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Gompers Prep, in a neighborhood with more than 50 gangs, is offering Latin

And they have to fight the San Diego school district

"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.

“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.

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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.”

The kids, still in their lines, stop when Riveroll holds up his hand and calls out, “Does anybody know what REACH stands for?”

R is for respect. E is for enthusiasm. A is for achievement. C is for citizenship. H is for hard work,” the kids respond in unison.

Turning to a class of sixth graders, standing in lines nearby, he says, “Does this class, only four days old, know the mission statement?”

“The mission of Gompers Preparatory Academy, in partnership with University of California, San Diego and our community, is to accelerate academic achievement for all students through a college preparatory culture and curriculum.”

Riveroll turns to a different group of students. “I see some Latin students there. Please step forward and give us the mission statement in Latin.”

The kids dutifully step forward and recite, “Status Missionis: Finis ‘Gompers Preparatory Academy’ una cum Universitate Studiorum Californiae Didacopolitana ac civitate nostra, est acceleratio cursus discendi omnibus discipulis qui apti fiant ad Lycaeum per doctrinam culturamque.”

Looking pleased as punch, Riveroll turns to a guest. “Culture,” he says. “And, by the way, this is free public education.”

The Charter War

The replacement of the culture of violence with a culture of respect and achievement has produced good fruit. Fights are a rarity, not a daily occurrence. Instead of losing teachers at a 75 percent annual rate, Gompers now keeps 80 percent. And the school’s Academic Performance Index, the California Department of Education’s bottom-line indicator of school performance, rose from a 541 (out of a possible 1000) in Riveroll’s first year to 622 in the 2007–2008 school year. It’s the biggest percentage increase of any school serving a similar demographic in San Diego Unified.

In order to achieve these successes, Gompers Middle School became Gompers Charter Middle School during the second half of the 2004–2005 school year. (This year, the school added ninth and tenth grades and is known as Gompers Preparatory Academy.) The transition to charter school was not easy, because San Diego Unified School District and the teachers’ union were against the change.

How does simply going charter change the culture of a school?

“It doesn’t immediately,” answers Cecil Steppe, Gompers’ chairman of the board, “but it gives you the freedom to do it. Under the district, they make a lot of the financial decisions. They make all the hiring decisions, curricular decisions, structural decisions.”

A charter school makes those decisions on its own. For that reason, during the work-group meetings at the beginning of the 2004–2005 school year, Riveroll, Gompers faculty, and parents decided to make a push to go charter. “There were three major issues that the community and parents decided were the main problems of the school,” Riveroll recalls, “the safety issue, the ability to recruit and retain teachers, and increasing parental involvement.”

Even as principal, Riveroll had very little control over recruitment and retention of teachers. “A classic example of how this school was neglected, in terms of not having a staff that was capable and willing,” Riveroll says, “was during my first year of interviewing for the vacancies. I did not hire one [particular] person because I felt as the principal that he would not be an effective fit for the needs of the school. But that person, despite my having sat across the room from him and saying, ‘This isn’t the place for you,’ ended up, unbeknownst to me, at the first-day-of-school staff meeting, saying, ‘I was assigned here anyway.’ And the story plays out that within the first quarter there was an opening at a more desirable, affluent school, and that employee ended up abandoning our kids and leaving me with yet another vacancy. And that was just one of the many reasons why there were vacancies. It was a revolving door of vacancies. How can kids learn if they don’t have any consistency?”

One attempt to solve the teacher turnover and vacancy problem involved dialogue with the teachers’ union, the San Diego Education Association, “to ask for waivers on the hiring process with Gompers so that we could hire teachers that wanted to be here and maybe do some incentive pay to come to this particular school. And the parents and the community were denied by the teachers’ union at that time.”

Several reasons were cited by the union representative. “It was against the union contract,” Riveroll says, “and the bargaining agreement. They were adamant that they couldn’t do something for one school and not do it for all schools. It broke parents’ hearts. I sat in that room and heard the parents pleading with a union rep from SDEA, ‘Please help us.’ And the union representative said, ‘I know this may sound hard, but my responsibility is to the teachers, not to the students.’ And parents just started to weep.

