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"I remember my first encounter with a student here. I was wearing a suit, and a student comes up to me at lunch with a crowbar in his hand. Tapping it against his leg, he said, ‘Why are you wearing a suit? It is just going to get ripped when you break up a fight.’ That was my very first contact with a Gompers student.”

Speaking is Vincent Riveroll, director of Gompers Preparatory Academy in the Chollas View area of Southeast San Diego. The incident he’s recalling happened in spring 2004. Riveroll was not on staff at what was then two schools, Gompers Secondary and Gompers Middle School, on one campus at the corner of 47th and Hilltop. He was the principal of nearby Keillor. “I was asked by the superintendent,” Riveroll recalls, “to bring my vice principal and anyone else that Keiller could afford to go without and to come do lunch duty at Gompers to support the administration because chaos and riots were plaguing this school. So we stayed for that week to help with lunch supervision, and then I got the call to actually come back and open the next school year at Gompers — which had become two schools in one campus, Gompers Middle School and Gompers High School — as principal of the middle school.”It was not a plum post for the then–35-year-old Riveroll. “There were four principals in the two years that preceded me,” he says.

Violence reigned supreme at Gompers. The school sits in a neighborhood that is home to more than 50 known gangs, and gang culture wasn’t suspended at school. If anything, it was exacerbated by kids from rival gangs being thrown together on one campus.

In its architecture, Gompers is a typical 1950s California school — low-slung classroom buildings laid out in parallel lines east to west, covered outdoor hallways about 15 feet wide, and strips of grass growing between the structures. Cecil Steppe, chairman of Gompers’ board of governors, walks these hallways on a bright summer morning a few weeks before school starts. A cooling ocean breeze blows from the west down the long, broad, open corridors. It’s a tranquil setting, though one that saw very little tranquility until five years ago. Steppe stops at the intersection of one of the hallways and the corridor that bisects it. “Because of the gang violence this school used to have, these corridors were all lined with chain-link fencing, and there were gates so that when fights broke out these gates could be closed to isolate the behavior. The teachers and students would then lock themselves in classrooms. And we would have SWAT teams on campus.”

Riveroll remembers his first days as principal. “The police officers were present on a daily basis at the school. They would park their cars in our parking lot in anticipation of a call.”

Despite the heavy police presence, early in his tenure, “There was a riot. The police were actually jumped by the students. It was a very frantic time in Gompers’ history, and it was not safe or suitable for anyone, let alone kids.”

After school, neighborhood gangs would lie in wait for kids leaving school. “On any given school day,” Riveroll recalls, “on our side of the street there would be uniformed police officers on school property and — clothed with red or blue gang colors — gang members on the other side of the street waiting to pick their prey. And that was the norm.”

Police warned Riveroll and his staff not to cross the street into gangland. “My problem with that was that our kids crossed that street. What about our kids?”

So, like Julius Caesar who crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C. and started civil war in Rome, Vincent Riveroll, “with a group of committed teachers and staff members,” crossed 47th Street and started the war to reclaim Gompers.

The Gates of Wisdom

That was Gompers five years ago, a place to which no well-meaning parent would send his or her child unless there were no alternative. And for many, there wasn’t. The school sits in one of the lowest-income neighborhoods in San Diego. “We have a 70 percent poverty rate,” says Gompers’ teacher and director of development Kathryn Strom, “so 70 percent of our children are from families at or below the poverty rate, which is about $21,000.”

The socioeconomic situation of the area has not improved since 2004. And yet here we are at Gompers in fall 2009, and how different things look. It’s 7:55 on the Thursday morning of the first week of school. Eight hundred students dressed in tan pants, black shoes, white dress shirts buttoned to the top, and navy blue ties gather in the eucalyptus- and jacaranda-shaded quad on the corner of 47th and Hilltop. They’re on school property but outside the chain-link perimeter of the school grounds. They chatter and laugh, but there is no fighting, no posturing, no running or shoving. Twenty or so faculty and staff members, all dressed well enough to work at a law firm, stand among the students. Collectively, they lend a definite air of adult supervision to the scene. “We have faculty and support staff out here to help check uniforms,” Strom says. “One of the biggest factors in changing the culture of the school has been having adults on hand and around the kids at all times.”

