The D.C. Public Charter School Board gave full approval Monday night for Rocketship Education, a California-based charter operator, to open its first school in the District in 2016.
Some of the school’s future neighbors in Anacostia protested the plans in recent weeks, saying that the chosen location — across the street from a halfway house — is unsafe. They also said the charter operator did not make sufficient efforts to reach out to residents.
The charter board initially had planned to vote on final approval Oct. 14, but the board delayed action to give Rocketship time to address the concerns.
Rocketship officials responded with letters of support and amended their plans to delay the elementary school’s opening day a year, until September 2016.
“We want to give ourselves enough time,” said Preston Smith, the chief executive of Rocketship Education, who flew from California to be there for the vote, along with more than half a dozen of Rocketship’s D.C. staff members. “We want to open a great school.”
Four board members voted to approve the 15-year charter agreement with Rocketship; none opposed it. One member, Sara Mead, recused herself because her employer works with Rocketship. Another board member, Barbara Nophlin, abstained.
“I was not clear about what I thought about the information that was presented and whether it was presented accurately,” Nophlin said after the meeting.
In particular, she cited a letter of support for Rocketship submitted by a property manager at Woodland Terrace, a neighboring public housing development. Darrell Gaston, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in the area, and some other opponents testified that the letter did not represent the predominant view in that community.
Gaston made an issue of Rocketship’s uneven performance on state standardized tests in California. As the network expanded there, it had not maintained the strong early results that attracted national attention.
“In D.C., I want a school that is going to outperform other schools,” Gaston said.
Rocketship submitted recent test results from its California schools, showing that most still outperform the state average and that three of its schools are among the highest-performing schools serving low-income students.
The charter board granted the operator conditional approval in 2013 through an expedited process. In July, after a long search, Rocketship announced that it had found a location at 2335 Raynolds Pl. SE, a three-acre wooded parcel on an Anacostia hilltop facing a public housing development.
Rocketship, which also has schools in Milwaukee and Nashville, was excited about the size and location of the flagship D.C. campus, which was identified by an outside developer, Turner Agassi.
Rocketship submitted to the board a signed memorandum of understanding with Hope Village, the halfway house across the street, that said the charter operator was at first unaware that the location was so close to the residence of more than 300 former inmates.
“We recognize that zoning regulations prevent a halfway house to locate nearby a school, but the regulations do not prevent a school from locating near a halfway house,” the memorandum said. “Despite this failed recognition on our part, we declare that we fully embrace Hope Village and fully support its mission to rehabilitate returning citizens.”
Rocketship also submitted a letter of support from D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and a security plan that includes a panic button in the front office, exterior cameras, a fully enclosed parking garage with electric rolling gates and fencing around the play area “that will be angled outward to prevent climbing.”
“We did everything they asked of us,” Smith said. “But we still have a lot of work to do.”