The construction site in Southeast Washington barely resembles a school, yet the two parents already can navigate their way through the still-imagined gymnasium, computer lab and nursing station.
“Oh, this is my favorite part of the building,” said Rhondesia Small, 26, pointing to doors at the city’s new branch of the Rocketship charter school. The doors connect classrooms so younger students “have no excuse” for lollygagging in the hallways.
Small and her boyfriend, Christopher Smith, plan to send their 5-year-old daughter, Beautyful, to Rocketship next year and are part of a group of parents that has been involved in its launch. They’ve taken frequent tours of the two-story, 54,000-square-foot building on an Anacostia hilltop and have attended community meetings.
And they’ve interviewed prospective teachers, part of an innovative approach to involving parents in building the school’s academic foundation.
A group of parents interviews each teacher before the teacher is offered a job, and Small and Smith have participated in more than a half-dozen of these sessions in recent months. The parents’ feedback has “swayed some candidates to get an offer, and swayed some not to get an offer,” said Josh Pacos, the school’s principal.
The parents take the job seriously, examining each candidate closely.
“There was this one candidate who had a good background, but her attitude, I didn’t like that,” said Smith, 29, a D.C. native who did not graduate from high school and wants to make sure his daughter has a better educational outcome.
Rocketship, a California-based charter operator that opened its first elementary school in 2007, gained national attention with its initial strong test scores and blended-learning approach — mixing traditional teaching with online and computer-assisted instruction — which has kept administrative costs low. The heavy reliance on technology and ability to sustain its test scores as it expands, however, have been matters of controversy.
The D.C. Public Charter School Board voted in 2013 to allow Rocketship to open as many as eight schools in the District, with the one in Ward 8 being the first. The school is situated across the street from Woodland Terrace — a sprawling public housing complex that has long been known for violence — and down the street from Hope Village, a large halfway house for convicted felons. Some residents have criticized the location, calling it unsafe.
Opponents have argued that the school could bring unnecessary competition to the nearby traditional elementary schools that belong to the D.C. Public School system, including Stanton Elementary, which has seen one of the city’s more promising school-improvement efforts.
Jacque Patterson, Rocketship’s regional director, said the charter hopes to operate more like a neighborhood school than the District’s other charters; the school is required to accept applications from any D.C. child who wishes to apply, but Rocketship is focusing on recruiting students from the Ward 8 neighborhood.
The school, which has plans to run through fourth grade, will house 350 students in kindergarten through second grade during its inaugural 2016-2017 school year. The Appletree Institute also will run a preschool at the facility.
About 40 percent of Rocketship applications so far have come from families living in the Woodland Terrace housing complex, Patterson said.
Administrators said they hope families will be involved in the school, and they are building a room where parents can have Internet access and computers, allowing them to submit job applications while they are on campus to pick up their children or attend school functions.
“If you want people to start buying into their community and the revitalization of the community, then a school is the best first way to start,” said Patterson, who also is a Ward 8 Advisory Neighborhood Commission official and is considering sending his two children to the school next year.
For many of the school’s parents, this is the first time that they have played such an active role in their child’s schooling.
Pacos, the principal, said Rocketship aims to teach parents how to advocate for their children in the middle school and high school years, after they leave Rocketship. By interviewing teachers, the parents will develop rapport with them before the school year begins. School officials plan to make home visits to each student’s family during the academic year, and the school plans to have frequent events for parents to attend. Rocketship already is planning to host a Ward 8 D.C. Council debate ahead of the next election.
“I’m new to this, so I’m learning as I go along,” said Jermaine Carter, a construction worker who recently moved to Ward 8 from Houston. He plans to send his son to Rocketship and has sat through a few teacher interviews. “It’s a good idea to see and get a feel of who your child is going to be working with and what kind of personality they have.”