Off campus, at the major intersections on 47th and Euclid down to Market, community members in yellow vests assist kids — most Gompers students walk to school — across the busy streets. Paid by the Jacobs Family Foundation, these community members extend the sense of adult supervision beyond the campus limits.

At 8:00 a.m., Vincent Riveroll — now known as director, not principal — leaps onto a concrete bench. Tanned, well groomed, and decked in a black double-vented suit, the energetic 40-year-old holds a hand up in the air. Within ten seconds, the kids have formed two lines — one of boys, one of girls — and all noise has ceased.

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Comments

ladana Dec. 9, 2009 @ 6:55 p.m.

While it is true Gompers has had issues for years, it was not always the case. Back in the 1980's, academically, it was one of the most competitive, desirable high schools to attend in San Diego. At that time, it served grades 7-12, with the high school classes being small. Most graduates at the time went on to college, and many to Ivy League schools. One could merely check National Merit Scholarship awards, Academic Decathlon, Science Olympiad, and Science Fair award records to verify this. What changed? SDUSD dumped a principal there who had no regard or appreciation for the reputation Gompers' faculty and students built. In a year or two, she managed to undo all of it, which resulted in the strongest teachers fleeing the school for the likes of La Jolla High, etc. The school soon failed. Congratulations to the current faculty, staff and students for the leadership and dedication you all have shown to bringing dignity and substance back to a Gompers education. Well done!

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wiro Dec. 9, 2009 @ 7:35 p.m.

Gompers has proved to be a great success story. Being part of the GPA family myself, I have experienced the hard work ALL staff puts into day activities. The kids are our number one priority and we all work together to help our students who need someone to believe in them. GO GOMPERS PREP ACADEMY!!!!

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werdup Dec. 10, 2009 @ 9:53 a.m.

Also a new staff member, and, I must admit, I was a skeptic...but, I have stayed focused and committed and this school has changed my life. These AMAZING kids have changed my life. Director Riveroll is a visionary, and he is taking us and our kids on a path that can only lead to success. If you are an educator who is not in it for the kids, then GPA is not for you. But, if you show up everyday wanting to do right by them, even when it's hard, (and let me tell you, it is the hardest job I have EVER done,) then you are in the right place.

You should come witness the magic for yourselves!

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ChuckAdkins Dec. 10, 2009 @ 7:29 p.m.

While much of the article is valid, it seems more like a fluff piece than objective reporting. The article mentions teacher retention. Ah, a simple peruse of edjoin.org on a given day will find three to four open positions. Why are so many teachers bailing on the academy if things are so rosy?

I am not saying the good things are not happening at GPA but I would enjoy some objective reporting instead of more PR fluff from Director Riveroll, the master of spin.

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teela Dec. 10, 2009 @ 8:58 p.m.

As Ladana mentioned. Gompers was a very good school for many years. I graduated in 1996, in a class that had over 90% of students going to college in the fall. Leaving out the former legacy of Gompers seems like a major hole in this article.

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crewinbruin Dec. 11, 2009 @ 10:23 a.m.

As a former Gompers student and graduate I was there throughout the 90's being bussed in as part of the magnet program. The former principal there did drive the school into the ground and ruined it's once great history. I'm very happy to see that the school has been reclaimed by the neighborhood, caring teachers and the parents of the students.

During my time there I'd say the #1 problem with the school was the complete lack of parental involvement. Kids come from families where school is an afterthought to parents and there is no push to excel from home. The parents simply expect teachers to put in 100% of the work needed to raise their children. It's great to see that someone has finally broken through this cultural problem.

As for ChuckAdkins, as a former student this is not a fluff piece, but refreshing knowledge that my school is rebuilding its legacy of academic prowess. Chuck, go spend a week observing and assisting in low income schools across the county and then try and call this fluff.

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charterwatch Dec. 12, 2009 @ 6:46 p.m.

