Preston Smith, co-founder and CEO of Rocketship Public Schools, spoke to Emily Freitag about best practices for supporting learning and intervention. He has held numerous roles at Rocketship, including teacher, principal, Director of Schools, and Chief Achievement Officer.

EF: Tell us your own story as a learner and what that informs about your perspective about learning.

PS: I grew up in a low-income community in Southern California, and attended local district schools throughout my K-12 education. This is before No Child Left Behind. I knew where I was growing up wasn’t like Beverly Hills or other locations, but you like to believe that the teachers, they definitely care, they’re definitely working hard, I’m getting a decent education and I was a pretty strong student. And so in my senior year, I applied to UCLA an hour down the road, and, and got rejected. I didn’t get in. And that was really weird to me. I knew my academics. I knew what I’d done at school and I was really pretty surprised. So I called and spoke to an associate dean at the school. And she said to me, “Well, we know about your school.” So okay, well, what does that mean? Like, what do you know that clearly I don’t know? And she said to me, “your grades are inflated. And we take athletes, not scholars from your school. So good luck.” And that was it. She said that to me. And yeah, that was this moment when we talk about the destiny of demographics and your zip code and where you go to school. 

So fast forward, I ended up going to Chapel Hill, which is a great school and, you know, thank god they let me in. The reality is I struggled that first year. I graduated second in my class in high school, I thought I was a pretty smart kid. And I realized really quickly I was way behind my peers. They were talking about books I’d never heard of. So I spent the first year in the Reading and Writing Center, which was tutoring and getting a lot of coaching on my writing. I got my work-study job at the library so I could spend a lot of time reading and catching up. And that’s what I did. And so I think it really did teach me like, frankly, she was right. That associate dean at UCLA was right that my grades were inflated, that I wasn’t prepared for college like other kids were, even though I was second in my graduating class. That’s something that really motivates me to this day. It’s why I joined Teach for America. It’s why at Rocketship we focus on elementary education. We think it starts early and that’s where you make the most profound difference for kids and set them on a trajectory. That’s why we do a lot of the things we do at Rocketship, especially in the deep belief that yes, your zip code matters. Your demographics matter. And if no one’s going to say that to you, well, you know, you don’t want to find that out your senior year when you’re getting rejected from college. 

EF: What have you learned at Rocketship? What have you learned works?

PS: Well, it’s been a journey. I was a district teacher, district principal before I co-founded Rocketship. What works? A deep relationship with parents. An authentic, deep relation with parents works. It takes real commitment. It takes a real cultural shift and belief, so it can’t be checking the box. But if you’re going to truly believe in the statement that the first teacher of a child is their parent, then why wouldn’t you start there so from home visits to authentically getting to know families, authentically welcoming them creating real space real opportunity and open school. That stuff matters—speaking in their language, having material in their language. It’s having real opportunities on weeknights, and weekends, times that are convenient for our families who are working two or three jobs. Making it open to the entire family—aunts, uncles, grandma, grandpa. That matters and makes a profound difference. I would argue you can get good results at a great school with the parent involvement of dropping your kid off on time, showing up every day, and making sure they do their homework. If we’re honest, that’s, that is probably optimal parent engagement for many of our schools, right? You can get good results at a great school. If you want to get excellent or profound results, you better be in a much deeper relationship with the families. And it’s amazing, you can get 10 x result with relationship with family.

If you want to get excellent or profound results, you better be in a much deeper relationship with the families.

I would also say it’s a grave concern of mine in returning back to schools. I saw this when I was a district teacher, our principal who represented the community literally locked the gates, and parents were not allowed to pass the gates. We would bring the kids to the gate to hand them back to the families at the end of the day because it wasn’t safe to bring them on campus. That would never be tolerated in certain communities. And that is exactly what we were ordered to do. We need to limit the number of people right now, which makes total sense. But what I’m more worried about is it’s going to make it a “good” norm moving forward. So when we return to normalcy someday, hopefully, two years, three years from now, it’s going to be ingrained, really even further deeply ingrained that like, No, you keep parents off.

