"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.