Fluff piece would be the least criticism that could be made about the article. Ignoring the misspelling of Keiller, the article is riddled with inaccuracies and overly one-sided. Beginning with the name of the school being Gompers Prep. While that is the name of the newly opened high school with 9th graders only, there is a 6th through 8th grade Gompers Charter Middle School (GCMS) still in operation. There was a recent U-T article that brought to light the somewhat nebulous reason to merge the schools. Mostly, the ability to bury the middle school and forget that it's in Year 3 of Program Improvement and not have the high school loose a $450,000 federal grant received by every new charter school that is opened. This money grab by charter operators is only just being exposed to the light of day. Mainstreaming Special Education students does not change the fact that they may still be identified as such and must receive services per an IEP. GCMS could still have 18% of its students identified as Special Education. Gompers did not "hire" the El Dorado County SELPA but had to apply to join. While Gompers may have a large Special Education population, charter schools as a group have a much lower percentage of such students due to their ability to put up barriers to enrollment. Interesting that GCMS would like to emulate the Preuss Model school as it has one of the lowest Special Education populations and yet insists it does not cherry pick students. Most charter schools will continue to abandon Special Education students as educating them can be quite costly and they don't really fit into their vision. Also of interest, is that the school's Director and several other top level administrative staff of the school, remain employees of the San Diego Unified School District. Wouldn't it be nice that these "District" employees were subject to the same "at will" employment contracts as GCMS employees. The continued privatization and profitization of public education under the guise of "public" charter schools continues. It would be amusing if it wasn't so scary but the question about the root of all evil is all to apt and should make the taxpayers greatly concerned. A game indeed!

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Hmmmmm Dec. 12, 2009 @ 7:45 p.m.

After reading this article I am left wondering. Why is a school that demonstrates best practices continually showing minimal to no improvement in student achievement? How is it that the administration of Gompers will go to such great lengths to hide its cracks? Gompers was built on the foundation and hard work of strong teachers and leaders with a mission that every school should adopt. Yet, as the years have passed this charter has become a fake. There are no teachers in this school that don’t live and breathe the wish to close the achievement gap, but there is a force larger than life that holds back their accomplishments. Vince Riveroll is the man behind the curtain, the man who we want to believe, but who holds no real truths. Behind the facades, GCMS, GPA, or whatever you call it, you will find cracking walls, tired and hurting teachers, students who are forgotten, and a “Director” who interrupts learning (like the progress of GCMS) at every turn. In the years before the charter they would “[start] the school year with [teaching] vacancies, and [they] had substitutes that lasted throughout the whole year”. While Riveroll might be quoted as keeping 80% of his teachers every year, I wonder how this math is calculated given the hoards of teachers that leave mid-year, and the line of teachers that left last year. While the elimination of union rights allows Riveroll to find the “better fit” teachers for his school, I find he makes up his own rules. Without these “silly” unions, Riveroll spreads guilt like this rain, over every teacher that does not spend 12 hour days and thousands of money on their classes. There is a sense that teachers are never safe at GCMS and that their very livelihood may rely on their few interactions with the Director. Futhermore, the ability to recite the A-G requirements does not ever mean that they are in fact in place or successful. Riveroll has changed the face of learning at GCMS to focus on presentation rather than content. While I promote learning through a variety of modalities, I find that his POL’s are not meant to function as demonstrations of learning; rather, they are opportunities to show off to his guests, just like the author of this article. GCMS has become a kind of Disney attraction, where every guest gets the same tour, visits the “good” classes, and the teachers plaster on their smiles so as to not be treated to a public chastising by the Director himself. While the teachers are treated with disrespect, I feel that it is the students who are suffering the most in the end. This 6 – 12th grade school serves a population of students who are tenacious, genuine, talented, and wonderful. It seems that living below the poverty line has given students in our nation a ticket to a low performing school, and unfortunately, GCMS is not a solution. I believe that as long as this school is under the guidance of this principal, Gompers will continue its legacy as a low performing school.

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Visduh Dec. 14, 2009 @ 2:05 p.m.