“One of the major roadblocks at this particular school was vacancies that weren’t being filled. So we went to the superintendent, we went to the district, and we went to the union to really find a way within the system to make these changes. And to have it be denied at every level broke the parents’ hearts. They saw the bureaucracy firsthand.”

That was when the charter idea moved to the fore. Riveroll had resisted the idea because of the immensity of the task. But when all official channels failed, he felt Gompers, if it were to improve, had no choice but to go charter. “So this amazing, committed staff would work late at night after full ten-hour days. We would grab some dinner, and all the parents would come in at night, and starting at 7:00 p.m., we would all work late into the evening looking for solutions and writing our charter that put students first and states that all students can go to college. Word got out, and UCSD became involved. Many of the things that we wanted for our school were already being implemented at the Preuss School, which is also a charter school. So they sent representatives to see if this charter could be matched with the university. And that partnership seemed very seamless to happen. It seemed like a natural fit. So they stayed at the table and really became actively involved with the work group at night.”

Signatures of parents supporting the charter idea had to be gathered, as did signatures of teachers. It was an arduous process made more difficult by the resistance from officialdom. “There were so many people who were opposed to this even happening,” Riveroll says, “that the fact that there is a charter school here today is astonishing.”

“The resistance was never at a community level,” Steppe says. “We were weary of our kids catching a bus to go somewhere else to get an education. It was at the district level and union level.”

“As soon as the work groups started moving toward charter,” Riveroll says, “that is when the district’s and the union’s full opposition emerged. Every kind of roadblock that you can think of happened. From scare tactics, to threats to teachers for siding with the charter, to closed late-night meetings to scare teachers not to go back to those work-group meetings and not to voice approval of it, to the actual removal of me as principal, with two days’ notice. It was ‘Pack up and leave. You are being promoted to mentor principal to all the principals in the district.’ In the middle of the year, they say you have two days to pack up — you are going to the district office and leaving the school after months of building trust with the community and the parents and the students and a core group of teachers.”

Asked what was the source of district opposition to Gompers’ charter aspirations, Riveroll responds with a question: “What’s the root of all evil?”

Gompers receives about $5.5 million per year in average daily attendance money from the State of California. “The district didn’t want to lose control of the school and the revenue it brings in. But you also had people that believe that after 30 years of failing schools that all of a sudden, within the system that failed it, we could still fix it. They thought it didn’t need to go charter. Parents and community members who lived through it were saying, ‘We have heard this before.’ ”

The issue came to a head at a contentious March 1, 2005 Board of Education meeting at San Diego Unified’s headquarters in University Heights, when Gompers student Maryam Saadati “walks up to the mike, and in an auditorium packed with 300 people bickering and making a lot of loud noise, Maryam clears her throat and timidly says, ‘Don’t we deserve good things?’ And the entire auditorium was silent. A child’s voice shut everybody up. And shortly after, the board voted 5–0 to approve the charter” and reinstate Riveroll as principal.

“We’re College Prep Here”

As she walks the halls of Gompers Prep during a transition between morning periods, Strom greets and smiles at students as they pass. She also checks to make sure uniforms are up to code. “Button all the way up, gentlemen,” she tells a couple of grinning tenth graders whose top buttons are undone and ties loosened. “We’re college prep here.”

The boys obey, and in their tan slacks, white dress shirts, and navy blue ties — buttoned to the top — they look college prep. Sure, instead of the ivy-covered walls, stone edifices, and serene exurban settings of an East Coast prep school, it’s 1950s California architecture, noise from State Route 94, which borders the campus to the north, and an inner-city location. But they look like college prep students, and they’re constantly told by Strom, Riveroll, and the whole Gompers faculty that they’re preparing for college.

The repeated reinforcement of the idea of college is a deliberate effort to get Gompers students into the mind-set that college is in their future. College after high school may seem an obvious path to many, but it’s a major cultural shift in this neighborhood where completing high school is less than a sure thing.

