March 18, 2005

Community Organizes for Charter System at Gompers Middle School

By Perlita R. Dicochea

In the face of great challenges and political power plays, the Gompers Work Group accomplished their goal: to earn approval of a new charter from the San Diego City Schools Board of Trustees.

On March 1st, the Board unanimously approved the charter application brought forth by the active Work Group made up of parents, staff, community members, and students of Gompers Middle School, whose student body is predominantly low-income, Latina/o and African American. The charter application entails the commitment of UCSD, whose success with charter students at Preuss School sparked the interest of the Work Group.

Angelica Moreno, a parent passing out fliers about a meeting on gangs held at Gompers Middle.

The Work Group formed after parents were notified of a meeting about the closing of Gompers.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, any school in its fourth year in “Program Improvement,” such as Gompers Middle, due to unacceptable academic achievement standards must be closed and restructured.

Parents of Gompers realized they had 4 short months to both build awareness in their community and make a major decision that will restructure the community’s educational future.

Restructuring can involve the replacement of all or most of the school staff; entering into a contract with an outside entity such as a private management company to operate the school as public school; turn the operation of the school over to the California Department of Education; implement any other major restructuring of governance; or re-opening as a public charter school.

“We had to find something that benefits all kids, our kids in our community,” Clarissa Lopez, a Gompers parent, said.

The success of UCSD’s Preuss School, located on the UCSD campus, made the charter option particularly attractive to parents. UCSD will provide outreach resources, professional development materials for teachers and staff, University tutors and mentors as well as curriculum and pedagogical guidance.

Along with Michelle Evans, Lopez is one of the most active parents who organized for change and garnered the support of the teachers and staff at Gompers. The process involved many early morning, late nights, planning meetings, and door-to-door distribution of fliers, petitions, and educating Gompers parents and staff overall.

Political Power Plays

Parent leaders Evans and Lopez, whose children attend Gompers, said the Board demonstrated disrespect toward the Gompers Work Group throughout the process.

“The only thing the Board did was alienate and anger our community,” Evans contended.

Among the actions that for parents showed a lack of cooperation was the Board’s controversial reassignment of former Principal Vince Riveroll to a mentor principal position at district offices in February—a sudden move which angered parents, students, and staff.

“The school board was not at all receptive to us. They tried to divide and conquer when they promoted Riveroll,” Evans assessed.

Lopez concurred that the board thought the charter movement would crumble without Riveroll. “This move only made the parents stronger. (The Board) didn’t think we knew what we were talking about,” Lopez said.

Citing another example of disregard, Evans and Lopez said the Board let the parents know they needed 50% support of Gompers parents. The Work Group garnered 78% parental support. Once this task was complete and the petition formally submitted, the Board informed the Work Group they also needed 51% of teacher support in order to use the same school facilities for the proposed charter school. Not having all of the information needed at the outset wasted precious time for the parents.

“We could have gotten petitions signed from parents and teachers at the same time,” Lopez said.

Lopez was out getting petitions signed on the eve of her wedding. She also skipped her honeymoon because the Work Group was pressed for time to complete the paper work.

“But this is not about Riveroll, or the Board, or even the parents. This is about our kids and the future of or community,” Evans assured. “The kids in our community getting bused to UCSD are getting exhausted. We shouldn’t have to exhaust our children and send them outside of our community to get a quality education,” Evans said.

Busing children outside of their home community also makes it difficult for parents to be involved at their children’s schools.

When parents approached the Board with the commitment of UCSD, Evans and Lopez said the Board responded by saying that UCSD’s involvement would not guarantee success because the children and environment at Gompers were not like the children and environment in La Jolla.

This comment implies at least three discouraging assumptions: First, that Gompers children are somehow innately incapable of reaching the same academic achievement standards as La Jolla children and, second, that the environment at Gompers Middle could not be changed to better nurture the learning needs of the students, and, third, that Gompers parents did not know that children in their very neighborhoods are already succeeding at Preuss.

