By the Company It Keeps: Preston Smith

I liked Preston Smith from the very start.

We talked about sports and music, teased each other like high school friends, and bonded over stories of our young kids and smart, loving wives. We also shared a hardscrabble past and a set of small shoulder chips that produced in both of us a forward-leaning posture and an abiding passion for education reform.

Preston Smith

But there’s so much more to Preston, the CEO and co-founder of Rocketship Education, maybe the hottest CMO in America. He made it out of a tough neighborhood, attended and excelled at a top-flight university, joined Teach For America, won awards for his extraordinary teaching, served as a founding principal in his early twenties, and then started the first Rocketship school—turning both into the highest performing schools in San Jose, CA.

He worked his way up through the organization, and when CEO John Danner resigned in early 2013, Preston, at only 33, took the organization’s helm and was charged with overseeing both its existing eight schools and audacious national growth plans.

I was lucky enough to be part of a two-year professional development program with Preston. I’ve been witness to everything from his thoughtful interpretation and explanation of complex texts, to his hilarious participation in late-night parlor games, to his fired-up commitment to organizing low-income families. And despite his laundry list of strengths, he shows great modesty (my recollection in the last question is far from the truth—a set-up for Preston to lay into me—but rather than taking the bait, he demurs).

He’s a big-hearted and deeply dedicated educator and friend. But he also keeps it real—always. No matter what the subject or who’s around, if Preston hears platitudes or sees pretentions, he’s going to call it out. He won’t be rude, but he will be honest and direct.

Nowadays, when most people hear “Rocketship Education,” they think of the revolution of “blended learning.” I think of Preston Smith. See, I can’t tell you what will become of this latest wave in ed tech in ten years from now, but I can guarantee you Preston will still be among our field’s strongest and most admired leaders.

I’m fortunate he’s my friend, and we all should be proud and excited that we get to keep Preston’s exemplary company.

Ladies and gentlemen, Preston Smith.

What do you hope to accomplish as CEO of Rocketship?

Rocketship’s mission is to eliminate the achievement gap in our lifetime, and that is exactly what I hope to accomplish as CEO. I realize that Rocketship is only one piece of this puzzle, but I will not rest until every child in our country can attend a great elementary school and beyond.

For me, this is about growing as a leader and learning from the communities that we serve. I have personally developed so much at Rocketship and have been very fortunate to play a part in our growth—from 160 kids to over 5,000, one city to several across multiple states, a handful of staff to over 400. It has been awesome to see the organization expand to this size so rapidly, but it has also forced me to grow at light speed. This has been thrilling, intimidating, and extremely challenging at the same time. I aim each day to constantly get better, and I strive to meet the expectations of the families we serve.

In the last few years, there has been a pitched battle among foundations, elected officials, and community leaders vying for Rocketship’s affection—trying desperately to convince your organization to start schools in their respective cities. What was it like being ed reform’s belle of the ball? Can you say something about Rocketship’s expansion plans?

Being ed reform’s “belle of the ball” has been invigorating and incredibly intense. The hunger for better schools—across the country and in our communities—is tangible. The passion that folks have for their neighborhoods and their families is clear, and I feel directly accountable to them. Frankly, our movement’s inability to meet their needs should serve as a clear call to action. It’s troubling that we cannot do so more quickly. Millions of kids are left behind every day.

With that said, opening new schools is very challenging, and building an organization in multiple regions is even tougher. It takes so much longer than people expect for incredible teachers to develop into incredible school leaders. But we still set an extremely high bar at Rocketship. We have a lot of work to do in order to meet the urgent needs in the communities we serve.

For now, we are deeply focused on our eight schools in the Bay Area, our new school in Milwaukee, and our opening-in-2014 school in Nashville. Beyond that, we are working to open new Rocketship schools in Indianapolis and in Washington D.C. by August of 2015. But this is difficult, uncertain work, so much remains to be done (both by these cities and Rocketship) if we’re to open these schools on schedule.

