teachers spend more than one thousand hours with their students each year. We make deliberate and conscious decisions for every lesson we teach. Everything in our classrooms — from the anchor charts and desk arrangements to lesson hooks and essay topics — are decisions we make to ensure our kids thrive and realize their incredible potential. It is key for teachers to have the autonomy to make these choices in our classrooms, but it is also imperative that we have a voice in the decision making at the school and network or district level.


I started my teaching career in a New York City middle school in 2008, and while I was new to the profession, I quickly became frustrated by the administration’s decisions that often seemed to go directly against the interests of my students. I remember one day in my first year, my principal barged into my room and announced to the class that she would be taking a handful of “good” students to the movie theater that day. While well-intentioned, the outcome was a room full of students angrily asking, “But why don’t I get to go?”


Unfortunately, this moment was indicative of the fact that the school had developed a culture in which decisions were made top-down, often seemingly haphazardly and with utter disregard for the needs and interests of our students. I knew, if I wanted to make a real impact in my students’ lives, I needed a change.


When I eventually transitioned into a different school context, I was immediately aware of a shift in the dynamic between school leaders and teachers. First at KIPP in New York, and then here at Rocketship in San Jose, it became clear to me that school leaders valued open and candid conversations with teachers. While not always perfect, it was refreshing and led to a higher degree of cohesion.


Rocketship has utilized a number of practices to gather teacher input (satisfaction surveys, teacher focus groups, etc). However, as a growing and evolving network, there is always opportunity to further infuse teacher voice into school — and network-wide decisions. At the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, I joined forces with leadership from Rocketship’s Network Support Team and we began planning what eventually became the Teacher Advisory Group.


With a national teacher shortage threatening the future of public education, we knew increasing the role of teacher voice in Rocketship would help us discover ways to better retain and develop talent and achieve our mission to eliminate the achievement gap in our lifetime.


We set out to bring our most experienced teachers into the group. Ultimately, the teachers who signed on not only brought experience, but also warmth, wisdom and, above all, an ability to thoughtfully and powerfully articulate their ideas, even late into the evening after a long day at school. For anyone who has ever attended a meeting after 5 p.m. on a school night, you know this is no small feat.


Throughout the year, we tackled a variety of issues, including:


• the development of the Teacher Professional Development Fund. This fund pays for external PD opportunities ranging from language study abroad to instructional workshops


• the creation of an internal teacher time study to better understand how teachers currently spend their time to find ways to support efficiency and sustainability


• shifts in the assessments calendar to maximize data-driven instruction


While the group expressed ideas and provided feedback, network leadership actively listened, responded to ideas and asked follow-up questions to probe a bit further. By participating in this ongoing dialogue, teachers learned more about the various factors that impact network decision-making processes and network leaders were able to get real-time feedback on ideas before rolling them out network-wide.


I am impressed by the progress that the group made in the 2014-15 academic school year and I look forward to seeing what it achieves in the year to come.


Rocketship is an organization that belongs to all of us, and our mission to eliminate the achievement gap in our lifetime requires that we all play a role in making our schools an excellent place to learn and an empowering place to teach.

During a weekly professional development session, teachers share shout-outs for creative lesson plans and innovative problem solving.

Fuerza’s transitional kindergarten team aligns during common planning time.

Assistant Principal Mateos films a Rocketship tutor to help provide targeted feedback and development.

“The teachers who signed on not only brought experience, but also warmth, wisdom and, above all, an ability to thoughtfully and powerfully articulate their ideas”


- Sheena Shirakhon

Rising Assistant Principal

Sí Se Puede Academy

It Takes a Village to Elevate a Teacher

Ms. Fernandez began her Rocketship career as a crossing guard. Three years later, she’s leading fifth grade Rocketeers as a classroom teacher at Discovery Prep.

by LaToya Fernandez | Teacher, Discovery Prep

At Rocketship, we know it takes a village to raise a child. Little did I know when I began my career at Mateo Sheedy Elementary as a crossing guard that Rocketship’s village would also elevate me.


Three years ago, I remember my mornings starting at 5:30 a.m. I worked three jobs at the time through the YMCA’s after school program, helping with traffic before and after school and supporting teams in the learning lab and enrichment classes at Mateo Sheedy. I rushed to catch the bus to work as the sun came up, but I relished the responsibility of being the first warm, smiling face Rocketeer families saw each morning. As an added bonus, our amazing families brought me breakfast and gifts in appreciation. When Brittany Kinser, then an assistant principal, noticed my work ethic, I received a gift that changed my life: a chance to officially join Rocketship as a member of the support staff team.


