“Good morning, children.”
“Good morning, Director Riveroll.”
“Please tell me what REACH stands for.”
In unison, the children yell, “Respect. Enthusiasm. Achievement. Citizenship. Hard work.”
“Good job,” Riveroll says while tossing (unsharpened) pencils to the kids as prizes.
Riveroll descends from his perch and makes his way to a gate in the chain-link perimeter. There he’s joined by Dolores Garcia, the school’s family services coordinator. He stands by the westward fence post, she by the east. Then, while inspirational music blares from the school’s public address system (“Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” by the Spice Girls, “It’s Off to Work We Go” by the Seven Dwarves, and “ABC” by the Jackson 5), the students enter the campus in lines. Riveroll greets each girl as she enters with a handshake and a “good morning.” The girls break their silence only to return the greeting while looking Riveroll in the eye. The boys do the same with Garcia. Standing a few feet into the campus, Strom narrates the action. “We call this the Gates of Wisdom. Every morning, the kids line up to come onto campus. When they come through the gate, they are greeted by the director or by one of the other staff. We teach them to shake hands, say good morning, and look the person in the eye when they shake hands. It shows respect, and it’s a great life lesson. Then we check their uniforms.”
As if on cue, Strom calls to one of the male students, “I need you to button up that top button, and make sure that you tuck that shirt in.”
Once on campus, the students hustle straight to class as faculty and staff members standing in the hallways exhort them to do just that. In five minutes, with little noise and lots of hustle and encouragement, all 800 kids are safely in their classrooms — no loitering, no yelling, no running and, most importantly, no fighting.
The Culture War
Before September 2004 was out, Riveroll had decided to invite the community in for “work group” discussions on how to improve Gompers. Michelle Evans, now Gompers’ assistant to the dean and a board member, attended those meetings. “She was the angriest parent there,” Riveroll says with a smile.
You wouldn’t believe it, looking at Evans. Her face emanates motherly kindness. But she doesn’t deny the charge. And when she gets talking about those days, a tidal wave of strength and attitude flows from her. Her silver and stone bracelets clink and clank as she tells a story about her son, an honors student at prior schools, being tracked into subpar classes and growing more and more disgruntled at Gompers in September 2004. After, by her own admission, chewing out teachers and administrators on campus, she came to one of the first community meetings. “I went home, rested, got dressed, got up, and I was the first one at the door at six o’clock,” Evans recalls. “Only ten other parents show up, and all these district staff show up. I am thinking, ‘What kind of parents…? No one is here.’ Then the district staff tells us in all this big fancy language that basically our school is failing because it hasn’t passed AYC or NCLP or something like that. I don’t know what those things mean. So I stand up and say, ‘First of all, talk to me in a language that I can understand. What is AYC? What is API? What is NCLP? All you white people can tell me is that you are going to close my neighborhood school down. So what am I supposed to do with my children? I don’t have a car. I don’t think so. You guys are going to fix it.’ ”
“The first parent meeting,” Riveroll recalls, “there was a lot of anger. This group had seen principals come and go and nothing ever change, so why should anyone listen to me?”
The meetings grew larger, up to 35 parents at each, and Riveroll heard a lot more anger. Parents, he says, were “infuriated that we had to bus the kids out of the community to get a good education. We had to get them up at 6:00 a.m. because their own neighborhood school wasn’t meeting their needs. A social injustice was happening, and that is a great catalyst for change.”
But for decades people had been saying change was needed at Gompers — and at nearly every inner-city school in America, for that matter. Underfunding, inner-city poverty, a lack of two-parent families, state budget cuts, bloated bureaucracies, and other seemingly insurmountable societal ills were offered as root causes. Riveroll had a simpler answer to what was wrong: culture. The violent culture of the surrounding streets spilled onto the campus, despite the police presence. Besides posing a physical danger to students, the nearly daily fights made Gompers an undesirable post for teachers. “We had a 75 percent attrition rate,” Strom says, “meaning three-quarters of our teachers were leaving every year. It was a scary environment for teachers as well as students. They didn’t want to be here.”
“There were 18 vacancies on day one of the [2004–2005] school year,” Riveroll adds. “So we started the school year with [teaching] vacancies, and we had substitutes that lasted throughout the whole year. There was a whole system that was denying equality in education for the students of this community, and that needed to change.”
Asked to explain his program of culture change, Riveroll instead offers to show what he means. He walks down one of Gompers’ broad hallways toward the intersection with a crossing corridor, arriving just as “transition” — the time between classes — starts. Kids exit their classrooms silently in lines accompanied by their teachers. There’s very little talking. “Before, kids would come out, congregate, and fight. No one was on supervision,” Riveroll says. “The transitions were a madhouse: kids running, breaking windows, dipping in and out of classrooms, fighting, very loud. There were huge tardy rates for classes. Even if their class was five seconds away, they would be ten minutes late. Now look, this is the transition. Supervision is all around — everybody is on supervision. These are our students. They are our kids.”