Riveroll understands there’s more to preparing kids for college than putting them in uniforms and telling them they’re college prep. Along with solving the teacher-vacancy problem and the safety issue, going charter allowed Gompers to institute curricular changes. One new idea Riveroll brought in was to return to an old idea, the study of Latin. Understanding that Latin can be a tough sell to parents, he supplies them with information on why it’s important. “Studying Latin,” the information packet states, “improves vocabulary… 67% of all English words have their origin in the Latin language. Indeed, the English language even contains a large number of actual Latin words which have not changed (in meaning or spelling) since the time of the Romans…just to name a few: superior, census, interim, dictum, inferior.… Up to 80% of all words in French, Spanish, Italian, Rumanian, and Portuguese…come from Latin. This makes the learning of these languages considerably easier as the Latin language supplies so many roots of the language being studied. As far as English is concerned, about 50% of the words are derived from Latin.

“And what about jobs: Teaching; there is a shortage of Latin teachers. Law; much of our legal system has its roots in ancient Rome, and as a result so many of our legal terms are simply expressed in Latin. Medicine; did you know that the language of medicine for over a thousand years was Latin? Many of the terms used in medicine still come from this language. Archaeology; for those who work in archaeology and specialize in Greece or Rome, a reading knowledge of Latin is a must. Linguistics; this is a study of how languages work. Its importance is clear for this field as well. Arts; in literature, music, painting, sculpture and drama there are countless references to the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome.”

Beyond Latin, Gompers has installed the “A–G Curriculum,” which, Riveroll explains, “is the specific course work that students need to complete in order to be eligible for UC and Cal State schools. Proficiency in A–G requirements demonstrates that students have the rigorous courses and skill set to be successful in college.”

The requirements are:

a. Two years of history/social science, including one year of world history, cultures, and historical geography and one year of U.S. history or one-half year of U.S. history and one-half year of civics or American government.

b. Four years of college preparatory English that include frequent and regular writing and reading of classic and modern literature.

c. Three years of college preparatory mathematics that include the topics covered in elementary and advanced algebra and two- and three-dimensional geometry.

d. Two years of laboratory science providing fundamental knowledge in at least two of these three disciplines: biology, chemistry, and physics.

e. Two years of the same language other than English.

f. One year of visual or performing arts, including dance, drama/theater, music, or visual art.

g. One year (two semesters) of college preparatory elective(s), chosen from additional “A–F” courses beyond those used to satisfy the requirements above or courses that have been approved solely for use as “G” electives.

Riveroll lists other curricular changes that have been made to establish a college preparatory culture at Gompers. “All eighth graders take Algebra 1. Before the charter, only 50 students took Algebra 1 in eighth grade. All students will take at least one AP class before graduation. Ninth graders take geometry. Students are required to perform presentations of learning for each unit. High school students are enrolled in university prep classes to help with college entrance. Students in need of extra academic support are enrolled in college study group for math or English support, which is an additional 90 minutes of math or English support every other day, beyond their regular math or English class, in a 15:1 [student-to-teacher ratio] setting. All students attend a weekly college class.”

The weekly college class, which Riveroll teaches, is held in Gompers’ auditorium. “College class,” Gompers’ website states, “serves as an opportunity to connect and communicate with the student body in a formal setting that simulates a large college lecture hall. With a high regard to respect and discipline, students are educated on schoolwide events, areas of growth, areas of achievement, and character education as it relates to school culture. College class also serves as a platform for students to learn public-speaking skills that will serve in other formal settings. College class is the foundation of school culture that supports the overall instructional program at [Gompers Preparatory Academy].”

Another key piece of the budding college prep culture at Gompers is the involvement of the University of California at San Diego. “UCSD is involved on many levels,” Riveroll says. “We are modeled after the Preuss School at UCSD. Three of our boardmembers are UCSD professors. College tutors come in to work directly with our students, and UCSD interns come to us as part of their credential program. And UCSD CREATE [Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment, and Teaching Excellence] provides professional development and data-evaluation services. Each year we sign a memorandum of understanding with the university that spells out these services and gives us permission to use the UCSD logo. However, we do not receive any funding from the university. [And] our students do not have access to any kind of special admissions track to UCSD, although we make it a priority for every student to know the A–G requirements for acceptance to the UC system. Through our partnership with UCSD, our students have access to the campus through many field-trip opportunities each year, from general campus tours to attending lectures and content-area-specific field trips.”

