This new Stop Six school had to add a pre-K classroom weeks before opening. Here’s why

·8 min read

Hundreds of excited kids packed into the new Dennis Dunkins Elementary School this weekend, pulling their parents along as they explored their new campus just days before the first day of class on Monday.

“There have been 600 people coming through already,” said SaJade Miller, the superintendent of the new charter school in the Stop Six neighborhood, as he held up a balloon arch for parents to get through. “We’re excited.”

The new Rocketship elementary school is on Berry Street, about a mile northwest of Christene C. Moss Elementary School, which received a D rating the last time the state gave accountability scores prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students and parents got free Chick-Fil-A, uniforms and guidance from teachers and administrators.

Elijah Smith, who is 6 years old, said he was excited for the first day after spending the Saturday afternoon meeting his teachers and getting supplies.

Parents, teachers and students fill the hallways at Rocketship Dennis Dunkins Elementary in Fort Worth, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022. The new charter school opened its doors to parents and students the weekend before school began Monday.
Parents, teachers and students fill the hallways at Rocketship Dennis Dunkins Elementary in Fort Worth, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022. The new charter school opened its doors to parents and students the weekend before school began Monday.

Quicha Harris, his mother, said she learned about Rocketship outside of her hair salon.

The new Rocketship campus, which was opposed by local school district leaders, is just one of a growing number of charter schools operating in the city starting fresh as schools look to return to learning after years of disruptions.

Over the past five years, charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, have seen steady enrollment growth at the same time the Fort Worth Independent School District has seen steady declines. The pandemic exacerbated those trends, with only moderate rebounds after schools reopened fully in-person.

In a statement earlier this year, Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Kent Scribner rejected comparisons between public schools and charter schools, saying charter schools often self-select their students.

“A more accurate ‘apples to apples’ comparison would be between charter schools and FWISD Schools of Choice,” Scribner said. “Schools like the Texas Academy of Biomedical Sciences, Young Women’s Leadership Academy, I.M. Terrell Academy for STEM and VPA, Young Men’s Leadership Academy, and several other Fort Worth ISD Schools of Choice are among the best schools in the region.”

Child care partnerships fuel high demand for charter pre-K classrooms

Christina Hanson, the founding principal for the campus, was also on hand Saturday, giving students tours and making sure parents kept track of their children.

Hanson grew up in the neighborhood and said the campus will offer residents an educational experience that is integrated into the community, with special attention to parent involvement.

“I’ve always had a heart to serve,” Hanson said. “And the entire 15 years I have spent in education has been spent here serving my community, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Hanson and Miller both made early efforts to work with local child care centers in order to build a pipeline into the fledgling school, which plans to eventually serve pre-K through fifth grade. The first year it will only serve students through third grade.

While Rocketship Public Schools Texas has plans to operate other elementary schools in Tarrant County, Miller said there are no plans to expand beyond fifth grade in the Stop Six neighborhood.

“By design, we are a pre-K to five model only,” Miller said. “Because we want to work with (school districts). We’re not trying to create a parallel school system. We are trying to fulfill a specific need for early learning in this community so that students can ... leverage their voice to go back to the school of their choice.”

Angela James Davis ran into a Rocketship employee at a Christmas party in 2019, and shared that she worked at a child care center, Sunrise Early Learning and Development Center.

“The next thing I knew she just showed up at my door with all kinds of literature, welcome packets and more,” Davis said. “She asked what I would like to see.”

Principal Christina Hanson helps direct a parent to their child’s classroom at Rocketship Dennis Dunkins Elementary in Fort Worth, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022. The new charter school opened its doors to parents and students the weekend before school began Monday.
Principal Christina Hanson helps direct a parent to their child’s classroom at Rocketship Dennis Dunkins Elementary in Fort Worth, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022. The new charter school opened its doors to parents and students the weekend before school began Monday.

Through direct outreach like that, monthly meetings and phone calls, representatives from the school have made it a point to form relationships with nearby early learning centers. Last year the charter school planned on starting off with two or three pre-K classrooms.

The outreach has paid off..