I’d also say intervening. So interventions and getting to a child-level really matters. And we know that works at Rocketship. So things like guided reading—where’s your level? Let me explicitly teach you at your level. It’s really hard work. So coupled with that is you need really robust professional development for it to be done really well. And then on the intervention side, like it’s kind of like Nike, right? “Just do it.” The lesson I’ve learned over time. Take reading recovery—amazing model, one-to-one reading interventions—incredible, but really hard to sustain and scale. The reality is you don’t have to have reading recovery with an expert teacher, one-to-one. You could do more rudimentary like LOI intervention with a small group of kids. But if you do it every single day for 30 minutes, or 45 minutes, it’s that consistency and that saturation that makes a massive difference, especially over an extended period of time. So the lesson I’ve learned is, an expert teacher absolutely can move a kid one to one really rapidly, but it’s really hard at a school to scale that. And so one of the things that Rocketship does is have intervention and tutors in our model that happens every day. And so that consistency and that saturation, it moves kids. That’s been a really clear lesson for us. And the reality is that most schools, there is no consistent sort of format for intervention or consistent format for small group work. And often on the intervention side, you’ll hear, “Well, we need reading recovery. We need expert teachers on one to one.” And I actually don’t think that’s the case.

EF: I like the notion of consistency and saturation. And let us go back for a second because I do think there’s a debate that we’re intentionally exploring in this around this question of at level grade level. What’s your thought on this? 

PS: As educators, we are great at extreme…whole language or phonics, right? It’s one or the other, god forbid that both might be right. And the answer might be in the middle, right? Even out of this pandemic, like the extremes I can see the extremes are going to happen—we all have to teach like this. And this is the way moving forward. I’ll give an example of this—launch. We do Rocketship Launch, where we gather our kids every morning. It’s like a big assembly. It brings joy and community and culture. We didn’t come up with this idea. This came out in the 70s when they were doing these schools and communities for excellent schools. This is a known strategy, it was great back then. And then it got ditched. It was a whole new, “No, we got to go all this we got to get like more direct instruction.” And we like to rediscover things. 

I deeply believe the answer is in the middle. The answer is always in the middle. So in this debate, I think it’s a silly debate because both are right. I think that’s the beauty of the Rocketship model is that there are certain times where yes, I need to be at your level. If I’m going to catch you up as a reader, I need to give you direct instruction or small-group instruction at your level. If I’m going to teach you as an English language learner, I need to have some part of the day I’m teaching you exactly at your language level, right? You are going to move much more rapidly. And this is one of the mistakes I’ve seen in intervention. I’ve seen teachers in small and guided reading, they’ll go way above in a group and do small group guided reading way above the level. The assumption is “the kids will move faster because I’m giving them more rigorous…” but that is not the time to give them more, they need it at their level. And they’ll actually move more rapidly with the right consistency and instruction. 

On the other side, we’ve got a time of our day called close reading. Close reading is where we need to expose you to grade-level content, you are going to see this at the end of the year, you need to see it, you need to understand that the exercises around comprehension and writing, so you’re not actually asked to read the paper. Fluent readers and the teacher read the article, read the story. Your job is to become disciplined in terms of comprehension and grow those skills and be exposed to grade-level text. It’s built into our model. We need to fill those gaps and we need to teach you grade-level content. It’s a blend of both and I frankly, I think that debate is silly. And it just undermines us as educators because it really undermines, what is the true art of education? The true art of teaching, right is both.

EF: The art of teaching is both pushing ahead and supporting the gaps.

PS: It’s scaffolding, right? The art of teaching is standing before your class and identifying: There’s a gap here, how do I circle back and fill that while I’m still driving on the content and knowledge you need to know? That is the profound art of teaching.

The art of teaching is standing before your class and identifying: There’s a gap here, how do I circle back and fill that while I’m still driving on the content and knowledge you need to know?

EF: I think it’s just a question of how do we spend time with kids effectively? And that I think leads to feeling like a pressured equation. But I very much agree.

Tell us more about what maybe you’ve tried that doesn’t work, or you’ve seen from others that you, in particular, anything that surprises you about things that don’t work?

PS: We’ve tried different intervention programs. I don’t want to name names, but they haven’t been very effective. What we’ve learned is guided reading and actually double-dosing on guided reading. So, multiple kinds of small-group reading, direct reading instruction is really powerful. We’ve really leaned into that. That’s probably the most powerful way to catch kids up and fill gaps. 

What doesn’t work, especially for the communities we serve, are suspensions or demerit culture. We sometimes have been made fun of by our “no excuses” peers because we’re too loose in our culture. And I think that’s a good thing. There needs to be joy. There needs to be social-emotional learning and positive behavior, interventions, and support. So really creating a strong community. We start with Launch. We’re built around community, then our kids go, and they have breakfast, which is followed by a social-emotional learning lesson. Their parents are welcome. There’s a feeling of safety and joy and celebration. And I think this is where the balance comes in. It’s not great as a student, if it’s always grade-level and you’re behind, because school is not a joyful place, right? So if you can feel like I’m always winning, that’s a huge win. 

