Tuesday, May 23, 2006 | Michelle Evans had had enough of education systems that ignored impoverished communities like those in southeast San Diego and was no longer willing to tolerate the institutionalized neglect of the city’s poor and minority children. It was time to take back her school and her neighborhood.

Concluding that the entrenched powers at the monolithic San Diego Unified School District were ill-equipped – and unmotivated – to fulfill their obligation to help these children, Evans and other community activists joined forces to save their chronically low-performing neighborhood school.

With the support of former SDUSD superintendent Alan Bersin and his Office of School Choice, Evans galvanized her Chollas View community during the remarkable grass-roots movement in late 2004 to rescue Gompers Middle School and convert it into a charter school under California law.

Although now well-known for her Herculean efforts, her beginnings were humble. Evans is a parent: a single mother with four children. She is also the daughter of a single mother, one of seven children who grew up poor in San Diego. Her story is one of hardship and obstacles, not unlike stories heard across the country of other single mothers struggling to provide for their families.

But Evans is more than the simple facts of her life. She is also an inspiration for a community and a city. She is a natural leader who took action when she saw injustice and was told of a way out.

Emerging seemingly from nowhere, Evans is now a force to be reckoned with, a regular speaker at most SDUSD board meetings who isn’t afraid to take on individual board members, the superintendent or anyone else who dares to interfere with her personal crusade to improve the quality of education in her community.

How she became involved in Gompers’ historic transformation last year and helped elicit a powerful mandate from the community to turn the school around is a story of dedication, fierce determination and unwavering optimism.

During the winter break of late 2004, Evans, other parents and community members walked door-to-door all day every day, explaining how charter schools work and gathering signatures on petitions. Their goal was to transform Gompers into a charter school by the fall of 2005.

“Our only motivation was for our children to do better,” Evans said, as she described how the volunteers battled the cold, rain, flu and long hours that Christmas season.

An unsympathetic school board maneuvered to derail their efforts, but the community could not be stopped. As she found her voice and challenged outdated policies and institutions, she was reminded of her upbringing.

“I grew up here and I was bused to schools north of [Interstate] 8,” Evans said. “I told them, ‘You’ve been under-serving this district for years.’ That’s not acceptable.”

Clearly reluctant but under enormous public pressure, the school board finally approved the Gompers charter on March 1, 2005. The community was overjoyed.

Wanting more for her children

Evans, 36, dropped out of high school when she became a teenage mother. She received her high school diploma four years ago and now works part-time at Gompers as the school’s Parent Engagement Director – “although I work at least 10 hours a day,” she said.

Growing up poor, Evans wants more for her children than she received as a child. “I always wanted to be a doctor, but I was never told that I could go to college,” she said.

When she was 17, a teacher told her that she was reading at a 4th- or 5th-grade level. “It was Miss Tracy, and she taught me how to read,” Evans said. “I’ll never forget her name. When that happened to me, I made sure I wasn’t going to let that happen to my kids.”

Evans said she has been involved with her children’s education since preschool. “The first thing I bought my kids was ‘Hooked on Phonics,’” she said. “I remember because it was so expensive. This was my first way of investing in their future. They were going to preschool, and I taught them at home to sound out words.”

When her son entered kindergarten, he knew how to read, write his name and tie his shoes. “The teacher was shocked at this African-American kid doing all that,” she said.

Evans bristles when she sees how kids are stereotyped – not just by the system and by some teachers but by their parents as well. She said many parents have told her, “Our kids just don’t go to college.”

“We’re trying to change a whole culture,” she said. “We’re fighting that attitude of, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it.’ We’re breaking down stereotypes and miseducation. No kid deserves to feel dumb.”

Evans plans to work at Gompers even after her kids have moved on. “My children are well on their way on a college track, but not all children have that,” she said. She urges other parents to stay involved with their children’s education and their schools.

“Parents have to advocate for their kids all the time,” she said. “I’ll always go and meet the teachers and volunteer at school and stay involved. I ask [my kids] every day, ‘What did you learn in school today?’”

“She is inspiring across all lines – to students, teachers and parents,” said Gompers director Vince Riveroll. “Her comments always tie back to what’s best for kids.”

Riveroll said Evans is engaging Gompers parents on many levels. “She is teaching parents how to become more involved and has given them notebooks and planners so they can learn how to be organized and take notes,” he said.

She’s also teaching them how to become activists, and she honors parents by giving out awards for volunteering and for their work on behalf of their children and the school, he added.

“Michelle is a long-time community member and she’s investing in her community and her school,” Riveroll said.

Evans is equally admiring of Riveroll, who is “all about students,” she said. “He sacrifices more than we’ll ever know. He grew up in this neighborhood too. Most people wouldn’t do this job – it takes a special person.”

Progress being made

Besides working for Riveroll, Evans also sits on the Gompers Charter Middle School board of directors – making her Riveroll’s employee and boss, he said with a laugh.

Although she rubs elbows on the board with some heavy hitters in education – including former state Senator Dede Alpert, San Diego County Urban League president Cecil Steppe and University of California, San Diego professors Cecil Lytle and Bud Mehan – she more than holds her own, according to Riveroll.

So far, the charter to improve student achievement seems to be working. Daily attendance is up, behavior problems are down and students are learning. Evans gives much of the credit to the teachers, who she said work 10 to 12 hours a day.

The positive energy has spread to everyone at the school. “The students have really caught on,” she said. “For some of them, this is the first time they’ve had adults believe in them. You’d be amazed at what kids can do if given the chance.”

Evans said starting school this fall with no teacher vacancies was a proud moment. But she cautions patience. “You’ve got to learn to crawl before you can walk,” she said. “Progress may be slow but it will come.”

The biggest disappointment comes from a least likely source – the school district, which authorized the charter to begin with. Gompers and other SDUSD charter schools have found the going rough these past few months as district staff and board members have made the annual facilities request process a nightmare of legal traps and bureaucratic red tape, all designed to thwart progress and sap enthusiasm.

“We’re changing the culture from chaos to learning,” Riveroll said. But the focus on the facilities issue “distracts from the real work and hasn’t subsided. It’s exhausting.”

Despite the frustrations, Riveroll and Evans remain upbeat and focused on their goal to put kids’ interests first.

Evans said her hero is Maya Angelou, who also came from a poor family and overcame adversity to become a well-known poet. “She inspired people to be better,” Evans said. “‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ was the first story I read that I fully understood. I didn’t even know I was caged, but that’s how you feel when you can’t read or write.”

Evans proves that it’s not just people with important titles, six-figure salaries, national reputations and college degrees who can be leaders. Confident and committed, she is an effective advocate for those children whose needs have been overlooked for decades by an education system that has forgotten its responsibility to educate future generations.

As she maneuvers skillfully through the world of divisive school district politics and billion-dollar budgets, Evans demonstrates that growing up in poverty with little public policy experience matters little when your convictions are solid and your cause is just.

Marsha Sutton writes about education and children’s issues.

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