Tuesday, September 06, 2005 | As English teacher Lisa Young prepared her classroom at Gompers Charter Middle School on Saturday for the first day of school today, she smiled broadly as she described why she’s so excited.

“My heart is here,” she said, balancing precariously on a ledge to hang huge “UCLA” letters in her windows for motivation. “This is where the real work is getting done. This is the future of urban education.”

Today is not just another first day of school for students at Gompers. Today is the beginning of a journey unlike any they have taken before, said Vince Riveroll, director of the newly created charter school.

And there to help send these students on their way today will be an all-star political line-up that is expected to include such heavy hitters as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, state Education Secretary Alan Bersin, former state Senators Dede Alpert and Lucy Killea, San Diego City Council member Tony Young, GCMS board of directors chairman and Urban League president Cecil Steppe, University of California, San Diego Chancellor Marye Anne Fox, UCSD provost and professor Cecil Lytle, and other dignitaries, parents and members of the community.

To prepare for the first day of classes at the 50-year-old facility, hundreds of teachers, staff members and volunteers have been working all summer to spruce up the school – remodeling, painting, polishing, scrubbing, gardening, shelving books, hanging signs and moving furniture. It’s like opening night at the theater – and the curtain rises today.

“I’m doing anything they need help with,” said Steppe, who was on campus Saturday to offer assistance and was seen moving a piano from one room to another. Steppe served as PTA president at Gompers in the 1960s when his children attended the school, back when it was considered top-notch.

Since that era, changes in neighborhood demographics, sociological patterns, funding mechanisms and educational policy contributed to a steady decline in the quality of education at Gompers, bottoming out in the past few years as it became known as one of the worst performing schools in the San Diego Unified School District.

Today, less than 20 percent of the student body is proficient in language arts and math, and many students are working several years below grade level. Complicating the situation are many non-English-speaking students, students with few college-educated role models in their families, children with distressed home lives, and a neighborhood challenged by gangs, violence and poverty.

Located in Chollas View, Gompers will open its doors today to about 1,000 seventh- through ninth-grade students, about 52 percent of whom are Latino, 28 percent African-American and 20 percent white and Asian. They will walk down a red carpet as they enter school, passing through “Gates of Wisdom” after participating in a dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Around every corner, students will encounter motivational posters, signs and banners – some proclaiming core beliefs (“we respect ourselves; we respect others”), some the school’s so-called non-negotiables (“stay on task; let others learn; only bring positive attention to yourself”), and some listing rewards for academic success.

Riveroll said the emphasis in the past was too often on punishment rather than reward. And to inspire students to regard higher education as within reach, some signs simply display the names of major colleges and universities, especially those in the University of California system.

Chartering a different path

Well-liked by students, parents and the community, Riveroll cemented a partnership between the school and UCSD and then championed the charter school cause, focusing his efforts on gaining school board approval for the charter petition.

After several contentious months of friction between the community and the school district, the controversial issue culminated in an emotional decision on March 1 by the resistant five-member school board to grant approval for the change in a surprising, unanimous vote.

Using the power given charter schools to operate more independently of school district and labor union rules, Riveroll and his new board of directors have worked aggressively over the summer to redefine the school by identifying concrete goals, crystallizing educational philosophies and putting into place a team of teachers that they believe will be key to student success.

“Who knew the power and difference it would make to hire our own staff?” Riveroll said. Teachers must want to work at the school where they teach, he said, and belief systems between teachers and the school administration must match. “Everyone who’s here wants to be here.”

Riveroll, a former SDUSD teachers union representative, said the union’s rigid hiring and seniority rules were central to Gompers’ problems. As a charter school, Gompers is now able to hire, fire and pay teachers according to its own policies established by the school’s independent board of directors. Riveroll has a staff hired by him and his board, not one assigned to Gompers unwillingly.

Calling it “my dream,” Riveroll said all 46 teaching positions at Gompers have been filled – for the first time in the school’s history. “We are starting with a full staff,” he said proudly.

Lisa Young, who is starting her third year of teaching at Gompers, was an outspoken advocate for the charter movement earlier this year when the issue came before the school board. She said she is thrilled to have a chance to be part of the Gompers experiment and work with the leadership. “Vince is inspirational,” she said.

On Saturday, teachers in nearly every classroom were busy preparing for the first day of school. Seventh-grade life sciences teacher Trisha Patton, a UCSD intern studying for her Master’s degree in education, said teaching at Gompers was “majorly different” than at other schools.

She said she feels like an integral part of the team, with the full support of the school’s leadership. “We are creating a community here,” she said.

Science and math teacher Cindy Gibbs has transformed Room 10, a former detention room, into a sparkling science lab, much to the amazement of former students who have come by the school over the summer to help clean.

Even physical education has been converted into something new. Instead of P.E., it’s now called exercise and nutritional science and is a class where students will not only engage in physical activity but will also learn about anatomy and physiology. In ENS, students will be placed on nutritional plans to suit their goals, such as losing weight or trying out for sports teams.

Strategies for success

Students who attend Preuss, which is located on the UCSD campus, are bused to the school from the Gompers neighborhood and are all children without a college-going tradition in their families.

The same kinds of successful strategies will be employed at Gompers – a longer school day, uniforms, safer school environment, high-quality teachers with more say in the school’s curriculum and operational decisions, more rigorous standards and an expectation of college after high-school graduation.

Also key is parent involvement. Steppe said that Gompers today “is a prime example of a successful home-school-community partnership,” which he said is essential for a quality education. “You must have parent engagement if you want to have success,” he said.

Steppe applauded the efforts of the Gompers team to try to adopt the strategies at Preuss, saying children shouldn’t have to travel across big cities to attend a good school. “You ought to be able to be at a school in your own neighborhood and get a good education,” he said.

When asked what his hopes are for the school, Steppe replied, “I don’t have hopes. I have the realization that it will be successful. It’s not a hope.”

Iasha Evans, a ninth-grade student at Gompers who was working on Saturday to prepare the school for opening day, said the school seemed very different than before. But the differences were more than cosmetic.

“It’s different than in the past, because there is a principal and teachers who care,” she said.

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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