The Preuss School is a middle and high school founded at the university in 1999 and specifically designed to provide a college-preparatory environment and curriculum to inner-city students who, if they go on to graduate from college, would be the first in their families to do so. “The second mission [of Preuss],” Riveroll explains, “was to serve as a model school to study and develop best practices in the college preparation of low-income, urban students to be disseminated to improve public education. When Gompers decided to become an independent charter school, UCSD professors involved in the Preuss project saw an opportunity to fulfill this second mission by implementing the best practices from Preuss into one of the urban neighborhoods in which many of their students live. Many of the structures of Preuss have been duplicated with success over the past four years at Gompers Prep.”

Gompers vs. San Diego Unified

Test scores are up. Violence is down. Teachers are being retained. Inner-city students are taking college preparatory courses. You’d think San Diego Unified would be thrilled by the turnaround at what was once one of its worst schools. But the relationship between Gompers and the district has, since the beginning of the charter days, been strained. “But I also think that you see the friction between charters and districts all over the United States,” says Strom.

“Because the money follows the students,” Steppe adds.

The school district has the power to place special-education students at any of its schools, including charter schools. And Gompers, Steppe says, receives a disproportionately high number. “Last year,” Steppe says, “18 percent of our students were special-ed students. That was higher than anyplace else in this district. So what we did was, because we believe that every child has the capacity to learn, we mainstreamed a lot of our special-ed students.”

The problem is, Gompers had to pay the district to oversee the school’s special education, and it had to use the special-education teachers the district sent. This year, Northern California’s El Dorado County Office of Education will oversee special education at Gompers. The $520,000 Gompers pays El Dorado County is $89,000 less than it had been paying San Diego Unified. Beyond the savings, the switch to El Dorado allows Gompers to hire its own special-education teachers who, Strom says, “we know will buy into the way we do things here, because we hired them ourselves.”

There have been other disputes with the district. This past summer, the district announced plans to appropriate enough of Gompers’ grassless athletic field to erect 11 classroom bungalows for neighboring Millennial Tech Middle School. On top of that, the district declared its intention to build a bus turnaround on the north part of Gompers’ campus, hard by State Route 94. Gompers objected, maintaining that the nature of its charter gives it discretion over how all the land within its fences is used. In late July, Gompers was prepared to initiate legal action on this point, when the two parties agreed to meet and work out some kind of compromise, which is still being hammered out. Says Riveroll, “The district is holding monthly work-group meetings with both Millennial Tech parents and Gompers parents to create a long-range master plan for the site. The district is creating drawings that reflect the parents’ wishes for the district to build a high school sports complex for Gompers Prep, a gym for Gompers Prep, and a new academic building for Gompers Prep. It will be up to the Board of Education to approve the plans and the funding for such projects.”

Asked if the compromise will end antagonism from the district, Steppe smiles and shakes his head. “There will always be something. But I’ve told them, ‘We’re not going anywhere. So if you want to come after us, you’d better bring your A-game, because we are going to fight you every step of the way.’ ”

Welcome, Honored Guests

Strom leads a guest into a tenth-grade English class where Ms. Hobbs is teaching a class on Shakespeare. When the visitors enter, the class stands up, and one young man says, “Repeat after me: ‘Welcome, honored guests.’ ”

“Welcome, honored guests.”

The class sits and resumes its discussion of climax and denouement in Shakespeare. Strom motions to one girl to come outside for a chat. Her name is Shanique Davis. She’s dressed in tan pants, a dress blouse, and a navy blue tie. Blue and green beads accent her braided hair. A pretty smile flashes across her face when she’s asked about the mandatory uniform. “I like wearing it,” she says. “First of all, it saves time. This morning I was running behind, and I would have been late for school if I’d had to pick out what I was going to wear. With the uniform, I don’t even have to think about it. I just throw it on and head out the door.”

But convenience isn’t the only reason Davis likes the uniform. “I’ve been to schools without uniforms, and people spend a lot of time looking at what other people are wearing and talking about it. ‘Did you see what she was wearing? Oh my gosh, look at those shoes. How embarrassing.’ At Gompers, we don’t have to worry about that. We can focus on learning.”