“We now have four pre-K classrooms, because the demand was so high, we could not sit idly and watch several students on our pre-K waitlist,” the principal said. “So we made the adjustment in recent weeks to make sure that we had four because … through our child care partnerships, our child care directors and their families are able to be advertisements for us.”

One pre-K parent, Shelby Johnson, is a former student of Miller, the superintendent.

“This is going to be his first year going to school,” Johnson said. “So far the charter school seems better and more organized than the ISD.”

During a groundbreaking ceremony in October last year, Miller said the need for a community-wide commitment to education became clear when he worked at the campus and administration level at Fort Worth ISD.

“I realized that it’s really a larger ecosystem that really impacts achievement at all levels,” he said. “That’s why we are strategically partnering with the early child care centers.”

There are 22 early learning centers within three miles of the new campus, and Miller said school officials have met with all of them.

“We know by name and face all of them, and we will support them with professional development, with resources and with support, so that we can ensure that students at the earliest level have what they need to be successful,” he said.

Teachers, parents hope charter presence brings stability to high-needs area

SaBrina Bone, whose nephew was finishing the registration process Saturday, said the new school was a “breath of fresh air” for the area.

“I have been a teacher at the middle school on the south side for seven years,” she said. “And knowing how our school district works, this is a change.”

Bone said early conversations with teachers and administrators show a commitment to teaching that is not as focused on testing as traditional public schools.

Ronica McQueen welcomes students and parents into her classroom at Rocketship Dennis Dunkins Elementary in Fort Worth, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022. The new charter school held a community kick-off event the weekend before school began Monday.
Ronica McQueen welcomes students and parents into her classroom at Rocketship Dennis Dunkins Elementary in Fort Worth, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022. The new charter school held a community kick-off event the weekend before school began Monday.

“If standardized testing was eliminated, we can go back to a more holistic approach to education so that students can actually be prepared for real life,” she added. (Charter schools are required to administer the same standardized tests as traditional schools.)

Rocketship pre-K teacher Alyssa Robinson, who left a Fort Worth ISD school to join Rocketship, said she hasn’t had to worry about buying supplies or stocking a classroom in the same way she has over the last seven years as a teacher.

She said she expects that level of support to extend to families, many of whom she met during house-visits before the year began.

“They will of course get everything that they need,” she said. “Because there is seriously no lack of resources or support that they will have.”

Charter presence could siphon students as ISDs lose enrollment

Supporters of charter schools say they give options to parents who live in areas with low-performing traditional public schools, but critics say the presence of the campuses creates a separate school system which takes away resources from students who are unable to transfer schools.

The rise in charter schools also threatens districts financially, as state funding follows students as they transfer schools.

From the 2018-19 school year to the 2021-22 school year, the enrollment at state-certified charter schools in Fort Worth has grown by about 32%, according to figures from the Fort Worth Education Partnership, a nonprofit that advocates for high-quality public schools in Fort Worth.

The nonprofit has assisted national charter networks looking to move into Tarrant County.

At the same time, the Fort Worth school district’s enrollment has declined by about 9%. District officials have blamed those enrollment declines on a range of factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the competition from charter schools.

More than half of all pre-K-12 students in Fort Worth still go to school in Fort Worth ISD, with others going to charter schools, private schools or other school districts that operate in the city limits.

Steven Poole, the executive director of the United Educators Association, said the situation means districts will have to make difficult decisions.

“When students leave, the funding goes with them, and they don’t leave in perfect class sizes,” he said. “So we’re left at times with classes that are a little oversized, and school districts are going to have to start cutting personnel. It just leaves less resources for our public schools when they leave and go to charter schools or private schools.”

The shifting education landscape has districts like Fort Worth ISD spending big to attract and retain student enrollment, but equally as important is turning around academic outcomes that have long trailed other large urban districts with little improvement, Poole said.

“Fort Worth is going to have to be aggressive in marketing themselves … to highlight some of the great things going on in the school district and the opportunities students will have,” Poole said. “But at the same time, you have to get your house in order to provide that high quality of education so parents will naturally gravitate to their public neighborhood schools versus charter schools.”

This story includes information from the Star-Telegram’s archives.