Plans to build Antioch charter school one step closer to reality

Rocketship Education’s proposal to build a charter school in Antioch has moved closer to becoming a reality.

ANTIOCH — Plans to open another charter school in Antioch advanced this month with planning commissioners’ endorsement of the proposal.

The Antioch Planning Commission forwarded Rocketship Public Schools’ construction project to the city for final approval, recommending in a 5-0 vote Nov. 1 that council members rezone the Cavallo Road site to allow construction of an elementary school campus.

Commissioners also were unanimous on several other fronts: They advised the City Council to issue Rocketship the conditional use permit the city requires of all schools before they can open, as well as to accept the nonprofit’s state-mandated analysis of the project’s environmental effects.

In addition, they agreed that the city should allow the school to erect a 6-foot wrought-iron fence along the front of its property.

The Redwood City-based organization, formerly known at Rocketship Education, already has bought the 1.7-acre site at 1700 Cavallo Road, where a now-vacant office building housed the East County Times until the newspaper relocated to a Lone Tree Way business park this summer.

Rocketship plans to demolish the structure and replace it with a 31,052-square-foot, two-story campus that will accommodate up to 600 students from 4-year-olds in transitional kindergarten to fifth-graders.

The charter school network currently operates 18 schools in three states and Washington, D.C.; it’s aiming to open the Antioch campus in August 2018.

This would be the third charter school in the city; the two others are K-8 facilities, one of which leases space on the Contra Costa County Fairgrounds. The other, located on Hacienda Way, uses district buildings along with portable classrooms that the school itself bought.

Although charter schools are publicly funded, state law allows them more independence than traditional schools in the curriculum they offer and other aspects of their operation as a way to encourage innovation.

Planning commission Chairwoman Janet Zacharatos likes the fact that Rocketship’s focus is serving children who have been attending low-performing schools in poor neighborhoods.

“Their (test) scores are very impressive compared to what Antioch Unified’s scores are,” she said, adding that the nonprofit operation is effective in encouraging parents to help out in classrooms and otherwise take an active role in their child’s education.

Although Rocketship schools are open to students anywhere, those in the Antioch Unified School District will have priority.

Rocketship will start accepting applications Nov. 15. At the beginning of this month it already had received 480 forms from parents within the district indicating they intend to enroll their child, and more than 200 from families elsewhere, said Marie Gil, Rocketship’s Bay Area regional director.

There will be a lottery in March.

Parking and crime were among the concerns that arose during last week’s discussion of the project.

City staff members advised planning commissioners against approving the 49 parking spaces that Rocketship plans to provide on site, saying it wouldn’t be enough to accommodate both employees and visitors unless the school reduces enrollment from 600 to 400 students.

In addition, Police Chief Tammany Brooks has voiced doubts about building a school in one of the city’s highest crime areas.

The police department last year logged 431 calls for service within a ¼-mile radius of the Cavallo Road and East 18th St. intersection, where there is a liquor store as well as a mini-mart that sells alcohol. Two motels and apartments are also in the immediate area.

The findings prompted the city to install three surveillance cameras at that spot.

The police department recommended that Rocketship hire two armed security guards to monitor the area while parents are dropping off children and picking them up.

But the organization objected, saying in a memo that the presence of weapons “communicates the wrong message to both our families and students.”

“To have an armed security guard at an elementary school essentially validates the misconception that communities that have … higher incidents of poverty require a higher level of security,’’ Gil said.

She noted that after Rocketship opened its Washington, D.C. school, crime in the area actually decreased.

Gil added that her organization will track the number of times it has to call police and keep written records of incidents to determine whether the neighborhood around the Antioch school improves as well.

Rocketship compromised by agreeing to include security personnel — without weapons — among its security measures, which range from equipping every window with motion sensors connected to the alarm system and tightly controlling visitors’ access to the campus to installing surveillance cameras that the receptionist can monitor.

As to the question of parking, the Planning Commission decided that the school could operate with 49 parking spaces and 600 children.

The City Council is scheduled to vote on the recommendations at its meeting Tuesday; if it adopts them, Rocketship can apply for a building permit.

The council meets at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 200 H St.

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