It took a while for me to find the time to read the entire article and to read the comments. I'm glad that there were a few comments that pointed out that the story told by the administration is not a complete one. Having been to many of the more advantaged middle and high schools in the county, and having seen them up close and personal, the picture of these well-behaved, respectful, and smartly attired students is very appealing. But since no public school I've ever seen can achieve such results, I find this story unbelievable. If those advantaged schools cannot achieve more than so-so results, how could a school like Gompers ever hope to? One might remember that no principal will present a face to the public of anything less than a cadre of "walk on water" teachers that is the best ever assembled in one school. And the students are always bright eyed, bushy tailed, eager to learn, and great citizens. The truth about schools is far more bitter in that they are highly imperfect places that do the best they can with what they have to work with.

Some insight into Gompers would have been provided if the author had dug back into its history. Gompers was one of those schools that was heavily affected by the VEEP program that the district ran in the 80's and 90's to reduce racial segregation. (Sorry, I don't remember what the initials stood for, save that V was for "voluntary.") It consisted of taking large numbers to white students by bus to "magnet" schools in the minority areas of town, and taking minority students out of their own neighborhoods to schools in generally white areas. But it was really a sham because many or most of the magnet programs served predominately white students, even though they were in the older and poorer areas. And likewise, some of the schools in the more affluent neighborhoods were shipping out almost all of their own kids while receiving those from the minority areas. But, on paper it looked good, and met the requirements of the settlement of the Carlin lawsuit.

Gompers, in addition to being the local junior high/middle school, got a math-science magnet high school. The teachers who worked on that campus were expected to teach some of both the neighborhood middle school classes and also do some of the magnet program. But one feature of the place was mind-boggling. There was a fence in the middle of the campus to keep the local kids separated from the magnet high schoolers! If anyone had some doubts about the functionality and/or sincerity of the VEEP program, the separation of kids at that school should have substantiated them. teela and crewinbruin are graduates of that magnet program, something that does not exist at Gompers today.

Too bad this article didn't really dig deep and tell the full story of what is really happening at Gompers.

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David Dodd Dec. 14, 2009 @ 2:55 p.m.

VEEP = Voluntary Enrollment Exchange Program

And Visduh, when I went to public elementary school, kindergarteners were separated from grades 1-3, and grades 1-3 were separated from grades 4-6. I believe it had to do with socialization in peer groups, which seems logical to me.

So far as the story goes, if you look at it in a broader sense, it simply examines the benefits of a school making its own decisions (within State guidelines), rather than a bunch of District Officers making decisions that are often nebulous concerning individual schools within the district. In that sense, Charter Schools have an advantage.

Every teacher I know teaching in public schools relates the same issues - that the students mostly don't care to learn and the teacher is handcuffed. It is a babysitting job more than anything else. Teachers in public schools are not permitted to execute that which is necessary in order to promote and ensure student involvement at a level where almost all students will benefit. My hunch, supported by this story, is that Charter Schools often find ways to accomplish what Public schools can't.

For example, Latin was not offered at any of the public schools I attended through high school. Latin should be a requirement. All five romance languages and much of the English language is rooted in Latin.

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Visduh Dec. 14, 2009 @ 5:09 p.m.

refriedgringo, in my previous post I was making some comments about charter schools, but space limits forced me to delete them. Gosh, I wish that I could buy into the notion that charter schools were the answer to all our educational ills. The sad part is that most of them don't accomplish much, although a few are doing good things. Worse yet, many have ended up in scandals that involved mismanagement or financial improprieties. The advisory boards that run many of the charter schools are made up of well meaning folks, but they often just don't know how to run a school. The result is often falling for a big talker who makes promises that could not be kept by JC himself. Career public school administrators are very good at that, and I suspect Riveroll is better than most. Then there are the charter schools that end up hiring a company to run the place, and the owners/managers of the company are paying themselves millions a year. Talk about siphoning dollars out of the classroom! Generally, the district that granted the charter is not equipped to act in an oversight manner, and has its hands full with just running its own schools.

Take a look at Helix Charter High. It was struggling for years, and finally when some involved people decided that a real change was needed, it was converted to charter status about a decade ago. Today it is still struggling, and has had a series of sex scandals wherein male teachers had illegal contact with female students. Chartering Helix doesn't seem to this casual observer to have done anything positive for the place.

