Wednesday, September 07, 2005 | Describing how he went from body building to millionaire actor to governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger told ninth-grade students at Gompers Charter Middle School on Tuesday that everything they dream of is within reach with a good education and hard work.

Schwarzenegger called this “the land of opportunity” and said he was able to achieve everything “because of America and because of California.” He advised students to study hard and be responsible for their own destinies, and said they, too, will find success.

“This is a great accomplishment, what was done here,” he said to the cheering students. “It’s up to the grown-ups to provide the opportunities; it’s up to you to do the work.

“Knowledge is power. It all comes down to how smart you are. The more you work on it, the more you train your brain,” he said, comparing studying and schoolwork to athletic training.

Introduced by 10th-grader and former Gompers student Maryam Soodati as “a man who believes we deserve good things,” Schwarzenegger wowed the children and praised them for showing up on the first day of school in their new school uniforms, ready to learn.

“You are all winners just by being here,” he said. “Anything you want to be, you can be. I’m very proud of all of you. You are the future.”

At a press conference later in the day, Schwarzenegger called this “a fantastic day” and said the students were “pumped up” with enthusiasm on their first day of school at Gompers, one of the newest charter schools in the San Diego Unified School District.

He recognized University of California, San Diego Chancellor Marye Anne Fox for partnering with Gompers to help the school succeed.

Calling Gompers a very important experiment, Fox pledged to provide UCSD expertise and support, and said, “We are dedicated to successful outcomes in K-12 education.”

Formerly one of the lowest performing schools in the district, Gompers, which serves 1,000 students in seventh through ninth grades, became a charter school on July 1 through the efforts of parents and community members who worked tirelessly for months to gain school board approval.

For the first time in the school’s 50-year history, Gompers director Vince Riveroll said there were no vacancies in teaching positions on this first day of school and that every teacher working at the school is there because they choose to be there. “This is an historic day for Gompers Charter Middle School,” he said.

The 350 ninth-graders sat in the school’s auditorium for nearly two hours as speaker after speaker told them of their faith in them and their pride in the school and its new beginning.

“You have now been given birth,” said Cecil Steppe, GCMS board of directors chairman and president of the Urban League. “This is a day to celebrate. Failure is not an option. Make us proud.”

Fox told the students that “a college education is something that will make all the difference in the world to you and your family.” She called UCSD “a proud partner” with Gompers, as did Cecil Lytle, provost and professor of music at UCSD.

“We have wanted to be involved with Gompers for the last 14 years,” Lytle said, “and we intend to recruit you to attend UCSD.” Lytle then played a Chopin piece on the piano for the students, after which Riveroll asked the children to write down their thoughts.

“Dr. Lytle said many things, but he also said many things through his music,” Riveroll said. “Stop and jot down what you are feeling.”

College was the recurring theme of the morning, over and over again. “All students deserve the opportunity to knock on a college door,” Riveroll told his students. “You have been through so much. I know this. You came back, and you came back stronger, smarter.

“You can, you will, you must go to college. You showed up today, taking your stance that you are college-bound. If you fall, you can rise again. Show [everyone] how a GCMS student works hard at school.”

Support from the community

“Don’t ever forget about the hand-up you are getting” from your parents, teachers and the community, California Education Secretary Alan Bersin told the students. “And remember your obligation to give something back.”

Schwarzenegger also applauded the parents, who wouldn’t accept the status quo and went door to door to gather signatures for the charter petition. He called Gompers “a shining example” for other schools.

“Many schools are failing and don’t know which way to go because they are convinced that the status quo is the only option,” he said.

At the press conference, Schwarzenegger told reporters, “It is important that we all do whatever we can to improve education in California, and that is why I increased the education budget by $3 billion.” The total education budget is now $50 billion, according to the governor, which he said includes more money for vocational education, more fruits and vegetables in schools and incentives for teachers willing to serve at low-performing schools.

“Charter schools are an alternative [way to] deliver quality education to the children of California,” said Bersin, who worked for seven years as SDUSD superintendent until his contract was bought out one year early by the school board. “This is the first day at Gompers Middle School that we started the year with a full staff. Every teacher has voted with his or her feet to be here.”

Charters are not the only answer to California’s education woes, Bersin said, “but they can be a critical strategy. Charter schools are an option for those schools that need a jumpstart.”

Bersin also applauded the partnership between Gompers and UCSD, saying, “We need to have universities work together and be available to helping charter schools get off the ground.”

After failing to show academic improvement for four consecutive years, Gompers, along with Keiller Leadership Academy, are the first schools in the nation to close down and restructure as charters under the provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, according to Gary Larson, spokesman for the California Charter Schools Association. So the schools are being watched carefully to see how they fare, he said.

What’s unusual is that these schools did not simply sit back and accept failure, Larson said. “These communities proactively recognized [the problem] and used NCLB as an opportunity for change,” he said.

Keiller’s director, Patricia Ladd, was also on hand Tuesday to celebrate with Gompers and its special visitors. “We’re all in this together,” Riveroll said. “Every decision that we make at Gompers and Keiller is with students first. This is about kids. It always has been and always will be.”

Along with Schwarzenegger, Bersin, Fox, Lytle and Steppe, other dignitaries on hand to celebrate the first day of school at GCMS were SDUSD trustees Luis Acle, Shelia Jackson and Katherine Nakamura; incoming SDUSD Superintendent Carl Cohn; San Diego County Office of Education trustees Nick Aguilar, Robert Watkins and John Witt; and former state Senators Dede Alpert and Lucy Killea.

Students heading back to class at the conclusion of the ceremonies seemed a bit dazed by all the attention. But they all liked seeing Schwarzenegger.

“It’s good to know the governor cares about us,” said Melissa Lopez, a 10th-grader at San Diego’s High Tech High Media Arts School and a former Gompers student, who came to show her support.

“I appreciated him coming here,” said ninth-grader Porfirio de la Cruz. “Other schools can get encouraged by our example.”

Ninth-graders Nancy Camarena and Nohemi Granados said they were pleased with the changes at Gompers over the summer and said they now felt well-protected and hoped there would be less violence.

Arlene Gallo, another ninth-grade student, said she did not have a good year last year at Gompers because of understaffing and high teacher turnover. “But I’m very happy now,” she said. “This year will be a great opportunity.”

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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