I’d also say we’ve learned, especially in our learning lab where we’re growing, providing a really rich experience there has been huge. So we’ve extended so that that space still has our tutors and interventions. But it also includes PE, so they have physical enrichment, but also, now it has hands-on science, it has robotics, we really leaned even further developmental plays. How do you make sure that even for your most struggling kids, there’s at least one part of their day they are really looking forward to and really engaged in? That can totally shift their learning experience. 

EF: Let’s talk about assessment. This is another place that I feel like there’s some debate emerging in particular about what to do as students return, anticipating that extended disrupted Some are worried about the unintended traumatic consequences further testing could play out for kids, especially at a time when they are already recovering from every number of traumas themselves. How are you all thinking about what to assess, how to assess, what to do with data? 

PS: I haven’t heard this debate as much. Data drives our learning at Rocketship. It drives our model, especially on: What are the gaps and how can we help you most rapidly? Frankly, I think it’s a disservice of duties to our kids and families if we don’t do that, right. Like how do we look a parent in the face and say “your kid’s doing great, and they’re on track” when we haven’t really assessed that. 

If the concern is around trauma or emotional experience, for me that gets to the culture of the room, the culture of the school, the culture of how it’s presented, and the rationale and how it’s utilized. So I think it’s a fair point. If the data is not going to be used and it’s just going to make kids feel inferior and that they did fall behind then yeah, that’s absolutely a problem. But for us, when we focus on assessments, it’s meant to be positive. We celebrate growth. And our kids know, it’s just so in our culture and our teachers and staff know that we take a baseline annually, because to your point, we want to know, how did you do over the summer? Have you grown? Where are the gaps? And then, great, now we can get started. There’s not over assessing, but it is a frequent sort of like touch-point to say, “Are we on track? Are we making gains? Do we need to adjust? Do we need to think about a different tutor because there’s a better relationship there? Do we need to think about a different program? Oh, great. You know, you’ve moved on to a new guided reading level, like let’s make sure we’re challenging you appropriately.” We can’t wait to get our kids back and be able to do this. 

I’ll also name, we have got a really cool tool internally, that allows us to daily track completion, progress. And these correlate to grade-level standards. So we’re able to leverage this tool daily, we’re able to coach kids in our coaching calls, which happen 3-4 times a week. And we’re going to use these at the end of the year to be able to authentically say to families, “Based on this data, here’s where your kid is on grade level, and here are the things they need to work on over the summer.” We built this tool on our own. We’re probably the only one in the country that has this. When districts and other schools think about intervention, this kind of tool would be immensely helpful, especially when coupled with online programs that are really around practice. So not the introduction of material. We don’t really think that’s the best online tool, but practice of material. We think it can be really powerful in addressing what I think many people are rightfully concerned about, which is how do we catch kids up? And I think a tool like this coupled with the right programs can be really powerful.

EF: Eager to dig into more on that, so we may have to come back to you and get a description of that tool. Any final thoughts? Anything that you all are thinking about that is helping you as you think about the task ahead?

PS: I haven’t seen anybody talk about bringing back four- and five-year-olds, who have never been to school, and who have just spent five to six months by their parents’ side. And they come to school and people are wearing gloves and masks. The first day of school is scary enough for kids and families. Nobody’s asking, how do you do that well? We’ve been obsessing about this at Rocketship. I just think it’s such a big deal because the kids model what their parents are feeling. And that first day of school is going to be a really big hurdle for a lot of families, let alone dropping off your four or five-year-old for the first time, and they’ve been by your side for six months. So I’ve been fascinated by the absolute void of this conversation. It’s something we’re obsessing over. And Rocketship has our distance learning Launchpad, which is up on our website. It’s sharing external materials. It’s not our internal platform, but it’s got a lot of how-to guides. As we start figuring things out, we’re going to be posting them up there. But I really would hope and pray that our educators and school system leaders would really obsess over this question for our four and five-year-olds as they come back.

I haven’t seen anybody talk about bringing back four- and five-year-olds, who have never been to school, and who have just spent five to six months by their parents’ side. And they come to school and people are wearing gloves and masks. The first day of school is scary enough for kids and families.

EF: I’m the mother of a four-year-old. And we had the last day of preschool where we just drove and picked up his cubby contents yesterday. And so you just took me to quite a personal place on that. We will continue to learn together in community as we explore the question of how to support students and the recovery from COVID.