What charters do is give too much power to the chief executive of the operation. The board cannot control him/her, nor can the chartering district, and he/she gets to ride roughshod over teachers, and students and parents. Some of them act like the tsars of old. Is Riveroll one of those?

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David Dodd Dec. 14, 2009 @ 5:50 p.m.

Visduh, I reckon there's an entirely different set of issues of concern with charter schools, as you point out. I never attended any school other than public, so I couldn't say first hand. The chief executive having too much power can be a problem. But the positive angle is that it eliminates much of the politics played in the public school district.

Perhaps the chief executive should be accountable to a parental board, an unpaid board elected by other parents to do nothing but oversee the chief executive? If Riveroll turns out to be a dictator who fails, and my child was enrolled at Gompers, that would be something that I would suggest.

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ladana Dec. 14, 2009 @ 6:48 p.m.

Vishduh, what "fence" are you referring to which separated the local kids from the magnet high-schoolers? Are you speaking literally? I graduated from the Gompers in the early 90's and have no recollection of such a fence.

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Visduh Dec. 14, 2009 @ 8:34 p.m.

ladana--I was earning my credential in the 1993-4 period through UCSD, which had a strong interest in Gompers. The instructors spoke about the fence at that time, and I had no reason to doubt them because they weren't looking for things to knock at Gompers. They described how the local middle schoolers were physically separated from the bussed-in magnet school students. I remember comments to the effect that it prevented fights and intimidation. Sound familiar? But no, I actually had only second-hand knowledge of that fence. When they talked of a fence, they meant it literally.

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ladana Dec. 15, 2009 @ 11:35 a.m.

Visduh: I can say there was no such physical fence in the 6 years I attended Gompers (grades 7-12). However, one might argue there was a symbolic fence because of the different tracks the magnet students were on, as compared to the local students. Some might recall, at the time, it was termed the "school within the school." However, even if you were on the magnet track, you still had classes with non-magnet students in language classes, physical education, student government, yearbook, student newspaper, art, shop, music, and chorus, not to mention the interaction at lunch time and during passing periods. If you were informed there was an actual fence, you were misled, at least for the time I attended. Further, students during the early 90's may recall the "REM" Center, which was developed on what was then called the east campus, which was a small school next door that Gompers acquired. REM, as I recall, stood for "Respect, Expect, Motivate" and students from magnet and non-magnet classes attended a week of workshops and activities at the center. There was no fence dividing the magnet and non-magnet students...I'm not saying it was all one big happy family, but there was a community there and not the rampant violence portrayed in the article that seemed to develop at a later time.

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Braukuche Dec. 15, 2009 @ 2:06 p.m.

It is complete nonsense to blame teachers and their unions for the state of education in this country. The problem is the demands of the job have changed and no one wants to owe up to who is responsible and therefore there is no solution. 30 years ago, teachers were not expected to parent their students. Does anyone beside me find it odd that teachers have to teach such rudiments of civilized social behavior as pulling your pants up and not swearing at adults? But that is the reality. Teachers have to deal with social decay, which is bad enough, but then to be blamed for it, is beyond the pale. I guess true believers like Riveroll think all teachers should put in 12 hour days to parent parent less children, but then who will take care of the teacher's kids? It is absurd to think teachers should have to do more than teach.

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David Dodd Dec. 15, 2009 @ 3:01 p.m.

Braukuche, if you are drawing the conclusion that moral decay is the cause of an often failing system of the proper education of youth in California, I couldn't disagree more. Note that moral decay is relevant; two hundred years ago I'm sure that moral decay was considered the reason for a lot of failed endeavors. They were mostly wrong back then, too.

Schools and school districts are funded based on attendence. They are not funded based on the scholastic achievement of the student body. Students no longer have to learn, they just have to show up and endure. My son, after nine years of school in Mexico, attended a San Diego high school for three years and, by his own admission, learned very little on his way to graduating with better than average grades.

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CuddleFish Dec. 17, 2009 @ 11:19 a.m.

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Visduh Dec. 26, 2009 @ 8:24 a.m.

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CuddleFish Feb. 2, 2010 @ 11:03 p.m.

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