The more I became immersed in Rocketship culture, the more I fell in love with the organization and the people in it. Even as I transitioned to working lunch and recess on support staff and traveled to Discovery Prep to work for their after school program, I knew I wanted to more directly impact students’ learning. I was elated when I got that chance. Faculty, families and school leaders noticed my interactions with students, and I was invited to become an Individualized Learning Specialist (ILS) in Discovery Prep’s learning lab.


As an ILS, I received endless guidance from peers, school leaders and the entire Rocketship network to help take my tutoring to the next level. I learned to integrate new strategies to boost Rocketeers’ comprehension and phonics skills. It felt great to not only help eliminate the achievement gap, but to be trusted and supported in my work and ideas.


I wanted to connect with this organization on another level — to truly understand our mission. There are few organizations where anyone can set up a face-to-face meeting with the CEO, but I reached out and before I knew it, I was sitting at a coffee shop with Preston Smith, Rocketship’s co-founder and CEO.


“How’s your daughter doing?” he asked when we sat down.


He wanted to know what my goals were and if he could answer any questions. After hearing me out, he suggested I might be better suited for the classroom and encouraged me to pursue a teaching credential. I left inspired.


A whirlwind of personal and professional transformation followed. With a four-year-old to take care of, though, investing time and money into my credential felt impossible. But with support, anything is possible. As a new teacher, I directly impacted students in ways I never could before.


With the amazing support of the Rocketship network, my Discovery Prep family and my students’ amazing families, my students grew an average 2.2 years in literacy, among the most significant gains in our network.


In addition to teaching, I channeled my passion for diversity and social justice and created a girls’ empowerment group — a safe space that grew girls’ confidence in and out of the classroom.


Three years after starting as a crossing guard, I am no longer a contributor; I am eliminating the achievement gap. As I continue to pursue my credential, I am now reaffirmed that anything is possible. I am proof for my students, families and daughter that it takes a village to raise a star.


Rocketship is my village and together we are facing social issues head on, eliminating the achievement gap and pursuing excellence. We are not just another network of schools. We are a movement of change and progress for our students, for our staff and our communities.

Building Staff Capacity

Our school staff are on the front lines of eliminating the achievement gap. They work tirelessly to  reach each and every student, partner with families, and invest in their school communities.  Here are just a few ways we’re supporting them in return:

We are Rocketeers

Over 1,200 Parents Attend San Jose

Mayoral Forum

On October 6, 2014, parent leaders from Rocketship, in partnership with other local charter schools and People Acting in Community Together, held a non-partisan candidate forum.

by Lety Gomez | Fuerza Community Prep Parent Leader

Families gather to learn from local candidates before election day.

“Our children follow our examples — by parents taking action, we inspire our kids to do their best.”


- Sam Liccardo

San Jose Mayor

Engaged Parents Are Essential

Parents are not only their children’s first teachers, they are lifelong advocates. A staple of the Rocketship model, engaged parents contribute to their kids’ academic progress and the overall prosperity of their community.


Our educators make it a priority to communicate our Rocketeers’ academic progress with their families and engage parents on strategies to improve each student’s performance.

The Esparza family inspired a movement to bring quality schools to their community.

For years, Enrique Esparza has been driving over 100 miles each day to transport five Rocketship students from their homes in Redwood City to our schools in San Jose.


Determined to create better school options in their own community, Enrique and his wife Maritza Leal led the charge to open a Rocketship school and a KIPP school in Redwood City.


They were recently awarded the 2015 Hart Vision Volunteer of the Year award by the California Charter Schools Association.

WATCH: Enrique and Maritza's grass-roots fight for great schools in their community.

Together, We Will Eliminate DC's Achievement Gap

Rocketship DC Launching 2016

Our nation’s capital is home to a vibrant community of multi-generational families and newcomers alike.


The community has proven that it is dedicated to ensuring every student has access to an excellent school and we’ve seen progress, but still less than half of our students are on grade level.


Our southeast neighborhoods demonstrate an even greater need, with less than a third of students on grade level. We need to rethink elementary education; our students deserve better.


Rocketship has been partnering with the DC community since January 2013 in anticipation of our first community school opening in August 2016.


