to give students a solid foundation — is
paying off. Former Rocketeers surveyed in
middle school scored a year ahead of their
classmates in math and reading.
Rocketship’s success in California, two
schools in Nashville and one each in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., has drawn
national attention, prompting a visit by
former Secretary of Education John King
and inspiring a book — On the Rocketship:
How Top Charter Schools Are Pushing the
Envelope by journalist Richard Whitmire.
In a time of controversy over the merits
of education options, including charters and
vouchers, Whitmire says it’s important to
keep in mind that not all charter schools are
“There are 6,700 [U.S.] charter schools
out there,” he said, “some really good ones,
a lot of mediocre ones and a few hundred
that should be closed.” Whitmire defines
the top tier as schools producing a year and
a half of learning for every year spent in
school. Rocketship is in it.
“This stuff is really not easy. You’re tak-
ing kids struggling in their neighborhood
school and trying to turn that around. If it
were easy, districts would be doing it.”
He gives Rocketship especially
high marks for pioneering the field of
personalized learning and innovating
ways to prioritize teacher quality and job
satisfaction despite budget limitations.
Rocketship’s distinctive footprint in
the educational landscape “has a lot to do
with Preston and his background of social
change theory,” Whitmire said. “He’s in it
for the social justice.”
‘People not like me’
Preston Smith never planned a career in
education reform. It just sort of happened.
When he came to Carolina, looking for
a not-too-cold change of scenery from
Southern California, Smith channeled his
high school frustrations into his studies.
“I was really angry when I went to
A semester in Brazil shifted his trajectory.
Chapel Hill; I was driven to be successful,”
he said. “And I think that helped focus me.”
Realizing that his inner-city school
had not adequately prepared him for the
rigors of college, Smith found tutors, spent
a lot of time in the Reading and Writing
Center, and ended up with straight A’s his
first semester. He won a seat in Student
Congress and set his sights on law school.
“I went to the study abroad center, and
“Brazil changed me and my perspective,”
they said, ‘Oh, you’re taking Portuguese, so
how about Brazil?’ ” Smith recalled. “And it
was on the beach, and I was like, ‘Oh, I am
so going.’ I didn’t even know it was a social-
As it turned out, the focus on activism
and the camaraderie with other students
intent on changing the world resonated
with Smith at a deep level. What if
everything he’d seen and experienced in
Rialto could be different?
he said. It also introduced him to his wife,
Liz, a classmate in the program.
Back at Chapel Hill, Smith switched his
major to Latin American studies and signed
up with Teach For America at a senior year
career fair. After graduating with honors
(and sans drama), he set out with Liz to
make an impact.
Teach For America sent him to East San
Jose, a community plagued by many of the
same challenges as Rialto. It felt like home.
Smith had grown up dodging robberies,
carjackings and drive-by shootings.
Remembering how few of his high
school friends had gone to college and how
many ended up involved with drugs and
gangs motivated Smith to fight for his San
Jose students. He wanted more for them, for
their families, for their community.
“Growing up in Rialto, I had a lot
of experience with people not like me.
You learn to appreciate a community like
that. Others are scared of it and have these
Kindergarteners greet their teacher before entering class at Rising Stars Academy. Three recent Carolina alumni have joined the staff of
Rocketship’s 10th and newest Bay Area school. “It’s not just about achieving,” Smith says. “It’s about making awesome little citizens.”