I’m a bit skeptical of our field’s rush to blended learning. In the nations leading the world in student achievement, the schools look quite traditional; and the classrooms in many of America’s best traditional public, charter public, and private schools look like they did 40 years ago. Why do you think technology is so important to the future of U.S. schools?

Technology is merely a tool in our classrooms and schools, but it is not the “silver bullet”. It is easy to become distracted in our work by the newest fad—everyone having an iPad or some other tech device. These are nice, but they are far from a complete strategy. To your point, I am worried as well. Education technology has quickly become a fad, and, in my opinion, we are not focused on its most critical aspects.

We should all focus on personalized learning and obsessing daily with how we ensure our students are spending large chunks of their day (80%+) in their optimal zone of learning—meaning exactly at their level. I would bet that students in countries that lead the world in achievement spend maybe 25-40% of their time in these optimal zones. Technology is an incredible tool in this work as there are online programs that immediately allow a student to access content in their optimal zone. Again—technology is not the complete answer, but it is definitely part of the solution.

If we can figure out how to integrate technology, curricula, tutors, books, online programs, and much, much more in a manner that increases the optimal learning zone for kids—that is when we will see dramatic gains for students. And I think we will see these dramatic gains much more quickly, allowing our schools to diversify even further in areas like critical thinking, enrichment, problem solving, and more. This would be incredible for our students and families and increase our ability to compete with some of the most affluent, successful schools in the country and world.

At Rocketship, we talk about rethinking elementary school from the ground up, and we are obsessed with increasing the time students spend in their optimal learning zone—through any means that are available.

Would you mind discussing the schools you attended growing up and how your personal experience as a student influenced your career choice?

I grew up in Rialto, California, and attended underperforming public schools throughout my life. I had great teachers who cared deeply about me, but the reality for my neighborhood was that the schools left much to be desired (and still do to this day). Growing up in Rialto I witnessed drive-by shootings, car-jackings, robberies, and I was constantly “navigating” gangs and other challenges in my neighborhood and schools. This background gives me perspective on my current work and the communities where our schools are located. But it also reminds me constantly of the consequences for our kids if we do not provide them with a great education.

The greatest “A-Ha!” I had with this reality was when UCLA denied my college application. I asked UCLA’s Academic Dean why my application had been rejected. I was informed that UCLA “knew” about my high school, that my GPA was inflated, and that they accepted “athletes, not scholars” from my school. In the days prior to NCLB, the universities already had each community and its schools labeled. I had not realized that I’d already been running uphill.

This experience had a profound influence on me. I realized that your GPA, your college “credentials,” the clubs you join in high school, the accolades you receive—they are really pretty meaningless compared to where you grow up and what schools you attend. If you attend the “right” schools in a university’s eyes, then you are likely to be accepted—even if your high school resume and GPA are not as robust as those of a student from an underperforming school.

This is not fair. It is a direct contradiction of the value our country places on opportunity and the American Dream. To this day, it motivates me to ensure that every child in our country can attend a great school and be presented with the opportunities and possibilities they deserve. Students can choose whether they want to pursue them, but they should not be excluded on day one because of where they grow up.

How did a SoCal boy end up at the University of North Carolina, and what was your experience like there?

This is a long, long story. Long story short—I wanted to get as far away from California as possible and see something new. And, man oh man—North Carolina is a much different place than Southern California.

My roommate was from the western part of North Carolina, which is much more rural. I went to his home for Thanksgiving in my first semester, and it was an awesome experience. They owned 300 acres on their farm; his father said their land “ended at the river.” I could not fathom a house without fences, let alone one with that much land. The next day we were baling hay, which was pretty wild for a city boy.

Then, on the morning of Thanksgiving Day, two gentlemen drove up the driveway to my roommate’s home. I was up early, eating my cereal alone in the kitchen, when I noticed the men exit the truck with rifles. In Rialto, guns were not present often, but when they were, it was not for good things. I had witnessed robberies, drive-bys, and more—so I immediately became worried and began identifying my escape route. They came to the door, knocked, and my roommate’s mom calmly answered the door. At which point, the men asked if they could hunt on her land…my mind was blown. I was definitely not in Rialto anymore.

