Due to my personal experience at school, I didn’t want my children to attend the schools that I attended. At the time, our zip code determined which schools we attended, so I moved trying to find a better option for my older children. Unfortunately, my older children didn’t receive a better experience in school than I had hoped for. My oldest daughter wasn’t motivated to achieve her full potential, and my son was moved along each school year, even though he was not at grade level.
In 2006, I remember going to the Santa Clara County Office of Education board hearings in support of Rocketship Elementary School. The co-founders, Preston Smith and John Danner, worked with our parish community to bring high quality education to our students. Listening to the testimonials of our parish community members made me realize that I was not the only one going through similar struggles in trying to find better opportunities for our children, and I was thankful that our community came together to ask for better educational opportunities.
Shortly afterwards, Rocketship opened its doors in downtown San Jose. I remember going on a school tour with our parish staff. The first thing that caught my attention was the college banners, the students were motivated to think about college at an early age. At launch, every student was motivated to learn; they cheered, danced and were excited to start their day! Everyone (principal, assistant principals, teachers, support staff) was on the same page, motivating every student to learn and think about college. I was truly impressed as I saw the students engaged in the classroom and I remember thinking, ‘if only I had this option for my children’, who at the time were in middle school. But at the same time, I was very happy for the children of our parish community who had this option. When my nephews were ready to start kindergarten, I told my sister and niece about Rocketship.
My nephews and nieces were thriving at Rocketship Sí Se Puede, I noticed the difference in education they were receiving compared to what my oldest children received. So when our youngest daughter was ready to start school, it was a given that we wanted her to attend Rocketship. The plan was that when she turned five years old, she would attend Rocketship Sí Se Puede with all her cousins. Every time we drove passed Rocketship Sí Se Puede, Gianna would say “Mami, when I turn five, I will go to school at Rocketship Sí Se Puede,” and every time I would say “¡Sí!” She had been asking since she was about two years old.
Well, when it was time to enroll her in school, the state age requirement had changed, which meant Gianna missed the cutoff age to start kindergarten by three weeks. Rocketship Sí Se Puede did not offer transitional kindergarten at the time, so I had to look at our local district schools for options, but when the local district said that they were not sure if they can fund transitional kindergarten for the entire school year and the program would only be for about three hours a day, which for my family was complicated due to both my husband and I working full time, I knew that I had to look for another option. My sister, who works at Rocketship Sí Se Puede, told me that Rocketship was opening a new school in our community, and it was going to offer full day transitional kindergarten, so I submitted an application for Gianna and prayed that we would win the lottery, a spot in transitional kindergarten at the new Rocketship school. When I received the confirmation that we had won the lottery, I was ecstatic! I couldn’t help but feel blessed to have this opportunity for my youngest daughter.
But the excitement shortly turned to uncertainty when we attended a community meeting in February 2014. In 2011, Rocketship received approval from the Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE) for 20 charter petitions to open over a period of time in Santa Clara County. Rocketship Fuerza was going to be the first school that was going to open from that approval. During our community meeting in February 2014, families who had won the lottery for their children to attend the new school were present. The CEO of Rocketship, Preston Smith, announced that five districts from San Jose sued SCCOE for approving the 20 charters to Rocketship, which meant that we couldn’t open our school with that petition, until litigation settled. We couldn’t wait for that, we needed the school to open in the fall of 2014. Preston told us that we would need to submit a new charter petition, but we, parents and community, needed to work hard to get our charter approved. He introduced Alicia Ross, the Director of Parent Organizing at the time, and she asked who would like to help with opening our school. My husband was sitting next to me and says, “Raise your hand since you like to volunteer.” So I raised my hand, not knowing what I was getting myself into.
The next day or so, I received a call from Alicia, and we scheduled a one on one. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but we met and got to know each other, and I shared my story with her and the reason I was looking for a better option for Gianna.
The next few months, I, along with many other parents, attended many meetings, where we learned to use our voice. I personally learned about the achievement gap and realized that the struggle I had with my children in school and even my experience in school, was actually due to the achievement gap. Our low income students of color are being underserved and that angered me. I learned about community organizing, that if our community works together we can make a positive change and the need to work together for our school in our community was crucial! I learned to share my testimony and use my voice at board meetings. I learned to chair meetings with public officials and with others. I learned the importance of building relationships, we must get involved in our communities, and we must hold public officials accountable.
I remember attending the first hearing regarding our charter petition at Alum Rock School District. The hearing was held at Mathson Middle School’s cafeteria, since they expected a large turnout. I remember entering the cafeteria, and I felt a lot of animosity and tension, there were many district teachers in attendance against the petition, their signs and testimonies were vicious and cruel. It made me feel that I did NOT want my daughter taught by those teachers if that is how they act in the community. They didn’t have to act so mean and hateful towards our petition, it was an experience that I will never forget. We are a community and even if we do not agree, we shouldn’t act with hate. Our founding principal, Maricela Guerrero, reminded us to continue to show our core value of RESPECT, even if they were being mean and hateful. We were not there to argue with the district teachers, we were there to share our story of why we NEEDED Rocketship Jackson (charter petition name at the time) in our community.
Unfortunately the district denied our charter petition, and I realized how much politics is involved in our education system. Our charter petition met the guidelines as stated in the law, yet board members were still able to deny it based on their personal agenda. But we didn’t settle for no, we appealed to the Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE) and again, we met with board members from SCCOE, well with those who responded to us, because not all school board members at districts and county are willing to listen to the community they are serving! We held several meetings, we attended the hearings at SCCOE, and on the day of the vote, we received UNANIMOUS decision to approve our charter petition! I was so happy and excited that we received the approval to open our doors in August 2014, thanks to the hard work and effort from our families and community who came together to bring a high quality option to our community! During this process, I realized the POWER that we parents have in our community! The struggle we went through to get our school approved is why we named our school Rocketship Fuerza Community Prep. “Fuerza” is the Spanish word for force, strength, or power.
Now that we started the fifth school year, we need to renew our charter petition, in order for our school to remain open another five years. Charter schools in California need to renew their petition every five years. I personally see this as a way to hold our schools accountable, to ensure that our charter is doing what it stated in the petition. I wish that the same accountability would happen with ALL schools, including traditional district schools. But honestly, I am also concerned about the politics that exists in our education system. Our data shows that our school is outperforming our local traditional district schools that are in our community, our school has financial stability, yet a board member who is anti-charter, may still vote no due to their personal agenda and not voting based on facts or the testimonies of our families. We have begun the process in our school, holding several meetings for parents to work together, along with our school leaders to ensure our school remains open another five years. We have already met with Trustee Grace Mah and Trustee Joseph Di Salvo, we shared our stories and experiences with each, and I appreciate that they took time to meet with us parents. We have also reached out to other board members on SCCOE so that we can share with them as well. I hope that politics doesn’t get in the way of our students and our community. The reality is that the SCCOE board members are not the same as those who were on the board in June 2014, when we received unanimous approval, so we have to continue to work together to keep our school open. Parent power is crucial in this process, and I am thankful to be part of this process. Rocketship Fuerza, five more years!
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