Originally published in Washington City Paper on May 14, 2018.
Parents had until May 1 to enroll their children in schools matched through D.C.’s high-stakes school lottery. But families that selected a new Rocketship charter school in Ward 5 were in for a rude awakening: After the enrollment deadline had passed they learned the school they had chosen would not actually be opening. Rocketship, which operates two schools in Ward 7 and 8, had been set to launch its third campus this fall.
City Paper first learned about the situation on May 9 after speaking with a Ward 5 parent who was still struggling to find a new school for their child.
The parent, who requested anonymity, says the day after the enrollment deadline passed she received a voicemail from Rocketship telling her to call them as soon as possible. “I called as soon as I got off work and they said the Ward 5 school wouldn’t be opening, that something happened with the building so they can no longer move into the space they had planned,” she says. “They didn’t say why or what the reason was.”
Rocketship had been planning to temporarily lease space in the LAMB Public Charter School building on 18th and Perry streets in Northeast. Children would attend school there for one or two years before Rocketship relocated into a more permanent Ward 5 location.
On May 3, the day after learning her daughter’s school would not open, the parent reached out to MySchoolDC—the agency which handles school choice enrollment—for help finding an alternative. “There was just no level of sympathy for my situation. They didn’t sound overly familiar, there was no sense of urgency,” she says. When the parent pressed MySchoolDC for help, she says she was told that Rocketship was giving all families the chance to enroll in their Ward 7 and 8 campuses.
“But I picked Ward 5 based off proximity to my home, and those other schools were extremely inconvenient,” she says, adding that she also had safety concerns about those options.
After making clear she was not interested in sending her child to a campus far from her home, she says MySchoolDC told her she could always enroll her child in her in-bound traditional public school. But the parent wasn’t satisfied with that choice either. “If I had wanted that then I wouldn’t have gone through the MySchoolDC lottery in the first place,” she says.
The parent had her child on two other Ward 5 charter waiting lists—Yu Ying and Stokes—and asked if MySchoolDC could help her child get into those schools given the circumstances.
“I asked them if there was anything they could do to help students who were displaced and they told me that each school makes their own waitlist decisions and they can’t force any school to let children in,” she says. The parent then called the Public Charter School Board, where she says she was also told that the waitlist situation is out of their control.
More than ten days after getting the news that Rocketship’s Ward 5 campus would not open as expected, the parent was still waiting for waitlist updates and was actively considering private school options.
Joyanna Smith, the Ombudsman for Public Education with the DC State Board of Education, had also been planning to send her son to Rocketship’s Ward 5 campus. Smith tells City Paper that her family didn’t learn the school would not actually be opening until three days after the MySchoolDC enrollment deadline had passed.
“Someone called us to tell us Rocketship would not be opening because of a permitting issue but that we could probably get off the waitlist at Perry Street Prep,” she says. Perry Street Prep is housed in the same LAMB Public Charter School building that Rocketship was set to be in, and Smith was able to enroll her child in the new school last week.
“I’m glad that we were able to settle things for my child, but in my role as SBOE ombudsman I feel there has been all this miscommunication,” she says. “If we had wanted we could have kept my son in private daycare, but for a lot of families they don’t have those same choices and that’s really frustrating.”
In an interview with City Paper, Jacque Patterson, the regional director for Rocketship DC, says 44 families had matched with Rocketship’s Ward 5 campus, and 22 families had enrolled. Their enrollment target had been 160 students (100 students in kindergarten through second grade, and 60 3 and 4-year-olds.)
But low enrollment numbers was not the reason why Rocketship decided to postpone opening its Ward 5 school, according to Patterson. He says that even if they had hit their enrollment goals, their temporary building location would have still required far more repairs than they had originally budgeted for.
Rocketship DC signed a letter of intent with Perry Street Prep in April to rent their third floor for the 2018-19 school year. Rocketship officials knew the third floor required a host of repairs, and toured the premises before they signed their letter of intent. Patterson tells City Paper that at the time, they concluded they could handle the scope of needed repairs. But, he says, “in the last two or three weeks” they brought in their own construction workers to assess the facility, and then determined the repairs would cost substantially more than what they had anticipated.
“The decision we made was that it’d be just impossible to open the school given the amount of construction and repairs that was needed for a one-year lease,” he says. “Even if we had enrolled all 160 children, it would not have been financially responsible and we wouldn’t have been able to provide all the programs and services we needed to.”
Patterson says the school will still be moving into a permanent Ward 5 building for the 2019-20 school year, though a precise location has not yet been finalized. He also says Rocketship worked with every family that had enrolled to help them find a new high-quality school. But the parent City Paper spoke with under the condition of anonymity says they still have yet to figure out what they’ll do next year.
City Paper asked the Public Charter School Board if Rocketship would face any consequence or penalty for its delayed opening. In 2014 the PCSB conditionally approved Rocketship to open eight schools throughout the city.
In a statement, Scott Pearson, executive director of the PCSB, says: “We’re very concerned any time a school fails to meet its charter commitment and that will be taken into consideration next time a school wishes to expand or open a new facility. We are particularly concerned about the students and their families which is why we required Rocketship PCS to work with MySchoolDC to help the affected families find alternate, quality education for this fall.”
Chloe Woodward-Magrane, a spokesperson for the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education, tells City Paper that this is the second time that a campus has not opened or has delayed opening in the five years that MySchoolDC has been in existence. Catherine Peretti, the executive director of MySchoolDC, tells City Paper that she first learned of Rocketship’s decision to delay its Ward 5 opening on May 3.
City Paper asked Woodward-Magrane what kind of response they’ve received from families left to find new schools. In a statement, she says:
“OSSE and My School DC realize this is a challenging time for families matched with the Rocketship Public Charter School campus in Ward 5. My School DC is working with families enrolled at the Rocketship campus that will not open in order to restore the families to waiting lists of other schools they identified during the lottery process. Rocketship is also providing assistance to help them re-enroll in their current school placement or another Rocketship campus.”
Patterson will be leaving his role as Rocketship DC’s regional director on June 1 to start as KIPP DC’s Chief Community Engagement and Growth Officer. He tells City Paper he will also be joining Rocketship’s board of directors, and that a search to find his replacement is currently underway.