AppleTree Public Charter School has joined forces with Rocketship and will serve PreK students inside our first school.


In 2014, we began construction on our first school in DC. Opening in DC’s lowest performing Ward, Rocketship’s two-story, 54,000 square foot facility will feature a glass entrance, an outdoor terrace, two playground structures and incredible views.

Ward 8 Parent Leader: With Rocketship, We Can Get Our Community Back!

At Rocketship’s groundbreaking ceremony for our first elementary school in the Washington, DC region, proud Ward 8 parent Keisha Clark delivers a heartfelt speech.

Speech by Keisha Clark | Ward 8 Parent Leader

Hello, I’m Keisha Clark. I live in the Woodland Terrace area. I have three children: Britteny, 8, Lonisha, 17, and Ky-Arnie, 4.


Ky-Arnie will be going to Rocketship when it comes! I had the pleasure of going to Nashville to observe the Rocketship school and I was extremely pleased. Everything was so amazing in how the kids were learning.


Everything was hands on. If a child didn’t understand, they were helped...not just by the teacher, but also by the other students.


They were pushed to keep trying. The teachers didn’t leave the students behind and say, “Okay, you didn’t get it.”


They helped them get it and then they moved further. When I went into the kindergarten class, these kids...Oh, when I say these kids, it was like they were in schools for years. They were adding numbers in so many different ways. They were getting hands on with these little tally marks. It was like,


“What grade did you say they were in?”


Now, Ky-Arnie has never been in school at all, so with Rocketship, there is no doubt in my mind that she will be going to a place where she can succeed. Unbelievable. Everything I saw and witnessed, even down to the parents, was amazing. The parents were open doors. Anything you can think of, they will help you to the best of their ability.  And it wasn’t just teachers and parents there for their kids — they were there for all kids.


They knew their names, they knew their parents’ names, they knew the things they were needing in their homes, not just in school.


If we could get that in Woodland Terrace, we can get our community back.

It goes back to what my mom said, “It takes a village to raise a kid.” And with Rocketship, you have your village and you will gain an extended family.


’m very pleased to say, when Rocketship opens in 2016, Ky-Arnie and I will be there.

WATCH: Keisha Clark's passionate speech

“It goes back to what my mom said, ‘It takes a village to raise a kid.’ And with Rocketship, you have your village and you will gain an extended family.”


- Keisha Clark

Ward 8 Parent Leader

Election season in San Jose featured many candidate forums, but we had the incredible opportunity to do something different. Our community candidates forum, organized by parents for parents, was a unique opportunity to hear where the candidates for mayor, county and local school boards stand on education issues and, most importantly, how they plan to work on addressing San Jose’s achievement gap.


Silicon Valley is a hub of innovation and prosperity, yet we still struggle to provide our children equal access to a quality education and prepare them for the competitive jobs our region offers. Forty thousand San Jose students — about half of our kids — are not proficient in grade level skills. We can and must do more to halt this injustice.


As parents, we are looking for leadership on this issue and partnership moving forward, so both parents and elected officials can ensure all San Jose kids have access to the great education they deserve.


“We as parents will not and cannot be silent in addressing the challenges facing our education system,” Rocketship Brilliant Minds Parent Leader Celemente Rocha said to the crowd of 1,200 at the forum.


“Our children follow our examples — by parents taking action, we inspire our kids to do their best.”


Knowledge is power and the forum armed our community with greater knowledge, and greater power, to catalyze the change we need.


“We know that every student with ganas can graduate from college if we enable them to,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, then still a candidate, said at the forum.


“We can do it if we support innovative schools. They are helping lift the ambitions and aspirations of our children.”


Council member Liccardo was joined by fellow mayoral candidate Dave Cortese, Santa Clara County Board of Education candidate Darcie Green and Alum Rock Union School Board candidates Dulce Gonzalez, Esau Herrera, Andres Quintero and Claudia Tercero to discuss their visions for the children of San Jose. Our community learned much from the candidates who pledged to work together to change the statistics and make sure our children are prepared for college. By turning out to vote in this last election and continuing to engage our elected officials, we will hold them accountable to follow through on the commitments made during the forum. However, we know politicians cannot do this work alone.


As parents and community members, we must do our part. We all must support the academic achievement of the children in our lives and advocate for eliminating the achievement gap. The future of San Jose depends on it.


2015 Hart Vision Volunteer of the Year Awarded to Rocketship Parent Leaders