Wednesday, March 02, 2005 | The San Diego Unified school board lived up to its name last night, as all five trustees united to vote 5-0 to approve charter school status for Gompers and Keiller middle schools. Also approved were charter school petitions for Memorial Academy and King/Chavez schools.

Supporters of the charter petitions were giddy with delight at the votes.

Although many parents and community members spoke forcefully in favor of all four petitions, Gompers enthusiasts went all out, with T-shirts and signs reading “Respect The Work” and “Honor Parents’ Voices.”

After waiting patiently through three hours of other presentations, supporters of Gompers Middle Charter School finally got their turn and spoke emotionally before the board, pleading with trustees to “live up to their promise” and grant them permission to proceed as a charter.

“My request to you is simple,” said San Diego Urban League president and CEO Cecil Steppe, speaking to trustees. “Stay within the law. They fulfilled every requirement laid on their plate.”

Other speakers agreed, commending parents and community volunteers who worked in December to get over 700 parent signatures supporting the charter, only to hear from the school board in January that they needed to get more than 50 percent of the teachers to sign the petition as well.

Although stunned at this unexpected board action that many viewed as an unusual and arbitrary interpretation of the law, the parents came back victorious, with signatures from 58 percent of the teachers.

The board then removed their charter champion, popular principal Vince Riveroll, from his duties at the school. Dazed, the parents regained their footing once again and continued to pursue board approval without their leader.

“They’ve done everything you asked, even when you changed the rules,” said speaker Edith Smith, demanding that the board live up to its promise to grant charter status if the community received teacher support.

Gloria Cooper, who was schooled at Gompers and has lived in the community for over 40 years, said to the board, “Don’t be afraid of letting go. We have an opportunity here.”

Cooper challenged Shelia Jackson directly, asking her why, as the trustee representing the Gompers district, she seemed to be thwarting the wants and needs of the community. “Ms. Jackson, whose interests do you represent?” she asked pointedly.

By far the most moving speaker to come before the board was Gompers Middle School student Maryam Soodati. Referring to the school board’s recent vote to remove Riveroll as the school’s principal, she said, “Good things don’t happen to Gompers. The school board wants to take good things away from us. Is it wrong for us to want good things?”

The silence in the auditorium, with close to 250 people, was deafening, as she looked at each school board member with the question still on her lips. As she turned to leave the podium, the audience, many of whom were weeping, exploded in applause.

A Unanimous Vote

In the end, it was unanimous. Gompers Middle School, with 960 students in grades 7-9, will now be restructured as a charter school. But its problems, as board members pointed out, are numerous.

“Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it,” warned trustee John de Beck. “It’s a lot to take on. I wish you luck and the success you’ll need.”

Board president Luis Acle also warned of the dangers. “You need to learn how to heal, how to come together,” he said. “You need to build a team … and build bridges.”

Trustee Katherine Nakamura said the parents and community faced hard work ahead. “It’s not enough just to have enthusiasm and community support, but you can’t do anything without it,” she said. “Make us proud.”

Gompers, according to English teacher Lisa Young, currently has an “unacceptable turnover rate” among teachers – over 50 percent, she said – well over the 15.7 percent national average. The school has had four principals in two years.

The students, she said, require additional support for a variety of reasons, including gang violence, incarcerated parents, and psychological trauma. Gompers staff claimed that, besides an achievement gap, there is a lack of site control over resources, insufficient district support and inadequate safety and security.

The school is 53 percent Latino, 35 percent African-American, 10 percent Asian and two percent white. Last year’s test scores reveal that 13.6 percent of the students are proficient in English/language arts and 16 percent are proficient in math.

In the classroom, discipline overrules instruction daily, said Cecil Lytle, provost and professor at UCSD. “We want to move from a culture of survival to a culture of learning,” he said.

To accomplish this goal, Gompers will begin next fall as a charter school in partnership with UCSD – in the tradition of the Preuss School, a highly successful, grades 6-12 charter school on the UCSD campus.

Preuss, begun in 1999, has become hugely successful, with some of the highest test scores in the county and 90 percent of its graduating class accepted to four-year colleges last year. Students attending Preuss live in the same neighborhood as Gompers.

“In fact, we pick up [for Preuss] right in front of Gompers,” said UCSD professor Bud Mehan.

Using the Preuss model, Gompers will have a longer school year and a longer school day, required attendance, smaller class sizes, after-school and Saturday tutoring, active parental involvement, required school uniforms, and parent education courses. The charter’s governing board will have the power to hire and fire its own staff and set salaries.

Mehan, who said he was “flabbergasted” at the unanimous vote, acknowledges that the project will be more difficult because the school will not be located on the UCSD campus.

“But we will bring the lessons learned from Preuss to bear,” he said. “It has to be academically rigorous, and we will provide that.”

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