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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.

“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.

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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.”

The kids, still in their lines, stop when Riveroll holds up his hand and calls out, “Does anybody know what REACH stands for?”

R is for respect. E is for enthusiasm. A is for achievement. C is for citizenship. H is for hard work,” the kids respond in unison.

Turning to a class of sixth graders, standing in lines nearby, he says, “Does this class, only four days old, know the mission statement?”

“The mission of Gompers Preparatory Academy, in partnership with University of California, San Diego and our community, is to accelerate academic achievement for all students through a college preparatory culture and curriculum.”

Riveroll turns to a different group of students. “I see some Latin students there. Please step forward and give us the mission statement in Latin.”

The kids dutifully step forward and recite, “Status Missionis: Finis ‘Gompers Preparatory Academy’ una cum Universitate Studiorum Californiae Didacopolitana ac civitate nostra, est acceleratio cursus discendi omnibus discipulis qui apti fiant ad Lycaeum per doctrinam culturamque.”

Looking pleased as punch, Riveroll turns to a guest. “Culture,” he says. “And, by the way, this is free public education.”

The Charter War

The replacement of the culture of violence with a culture of respect and achievement has produced good fruit. Fights are a rarity, not a daily occurrence. Instead of losing teachers at a 75 percent annual rate, Gompers now keeps 80 percent. And the school’s Academic Performance Index, the California Department of Education’s bottom-line indicator of school performance, rose from a 541 (out of a possible 1000) in Riveroll’s first year to 622 in the 2007–2008 school year. It’s the biggest percentage increase of any school serving a similar demographic in San Diego Unified.

In order to achieve these successes, Gompers Middle School became Gompers Charter Middle School during the second half of the 2004–2005 school year. (This year, the school added ninth and tenth grades and is known as Gompers Preparatory Academy.) The transition to charter school was not easy, because San Diego Unified School District and the teachers’ union were against the change.

How does simply going charter change the culture of a school?

“It doesn’t immediately,” answers Cecil Steppe, Gompers’ chairman of the board, “but it gives you the freedom to do it. Under the district, they make a lot of the financial decisions. They make all the hiring decisions, curricular decisions, structural decisions.”

A charter school makes those decisions on its own. For that reason, during the work-group meetings at the beginning of the 2004–2005 school year, Riveroll, Gompers faculty, and parents decided to make a push to go charter. “There were three major issues that the community and parents decided were the main problems of the school,” Riveroll recalls, “the safety issue, the ability to recruit and retain teachers, and increasing parental involvement.”

Even as principal, Riveroll had very little control over recruitment and retention of teachers. “A classic example of how this school was neglected, in terms of not having a staff that was capable and willing,” Riveroll says, “was during my first year of interviewing for the vacancies. I did not hire one [particular] person because I felt as the principal that he would not be an effective fit for the needs of the school. But that person, despite my having sat across the room from him and saying, ‘This isn’t the place for you,’ ended up, unbeknownst to me, at the first-day-of-school staff meeting, saying, ‘I was assigned here anyway.’ And the story plays out that within the first quarter there was an opening at a more desirable, affluent school, and that employee ended up abandoning our kids and leaving me with yet another vacancy. And that was just one of the many reasons why there were vacancies. It was a revolving door of vacancies. How can kids learn if they don’t have any consistency?”

One attempt to solve the teacher turnover and vacancy problem involved dialogue with the teachers’ union, the San Diego Education Association, “to ask for waivers on the hiring process with Gompers so that we could hire teachers that wanted to be here and maybe do some incentive pay to come to this particular school. And the parents and the community were denied by the teachers’ union at that time.”

Several reasons were cited by the union representative. “It was against the union contract,” Riveroll says, “and the bargaining agreement. They were adamant that they couldn’t do something for one school and not do it for all schools. It broke parents’ hearts. I sat in that room and heard the parents pleading with a union rep from SDEA, ‘Please help us.’ And the union representative said, ‘I know this may sound hard, but my responsibility is to the teachers, not to the students.’ And parents just started to weep.

