Ask little Peter Cournoyer, a second-grader at Rocketship Mateo Sheedy, what empathy means, and he describes it this way:
“It's when you help someone if they need help or if they get hurt,” he says, (which he's had to do a few times).
Empathy is one of Rocketship's four "core values," in addition to respect, responsibility, and persistence, which define the school's culture and identity. The words are plastered all over the school's walls as a reminder and reinforcement.
From the staff's perspective, these values do more than just move students forward academically, says Joya Deutsch, a principal-in-training who will open a fourth Rocketship campus next fall. “It’s also about building character,” she says. “When they leave the fifth grade, we want them to be able to not just engage in middle school, but to be able to be successful as citizens in the community.”
Teachers hand out rockets for good behavior in class and all around school -- a purple “Value” rocket for showing empathy, for example, when a friend falls on the playground and they help out. The rockets can then be redeemed for raffle or prize at the end of the week.
Intangible values like empathy and persistence can be woven through the school’s culture by reinforcing good behavior and by setting examples. But how do you teach critical thinking?
“The stuff that doesn’t get measured, but frankly is what makes people successful in life is critical skills thinking,” said Judith McGarry, spokesperson for Rocketship. “It’s the ability to ask questions, to probe, to think creatively and to really understand the ‘why’ of something. There aren’t any standardized tests that measure that.”
At this school, teachers use what they call “Rocketeer Reasoning”: a set of questions that can be applied to almost any content they learn, like “Why are we learning this?” or “How is this important”?
“We teach them to be meta-cognitive about what they learn,” says literacy teacher Jaclyn Vargas. “My fifth-grade students are leaving and going to all different kinds of middle schools next year. I don’t have control over their educational experiences from this point forward, so I want them to develop not only critical thinking skills, but also dispositions and attitudes toward learning that they’ll take with them regardless of their educational setting.”
Students are also expected to “dress for success” in crisp uniforms. “They should look professional, with their shirts tucked in, because this is essentially their job to be a student right now. So we’re teaching them to understand what it means to be successful when they’re adults, as well,” Deutsch says.
And of all this ties together with the pervasive emphasis on self-confidence. One of the many signs around the school states: "Our background or neighborhood doesn't mean we aren't smart."
Students’ paths to college is firmly laid at Rocketship from the time they start kindergarten. Each class is assigned a specific university and named after its team: the Long Horns, the Tarheels, the Golden Bears, for instance. And those schools’ flags are hung along the entire perimeter of the Learning Lab/cafeteria where students congregate multiple times a day.
Every fall, the school takes a pilgrimage to a university. Last September it was to the University of California, Santa Cruz. Eleven school buses were filled to capacity with students and parents from the three Rocketship schools – more than 1,000 people in total.
“We had five-year-olds asking questions about what they need to do to prepare themselves to come to this school,” said Preston Smith, co-founder and Chief Achievement Officer of Rocketship. Kids and parents were playing soccer on the field and soaking up the collegial atmosphere.
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For many of them, both parents and teachers, it was their first time on a college campus – ever. “What we want to do is help them visualize, ‘This is what’s in store for your kids. This is what you should expect from your child,’” McGarry said.
Cultivating a strong connection between the school and parents is another top priority at Rocketship. School administrators and teachers must maintain a close relationship to ensure that expectations of each student is the same at home as it is at school.
In addition to a home visit once a year, teachers and administrators find ways to involve parents in the school -- which can be difficult, since most of them have not one, but two jobs in this working class community. Still, the school encourages parents to volunteer about 30 hours per year.
During my visit a few weeks ago, I met several parent volunteers who were helping in the cafeteria, as well as monitoring the Learning Lab. Some of them started out as volunteers but are now employed by the school.
“We try to provide a medley of opportunities for parents to get involved,” McGarry said. “For example, one of our parents is a terrific contractor. He has come in and done his volunteer hours by helping us with various projects around the school. So we’re very sensitive to the fact that parents can’t come during working hours because they’re working people."
Parent participation goes beyond volunteering at school. In addition to being encouraged to voice their opinions at community meetings, parents also have a say in which teachers are hired at their school. The administration sets up a reception to meet final candidates and get parental input, McGarry says.
"It also teaches us because a huge part of a teacher's life is interacting with parents, and if we're able to see candidates in that venue, then that's a great way of finding out," she says.
Another goal of pulling parents into the process is to convey the idea that parents have a right to expect a good education for their kids, not just at Rocketship, but beyond. They want parents to expect open communication with teachers, high achievement standards at the school. "We want people who are advocating for better education, people who really care about what’s going on," she says. "That’s the tipping point."