Charter Pros and Cons

One common concern about charters is that their successes are hit and miss. Some charter schools, such as High Tech High, reach their goals of strengthening the academic achievement of multi-ethnic and low-income students. Others, such as O’Farrell Community School, have yet to reach their goals.

Another concern is funding. While charters are funded publicly, they also must apply for grants and other sources of additional financial support just as public schools do, explained Jackson. It is not clear what kind of additional funding the new Gompers Area Middle Charter School will seek.

Complete autonomy from the school district also makes some weary—Gompers will be responsible for its budget, the hiring of all staff, curriculum development, enrollment, etc.

However, an organized community that knows what it wants and the partnership with UCSD are two solid reasons that many local leaders support the Gompers Work Group.

“The most important reason to support (the Gompers Work Group) is for the implementation of high social and academic standards and UCSD’s work at Preuss demonstrates the capacity to take non-white students to a different level,” Jimma McWilson said, Vice President of the San Diego Urban League.

Preuss School graduated its first class of 55 seniors, 90% of whom were admitted to 4-year colleges and universities, 22% of whom are attending UCSD.

The Preuss School is made-up of students similar to Gompers: 58% are Latina/o, 14.8% are Indochinese, and 13.3% are African American with 100% qualified for meal programs. At Gompers, 56.8% of the students are Latina/o, 29.4% are African American, and 7.6% are Indochinese with nearly 54% qualified for meal programs.

Unlike Preuss, Gompers Area Middle Charter School will not have an application process. While open to all, students living in the vicinity of Gomper Middle will be enrolled first.

The San Diego Urban League provided guidance to the Gompers Work Group with resources for fliers and information about the charter option and the success of Preuss. The Gompers/Lincoln Redevelopment Committee also helped the Work Group strengthen media involvement, Evans and Lopez said.

The Importance of Community Involvement

There is more to ensuring the success of underprivileged non-white children than a rigorous academic curriculum. McWilson warns, “I don’t think UCSD can support social issues – the psychological, social, and cultural issues that Gompers students face.”

McWilson contends that it will take the committed involvement of local organizations to address economic needs, health concerns, and particular language and religious issues that Gompers students experience.

Board Member Shelia Jackson, who is Gompers’ representative, agreed that regardless of what kind of new system is implemented at Gompers Middle, critical areas that impede students from learning need to be identified.

“You need to have a vision. If there is no goal for the school the entire community will sink into complacency,” Jackson said.

Jackson did not agree with the move to transform Gompers Middle into a charter school but in the end approved the Work Group’s application.

Approval of petitions and charters were also approved on March 1st for Memorial Academy of Learning and Technology Charter School, King/Chavez Primary Academy, King/Chavez Arts Academy, and the King/Chavez Athletics Academy Charter Schools, as well as Keiller Area Middle Charter School.

Two Itty Bitty Parents & Unbridled Determination

“We are just two itty bitty parents with big mouths,” Evans said about the push for change that she and Lopez led.

While the unanimous vote was a great victory, Lopez admitted that the parents of Gompers still need to be educated and motivated to become more involved in their children’s education.

I met with Lopez and another parent, Angelica Morena, early Monday morning. They passed out fliers to parents dropping off their children to inform them about a meeting on gangs being held later that week at Gompers Middle.

I saw one parent refuse to lower his window and wave his hand “no” as he drove away. The majority of parents took the flyers and listened as Lopez and Morena explained the importance of their involvement.

“It has happened to me many times,” Lopez said with frustration, “that I knock on a parent’s door to inform them of a meeting or talk to them about what is happening at Gompers and they won’t answer or they don’t want to talk about it.”

Efforts to garner the active engagement of parents and the community at-large will be an on-going critical task of the Work Group.

Decisions about who the community will select as the charter school’s first principal have not been made although several local leaders suspect Riveroll will be called back to lead Gompers once again.

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