Overall, Chapel Hill was amazing. The pace of life in the South is quite different than California, and I really had a chance to dive deeply into my classes, study abroad in Brazil (which was transformational), study with great professors, and really explore. I learned a ton about myself—past, present, and future—got to see a whole new side of the country, traveling extensively on the East Coast, and became deeply centered on social justice, which was a significant detour from my original passion of political science and law.

You have a reputation for having been an outrageously effective teacher, even at a very young age (a senior leader at Teach for America once told me that you were one of the best teachers he had ever seen). I know you’ll want to demur, but I’m sure people are curious. What made you so good?

Did you ask him how many teachers he had observed? I bet that the sample size was small, which explains everything above. :)

The parents and families in my community were incredible, and I was fortunate to be able to figure out how to partner with them and build a deep relationship. From home visits, to attending their children’s sports games, dinners at their homes, and monthly class events—each year I built a deep relationship with my students and families.

If I had one tip for every teacher, it would be to take the time to visit each of their student’s homes and spend time getting to know their families. Not just focusing on what the parents need to do, or the expectations for your class, but rather, hearing the families story about how they got where they are now, what they want for their kids this year in your class, and what they want for their future. Knowing your families’ stories can be transformational to your work, and it takes to a higher level your investment in your families and your students’ lives.

These relationships were key to my classroom and my kids’ results. The kids were deeply invested in the class and their education because their parents were deeply invested. It provided me with profound insights in how to best motivate and teach these children and gave me a deep sense of fulfillment. I am still in touch with many of my kids and families to this day and seeing my first class of first graders graduate from high school this past summer—wow, so rewarding!

You quickly moved from classroom teacher to school principal. What was the toughest part of that transition? What were the keys to your success in that role?

Persistence and a willingness to fail quickly and learn. The transition from teacher to principal, especially with incredibly limited professional development, was intense and, honestly, brutal. I was not a very good principal in my first year. Thankfully, in the second semester of that year, I received incredible counsel and professional development from Kendra Ferguson, current CAO at KIPP Bay Area. She helped me really dig in and figure out how to help the school move from mediocre to excellent—especially by focusing on culture, consistency, data, instruction, and accountability. Transitioning from the role of an individual contributor to a manager of teachers is not to be taken lightly. It was definitely a challenge—and an area that I continue to focus on and grow in to this day.

If you had to take a year-long sabbatical during which you couldn’t work on K–12 education, how would you spend those 365 days?

If I were paid, then I would likely hang out with my two amazing kids and wife for the entire year—travel, volunteer at their schools, and get some awesome quality time.

If I were not paid, then I would probably look to work with a group in community organizing. I am deeply passionate about this work as I believe that it is at the foundation of our movement—deeply engaging communities at a grassroots level—and frankly, as a charter and ed reform movement, we have been remiss in our work, time, and attention here. Partnering with communities and families creates a movement of advocacy, justice, and freedom that will live far beyond any great principal or teacher, so I would love to focus some of my time and energy here and really get to know a Rocketship community and its families even more deeply.

In addition to all of your professional successes, you’re also a husband and dad. What do you wish for your kids?

Happiness and to be leaders within their communities and the world for justice and freedom for others. Zeke and Phoenix are amazing, and I hope that I can help foster these values and a ton of love in them so that they can realize this in their lives for themselves and others.

About a year ago, you and I played Jean-Claude Brizard and Neil Phillips in two-on-two half-court basketball. My recollection is that we lost two of three games, that I totally carried you the whole way, and that the only liability greater than your offensive game was your defensive game. Is that how you remember it?

Exactly. I haven’t touched a basketball since. Utterly embarrassing.

Want to play badminton next time? I’ll play better—I swear Andy.

Disclosure: Bellwether's Strategic Advising team is currently working on a project with Rocketship Education.

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