The Rocketship Academy is located next to one of the District of Columbia’s most economically challenged housing complexes. The Rocketship Academy, known as Rocketship Rising, is in Ward 8 close to Woodland Terrace, a D.C. Housing Authority property known for high incidents of crime. Plus, it is next to a halfway house. It is located at the intersection of Bruce Place, S.E. and Erie Place, S.E. and is housed in a rectangular building that is white with purple edges and an orange front.

The Rocketship Academy in Ward 8 is close to low-income Woodland Terrace. (Courtesy photo)

The charter school, which was founded in 2016 with the help of tennis superstar Andre Agassi, is thriving due to the efforts of the leadership and staff, and the support of the community. Jacque Patterson, regional director of D.C.’s schools of Rocketship Education, a national non-profit that provides educational services to students who are in low-income neighborhoods, told the AFRO that was the plan.

“That is what Rocketship does,” Patterson, who served as an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 8 and as president of the Ward 8 Democrats, said. “Our CEO, Preston Smith, wants to go into communities that are underserved and provide those children an excellent education.”

Rocketship Education operates schools in the Bay Area of California, Milwaukee, and Nashville in addition to the District. The non-profit was founded in 2007 in the Bay Area and has a total of 18 schools, primarily elementary.

Patterson previously worked with a KIPP charter school and social services organization Martha’s Table before agreeing to help found Rocketship. “There are public elementary schools in the area such as Moten, Garfield, Stanton, and Turner but we wanted to offer an alternative to the residents of the Woodland area,” he said. “Those elementary schools have proficiency rates in the 20th percentile on standardized tests and I thought that was unconscionable.”

Rocketship opened its doors in the fall of 2016 and presently has 448 students. This year, it accepts students from pre-kindergarten to third grade and will go as high as fifth grade in a few years.

Patterson said unlike some other charter school companies, Rocketship sought out community members. “Often, charter schools come into the community and act paternalistically,” he said. “We didn’t want to do that. We have a good relationship with the immediate community. Fifteen to 16 percent of the students come from the immediate community.”

Patterson said his team at Rocketship held a block party for the community before it opened last year and hired people from Woodland to work at the school. He said returning citizens at the halfway house, Hope Village, were employed as construction workers to build the school.

Patterson said he is well-aware of public safety concerns at Rocketship’s location but worked early to alleviate those fears. “We went door-to-door at Woodland Terrace and the immediate neighborhood to establish relationships,” he said. “We told the neighbors that they needed to own this school for it to be successful. Since we have done that there has been no graffiti on the school grounds and no broken windows.

“We also noticed that there has been a change in Woodland. There are more trees being planted and the lawns are being mowed more often. There is no magic formula to this, treat people well.”

India Blocker is the advisory neighborhood commissioner representing the Rocketship area. “The school has had a great impact and kids in the community go to it,” Blocker said. “It is amazing. They work with the community and the parents say it is good to have a great school that is convenient.”

Patterson confirmed that the community and parents play a major role in personnel decisions.

“We let parents and members of the community interview teachers to see if they are culturally sensitive,” he said.

The work at Rocketship appears to be paying off. Patterson said the school has already achieved Tier 1 status and 80 percent of its students are performing proficiently at grade level.

That not only pleases Patterson, but Ward 8 D.C. State Board of Education member Markus Batchelor, too. “Rocketship has set bold and ambitious goals,” Batchelor told the {AFRO}. “Rocketship makes the parents and the community central to its development and it allows those stakeholders to have the school they wanted.”

Patterson said the Rocketship franchise will expand to Ward 7 and open a location there after the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday in 2018. He said some of the Rocketship students will go to the Ward 7 location and it has the support of D.C. Council member Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7).

“Rocketship is off to a very fast start, as the school already has become a key part of Ward 8 and will bring the same expertise and commitment to Ward 7 in a few months,” Gray said.