Friday, April 01, 2005 | When the charter application for Gompers Middle School was unanimously approved by San Diego Unified School District board members on March 1, the community was thrilled. A 3-to-2 victory was the most many dared to hope for, so the 5-to-0 victory made them positively euphoric.

Now comes the hard part – designing the program.

The charter petition received approval partly because of the school’s proposal to unite in partnership with the University of California, San Diego. But the hopeful promise of that association with UCSD comes with no guarantees.

“It’s not like UCSD will be dropping magic dust,” said Cecil Lytle, a college provost and music professor at the university. Lytle, who has been involved with the Gompers charter project from the beginning, emphasized that it is the community’s participation and enthusiasm that provide the key to the Chollas View middle school’s success.

Last year’s test scores revealed that 13.6 percent of Gompers students were proficient in English/language arts and 16 percent were proficient in math. The school is 53 percent Latino, 35 percent black, 10 percent Asian and 2 percent white.

Lytle said the Gompers team is developing an aggressive, all-encompassing strategy to turn the low-performing school around through changes that are fundamental and systemic. “We want to create a culture of learning, not a culture of survival,” he said.

Although Gompers will be structured like the flourishing Preuss School, a grades 6-12 charter school founded in 1999 and located on the UCSD campus, achieving success at Gompers will be much harder.

“Gompers is half a century old,” said Lytle, a Preuss founder and chair of the school’s board of directors. “It does not have a good track record and is a flash-point school. It is a much bigger challenge than Preuss.”

Preuss’s students reside in the same neighborhood as Gompers, but are required to apply to Preuss administrators who handpick the students. Last year, its test scores were among the highest in the county, and 90 percent of Preuss’s 55 seniors were admitted to four-year colleges.

Furthermore, because Preuss is located at UCSD, its students are surrounded and influenced by college students and faculty who are absorbed in higher learning. But Gompers Charter will remain at its present location, in southeast San Diego.

On the other hand, Lytle said Gompers Charter will benefit from the community’s sense of ownership with the school. And he believes the principles learned at Preuss can apply to community-based schools, although the concepts will need to be adapted, not replicated, to fit a different context. “To see if our best practices have legs, we now have to put this in a neighborhood school,” he said.

The new Gompers will provide rigorous college-preparatory curricula, a longer school day and school year, smaller class sizes, school uniforms, and after-school and Saturday tutoring. Lytle said active parent involvement will be expected, and parents will be given educational opportunities to sustain an academic environment in the home.

To combat the crippling effects of a revolving door of inexperienced teachers and high turnover, Gompers will use a number of mechanisms to recruit and retain qualified, passionate teachers. Perhaps most important will be the charter’s independence from post-and-bid contract rules that currently allow new teachers who typically begin in low-performing schools to transfer to higher-achieving schools once they have been trained, gain experience and acquire seniority.

Lytle’s dedication to this cause and his keen interest in the future of Gompers are tied to what he says is his duty as a citizen. “It’s in my interest and the interest of all of us to be concerned about the safety and prosperity of all kids,” he said.

As head of UCSD’s Thurgood Marshall College, Lytle regards it as an obligation from a professional standpoint as well. “It has always been our mission to promote equity and social justice,” he said. Lytle looks to Thurgood Marshall as an example, and said, “I would like to believe he would be deeply involved in public education today.”

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