“One of the major roadblocks at this particular school was vacancies that weren’t being filled. So we went to the superintendent, we went to the district, and we went to the union to really find a way within the system to make these changes. And to have it be denied at every level broke the parents’ hearts. They saw the bureaucracy firsthand.”

That was when the charter idea moved to the fore. Riveroll had resisted the idea because of the immensity of the task. But when all official channels failed, he felt Gompers, if it were to improve, had no choice but to go charter. “So this amazing, committed staff would work late at night after full ten-hour days. We would grab some dinner, and all the parents would come in at night, and starting at 7:00 p.m., we would all work late into the evening looking for solutions and writing our charter that put students first and states that all students can go to college. Word got out, and UCSD became involved. Many of the things that we wanted for our school were already being implemented at the Preuss School, which is also a charter school. So they sent representatives to see if this charter could be matched with the university. And that partnership seemed very seamless to happen. It seemed like a natural fit. So they stayed at the table and really became actively involved with the work group at night.”

Signatures of parents supporting the charter idea had to be gathered, as did signatures of teachers. It was an arduous process made more difficult by the resistance from officialdom. “There were so many people who were opposed to this even happening,” Riveroll says, “that the fact that there is a charter school here today is astonishing.”

“The resistance was never at a community level,” Steppe says. “We were weary of our kids catching a bus to go somewhere else to get an education. It was at the district level and union level.”

“As soon as the work groups started moving toward charter,” Riveroll says, “that is when the district’s and the union’s full opposition emerged. Every kind of roadblock that you can think of happened. From scare tactics, to threats to teachers for siding with the charter, to closed late-night meetings to scare teachers not to go back to those work-group meetings and not to voice approval of it, to the actual removal of me as principal, with two days’ notice. It was ‘Pack up and leave. You are being promoted to mentor principal to all the principals in the district.’ In the middle of the year, they say you have two days to pack up — you are going to the district office and leaving the school after months of building trust with the community and the parents and the students and a core group of teachers.”

Asked what was the source of district opposition to Gompers’ charter aspirations, Riveroll responds with a question: “What’s the root of all evil?”

Gompers receives about $5.5 million per year in average daily attendance money from the State of California. “The district didn’t want to lose control of the school and the revenue it brings in. But you also had people that believe that after 30 years of failing schools that all of a sudden, within the system that failed it, we could still fix it. They thought it didn’t need to go charter. Parents and community members who lived through it were saying, ‘We have heard this before.’ ”

The issue came to a head at a contentious March 1, 2005 Board of Education meeting at San Diego Unified’s headquarters in University Heights, when Gompers student Maryam Saadati “walks up to the mike, and in an auditorium packed with 300 people bickering and making a lot of loud noise, Maryam clears her throat and timidly says, ‘Don’t we deserve good things?’ And the entire auditorium was silent. A child’s voice shut everybody up. And shortly after, the board voted 5–0 to approve the charter” and reinstate Riveroll as principal.

“We’re College Prep Here”

As she walks the halls of Gompers Prep during a transition between morning periods, Strom greets and smiles at students as they pass. She also checks to make sure uniforms are up to code. “Button all the way up, gentlemen,” she tells a couple of grinning tenth graders whose top buttons are undone and ties loosened. “We’re college prep here.”

The boys obey, and in their tan slacks, white dress shirts, and navy blue ties — buttoned to the top — they look college prep. Sure, instead of the ivy-covered walls, stone edifices, and serene exurban settings of an East Coast prep school, it’s 1950s California architecture, noise from State Route 94, which borders the campus to the north, and an inner-city location. But they look like college prep students, and they’re constantly told by Strom, Riveroll, and the whole Gompers faculty that they’re preparing for college.

The repeated reinforcement of the idea of college is a deliberate effort to get Gompers students into the mind-set that college is in their future. College after high school may seem an obvious path to many, but it’s a major cultural shift in this neighborhood where completing high school is less than a sure thing.

