“I don’t want outcomes determined by zip codes,” he said. “I want everybody to have a fair shot.”
Smith, the co-founder and CEO of the public elementary charter school system Rocketship Education, began his educational mission when he worked for Teach For America after graduation.
Since its inception in 2006, Rocketship has opened 11 public elementary charter schools, nine of which serve low-income students in the San Jose, Calif., area. Another school in Washington D.C. is set to open in 2015 and 16 more are expected in the next several years.
For most of the day, students at Rocketship schools learn in a traditional classroom. During the last two hours, students go to a computer lab, which uses a blended learning technique.
The lab consists of online lessons to enhance students’ understanding of subjects. Teachers can also assign practice problems that match each student’s level.
“Blended learning is not just putting computers in a classroom, but the purposeful integration of technology into curriculum instruction,” Smith said.
The approach allows students to have lessons catered to their individual needs, UNC education professor Keith Sawyer said.
“The Rocketship model is doing a lot of things right,” Sawyer said. “I think one of the potentials of this model is the opportunity for personalized learning where each learner learns at a different pace.”
Student Body President Andrew Powell said the method can help reduce the economic achievement gap.
“Through using these techniques, you place more emphasis on individual and personalized education, and you give every student an equal opportunity to succeed,” he said.
Smith returned to California in 2001 when TFA placed him in San Jose. He taught first grade for three years before he was recruited to be the principal of another local school, Learning in an Urban Community with High Achievement, despite a lack of administrative experience.
Smith said he left LUCHA due to differences with the superintendent and considered leaving education altogether. But the same community group who wanted him to be principal of LUCHA told him about John Danner, a former software engineer who wanted to open a charter school.
They opened their first school, Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary School, with 160 students in a church.
“Our presence has helped more than just Rocketship kids,” he said. “It has really helped transform a community.”
Smith hopes that in the future, students won’t allow their neighborhood determine the quality of their education.
“If every kid regardless of zip code and regardless of demographics could attend a great school, that would be beautiful.”