Rocketship Plans for Southeast DC

Rocketship Education ( is taking steps toward a $23 million development in the Southeast sector of Washington, DC:

rsed_dc_siteplanWe’re incredibly excited about the facility for our first school in DC. It will be our best facility to date, probably the best we will ever build. We are working to create a learning environment that is both an asset to the community and conducive to student learning. The two-story, 54,000 square foot building will feature a glass entrance, an outdoor terrace, two playground structures and incredible views.
–Barry Brinkley, Director of (DC) Community Development, RSED blog

The Financials

The 2.78-acre unimproved lot is to be leased for 29 years with a purchase option. It is located at 2335 Raynolds Place, SE, near the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. RSED materials list annual rent of $2,048,045 (roughly $170K/month) and a total project cost of $23,406,225. (See Lease and lease summary, as provided to RSED’s business committee and board of directors in May.)

Financing comes via the Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund. Bobby Turner, formerly of Canyon Capital Realty Advisors, and Andre Agassi (of tennis fame) had previously financed numerous charter school facilities through the Canyon-Agassi fund. Turner left Canyon in November 2013; in May 2014, the partners announced their new venture and their intention to raise $1 billion for schools, housing and healthcare facilities.

Diane Ravitch wrote at the time of the May announcement:

Read the story [Bloomberg/Business Week] and see if you can find a single reference to education in any context other than a chance to make money.

Bloomberg does not specialize in articles about education, of course. On their website, Turner-Agassi offer some “compelling reasons to invest in education,” without linking those reasons to any specific project. They sum up with the motto: “A strong focus on social and corporate responsibility is vital to financial success.”

Existing Educational Infrastructure

The DC Public School for the neighborhood of Raynolds and Bruce is DC Scholars/Stanton Elementary School, 2701 Naylor Road, SE, just four blocks away. Garfield, at 1200 S Street, is six blocks away.

Community Input

Brinkley’s blog mentions “meeting with families and community members” of Woodland Terrace, “for over 1 year.” He then expresses hope that the “flagship” will be a “source of pride and excitement” for the community, adding:

In this spirit, we are asking community members to weigh in on the design of our outdoor front entrance seating area. We also want community input on a mural to be featured on the front of the gymnasium. The neighborhood feeling a sense of ownership of the school is a top priority for us. We want to provide another high-quality option that not only achieves academically, but that also connects with the community.

At press time, however, 32 people had “liked” RSED’s Facebook post on the DC facility, and all appeared to be Californians. Meanwhile, Rocketship’s only DC office is at R and 16th Streets in NW, distanced by a river and much more from Woodland Terrace; furthermore, according to DC law, charter schools must be open to residents of the entire city. The Education Town Hall is seeking information from near neighbors and others in DC, about the community input process so far, and from RSED about plans for the future.

UPDATE 7/25: Queries to sources in Southeast and education worlds have turned up no one local involved in Rocketship plans for Raynolds Place SE. Still searching.

Rocketship Education Results

Rocketship is based on a “blended learning” model which combines classrooms, led by certified teachers, and computer labs, with uncertified tutors. The model is currently under revision due to disappointing test results in some schools, especially over time. (See Background discussion here earlier this year.)

The May 2014 report to the RSED board complains about what CEO/President Preston Smith calls “a reckless and poorly researched report released by the Economic Policy Institute.” The report in question — “Do Poor Kids Deserve Lower-Quality Education…?” — was published by EPI in April 2014.
Smith notes “multiple inaccurate findings” without citing a single one or countering any such.

SIDEBAR, for the record:
EPI is avowedly “liberal,” has union leaders on its board, and receives some of its funding from unions. The report’s author, Gordon Lafer, is associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center; neither his scholarship nor the EPI report is criticized by colleagues. (One op ed challenging Lafer’s “fact checking” concerns whether or not another organization “promoted vouchers,” not matters of economic or educational research.)

Also for the record: The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) raised millions to bring Rocketship to Milwuakee. Timothy Sheehy, president of MMAC, also sits on the Rocketship Education board of directors.

EPI’s report is but one of several sources casting doubt on Rocketship educational “success.” (See earlier background, also linked above.) Smith’s board report itself notes that the percentage of students “on track to reach MAP targets” and school consistency of performance are below RSED’s own targets. (See “Dashboard,” page 8 of May 2014 report; or download the whole 823-page megillah from RSED website.)

DC’s Public Charter School Board insists that Rocketship is an important charter offering and that its 7-year-old educational model, currently under re-evaluation from within, is a “well-proven and established” model. (See background story, cited above.)

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