Riveroll understands there’s more to preparing kids for college than putting them in uniforms and telling them they’re college prep. Along with solving the teacher-vacancy problem and the safety issue, going charter allowed Gompers to institute curricular changes. One new idea Riveroll brought in was to return to an old idea, the study of Latin. Understanding that Latin can be a tough sell to parents, he supplies them with information on why it’s important. “Studying Latin,” the information packet states, “improves vocabulary… 67% of all English words have their origin in the Latin language. Indeed, the English language even contains a large number of actual Latin words which have not changed (in meaning or spelling) since the time of the Romans…just to name a few: superior, census, interim, dictum, inferior.… Up to 80% of all words in French, Spanish, Italian, Rumanian, and Portuguese…come from Latin. This makes the learning of these languages considerably easier as the Latin language supplies so many roots of the language being studied. As far as English is concerned, about 50% of the words are derived from Latin.

“And what about jobs: Teaching; there is a shortage of Latin teachers. Law; much of our legal system has its roots in ancient Rome, and as a result so many of our legal terms are simply expressed in Latin. Medicine; did you know that the language of medicine for over a thousand years was Latin? Many of the terms used in medicine still come from this language. Archaeology; for those who work in archaeology and specialize in Greece or Rome, a reading knowledge of Latin is a must. Linguistics; this is a study of how languages work. Its importance is clear for this field as well. Arts; in literature, music, painting, sculpture and drama there are countless references to the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome.”

Beyond Latin, Gompers has installed the “A–G Curriculum,” which, Riveroll explains, “is the specific course work that students need to complete in order to be eligible for UC and Cal State schools. Proficiency in A–G requirements demonstrates that students have the rigorous courses and skill set to be successful in college.”

The requirements are:

a. Two years of history/social science, including one year of world history, cultures, and historical geography and one year of U.S. history or one-half year of U.S. history and one-half year of civics or American government.

b. Four years of college preparatory English that include frequent and regular writing and reading of classic and modern literature.

c. Three years of college preparatory mathematics that include the topics covered in elementary and advanced algebra and two- and three-dimensional geometry.

d. Two years of laboratory science providing fundamental knowledge in at least two of these three disciplines: biology, chemistry, and physics.

e. Two years of the same language other than English.

f. One year of visual or performing arts, including dance, drama/theater, music, or visual art.

g. One year (two semesters) of college preparatory elective(s), chosen from additional “A–F” courses beyond those used to satisfy the requirements above or courses that have been approved solely for use as “G” electives.

Riveroll lists other curricular changes that have been made to establish a college preparatory culture at Gompers. “All eighth graders take Algebra 1. Before the charter, only 50 students took Algebra 1 in eighth grade. All students will take at least one AP class before graduation. Ninth graders take geometry. Students are required to perform presentations of learning for each unit. High school students are enrolled in university prep classes to help with college entrance. Students in need of extra academic support are enrolled in college study group for math or English support, which is an additional 90 minutes of math or English support every other day, beyond their regular math or English class, in a 15:1 [student-to-teacher ratio] setting. All students attend a weekly college class.”

The weekly college class, which Riveroll teaches, is held in Gompers’ auditorium. “College class,” Gompers’ website states, “serves as an opportunity to connect and communicate with the student body in a formal setting that simulates a large college lecture hall. With a high regard to respect and discipline, students are educated on schoolwide events, areas of growth, areas of achievement, and character education as it relates to school culture. College class also serves as a platform for students to learn public-speaking skills that will serve in other formal settings. College class is the foundation of school culture that supports the overall instructional program at [Gompers Preparatory Academy].”

Another key piece of the budding college prep culture at Gompers is the involvement of the University of California at San Diego. “UCSD is involved on many levels,” Riveroll says. “We are modeled after the Preuss School at UCSD. Three of our boardmembers are UCSD professors. College tutors come in to work directly with our students, and UCSD interns come to us as part of their credential program. And UCSD CREATE [Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment, and Teaching Excellence] provides professional development and data-evaluation services. Each year we sign a memorandum of understanding with the university that spells out these services and gives us permission to use the UCSD logo. However, we do not receive any funding from the university. [And] our students do not have access to any kind of special admissions track to UCSD, although we make it a priority for every student to know the A–G requirements for acceptance to the UC system. Through our partnership with UCSD, our students have access to the campus through many field-trip opportunities each year, from general campus tours to attending lectures and content-area-specific field trips.”

The Preuss School is a middle and high school founded at the university in 1999 and specifically designed to provide a college-preparatory environment and curriculum to inner-city students who, if they go on to graduate from college, would be the first in their families to do so. “The second mission [of Preuss],” Riveroll explains, “was to serve as a model school to study and develop best practices in the college preparation of low-income, urban students to be disseminated to improve public education. When Gompers decided to become an independent charter school, UCSD professors involved in the Preuss project saw an opportunity to fulfill this second mission by implementing the best practices from Preuss into one of the urban neighborhoods in which many of their students live. Many of the structures of Preuss have been duplicated with success over the past four years at Gompers Prep.”

Gompers vs. San Diego Unified

Test scores are up. Violence is down. Teachers are being retained. Inner-city students are taking college preparatory courses. You’d think San Diego Unified would be thrilled by the turnaround at what was once one of its worst schools. But the relationship between Gompers and the district has, since the beginning of the charter days, been strained. “But I also think that you see the friction between charters and districts all over the United States,” says Strom.

“Because the money follows the students,” Steppe adds.

The school district has the power to place special-education students at any of its schools, including charter schools. And Gompers, Steppe says, receives a disproportionately high number. “Last year,” Steppe says, “18 percent of our students were special-ed students. That was higher than anyplace else in this district. So what we did was, because we believe that every child has the capacity to learn, we mainstreamed a lot of our special-ed students.”

The problem is, Gompers had to pay the district to oversee the school’s special education, and it had to use the special-education teachers the district sent. This year, Northern California’s El Dorado County Office of Education will oversee special education at Gompers. The $520,000 Gompers pays El Dorado County is $89,000 less than it had been paying San Diego Unified. Beyond the savings, the switch to El Dorado allows Gompers to hire its own special-education teachers who, Strom says, “we know will buy into the way we do things here, because we hired them ourselves.”

There have been other disputes with the district. This past summer, the district announced plans to appropriate enough of Gompers’ grassless athletic field to erect 11 classroom bungalows for neighboring Millennial Tech Middle School. On top of that, the district declared its intention to build a bus turnaround on the north part of Gompers’ campus, hard by State Route 94. Gompers objected, maintaining that the nature of its charter gives it discretion over how all the land within its fences is used. In late July, Gompers was prepared to initiate legal action on this point, when the two parties agreed to meet and work out some kind of compromise, which is still being hammered out. Says Riveroll, “The district is holding monthly work-group meetings with both Millennial Tech parents and Gompers parents to create a long-range master plan for the site. The district is creating drawings that reflect the parents’ wishes for the district to build a high school sports complex for Gompers Prep, a gym for Gompers Prep, and a new academic building for Gompers Prep. It will be up to the Board of Education to approve the plans and the funding for such projects.”

Asked if the compromise will end antagonism from the district, Steppe smiles and shakes his head. “There will always be something. But I’ve told them, ‘We’re not going anywhere. So if you want to come after us, you’d better bring your A-game, because we are going to fight you every step of the way.’ ”

Welcome, Honored Guests

Strom leads a guest into a tenth-grade English class where Ms. Hobbs is teaching a class on Shakespeare. When the visitors enter, the class stands up, and one young man says, “Repeat after me: ‘Welcome, honored guests.’ ”

“Welcome, honored guests.”

The class sits and resumes its discussion of climax and denouement in Shakespeare. Strom motions to one girl to come outside for a chat. Her name is Shanique Davis. She’s dressed in tan pants, a dress blouse, and a navy blue tie. Blue and green beads accent her braided hair. A pretty smile flashes across her face when she’s asked about the mandatory uniform. “I like wearing it,” she says. “First of all, it saves time. This morning I was running behind, and I would have been late for school if I’d had to pick out what I was going to wear. With the uniform, I don’t even have to think about it. I just throw it on and head out the door.”

But convenience isn’t the only reason Davis likes the uniform. “I’ve been to schools without uniforms, and people spend a lot of time looking at what other people are wearing and talking about it. ‘Did you see what she was wearing? Oh my gosh, look at those shoes. How embarrassing.’ At Gompers, we don’t have to worry about that. We can focus on learning.”

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Feb. 2, 2010
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