There are two schools in southeastern San Diego where more than 90 percent of students come from the surrounding neighborhood. Families are welcomed on campus and students walk down neighborhood streets to get to school.

It is very much the image of the neighborhood school that San Diego Unified wants to create in every corner of town. But these aren’t neighborhood schools the way district officials imagine them. They’re charter schools.

While other nearby district schools are figuring out how to attract students from the neighborhood, students are clamoring to get into Gompers Preparatory Academy and The O’Farrell Charter School.

Charter schools are public schools that operate autonomously, like mini-school districts. They have open boundaries, meaning students from any ZIP code can attend. On the other hand, traditional public schools – which the district calls “neighborhood schools” – are the school students are assigned to attend automatically if they don’t opt out.

But Gompers and O’Farrell are complicating those definitions.

About 94 percent of Gompers’ 1,230 students come from within a five-mile radius of the school. And 80 percent come from within three miles. These students live within the boundaries of Lincoln High, the neighborhood high school they’d attend if they didn’t opt into a charter.

It’s a similar story at O’Farrell, in Encanto. Roughly 90 percent of O’Farrell’s 1,690 students come from within a three-mile radius.

To understand how these charters are pulling in students, you might talk to parents about why they are avoiding Lincoln High, which for decades has been dogged by perceptions of violence and low performance. You might look at how charter leaders are marketing their schools or the work they’re doing in classrooms to move students toward graduation.

Or, you might also just show up at Gompers, where the first day of school this year looked more like a carnival.

Outside the school doors, sixth-graders tugged nervously at their uniforms, waiting for the bell to ring. They seemed to brighten when a beat-heavy version of “Beauty and the Beast” started to play.

Just then, a machine started kicking bubbles into the air, landing on teachers – many of them dressed in Disney costumes – as they twisted and gyrated, goading younger students to join in.

Seniors didn’t need convincing. By now, they understand that dancing is part of the program at Gompers. In fact, school leaders once debated whether they could make dancing a requirement for teachers they hired.

“It’s not about how well you dance,” said Jenny Parsons, Gompers’ chief business officer. “But if teachers aren’t willing to express joy and let themselves be vulnerable in front of students, we wonder if they’re the right fit for Gompers.”

Suddenly, Parsons excused herself – teachers nearby had started a flash mob, and she needed to join them.

“It all looks like rainbows and butterflies, but it took a lot of work to get to this point,” Parsons said. “Eleven years of building expectations and working with students to remove their shells and letting them know it’s OK to be schoolboys and schoolgirls.”

The music, the bubbles, the costumes are all designed to shock the senses, so when students step foot on campus, they’re transported to a place where anything is possible.

It might all seem a little too sweet if students weren’t buying in. When it’s time for the school song, no students, not even the seniors, are too cool to sing along.

It’s the brainchild of Gompers director Vincent Riveroll, who this morning is acting as emcee. Riveroll is the visionary, the school’s very own Willy Wonka of education. Parsons is Riveroll’s left brain, overseeing logistics, handling press and managing the charter school’s $13 million budget.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Together, they’ve been able to transform Gompers’ image from that of a ruinous neighborhood school to a charter school whose students are all but guaranteed acceptance to college.

Today’s Gompers looks nothing like it did 12 years ago. The old Gompers turned over 75 percent of its teachers every year. Fights, vandalism and riots regularly disrupted the school routine. On any given day, hundreds of students were absent.

Gompers today hangs onto 80 percent of its teachers from year to year. Student attendance hovers around 96 percent. Every student in last year’s senior class went on to graduate, and 47 of were admitted and offered a full scholarship to UCSD, said Parsons.

In southeastern San Diego, charter schools just might be the new neighborhood schools. If traditional schools want to compete, they’ll have to look to charters to see what they’re doing right.

‘Is it Wrong for Us to Want Good Things?’

Gerald Carroll, who today works as a Gompers counselor, went to school here in the late ‘90s. He can point to a chain link fence on campus and tell you about the years when staff used it to cordon off hallways and prevent riots from spreading.

“Anything could set it off,” Carroll said. “Sometimes the fights would start on campus. Sometimes they’d start off campus and end at school. One time we had a man that robbed a store then ran onto campus, and that started a riot.”

That’s the environment Riveroll entered in 2004 when he first became Gompers’ principal. Years later, in an interview with PBS, he recounted his first encounter with a student on campus. Riveroll had shown up to school dressed the part of a school principal, and one student called him out: “Why are you wearing a suit? It’s just going to get ripped when you break up a fight,” he remembers the student saying.

That was also Gompers’ fifth straight year of failing test scores – a record that forced the school to restructure under the terms of No Child Left Behind, a federal law that established consequences for schools that failed to make academic progress. Gompers had three choices: It could agree to be taken over by the state, remove the principal or convert to a charter school.

Before charter schools can open, they must create a plan for their school. In California, charters are most often approved by local school boards and overseen by district staff members. Charter schools are given extra flexibility in exchange for a promise to raise student performance.

In San Diego, most charter schools aren’t bound to the same hiring and firing practices as traditional district schools. That’s important to Gompers’ story, because Riveroll believed it would be difficult to reverse decades of low performance at Gompers if he couldn’t staff the school with the teachers he wanted.

So in 2004, Riveroll put together a team to create a plan to convert Gompers from a neighborhood school to a charter school – a process that requires signatures of support from more than half a school’s teachers.

School board members at the time resisted – at one point they even removed Riveroll from the school. But parents, students and community members campaigned even harder for the charter school.

In a line that’s been etched into school history, a Gompers student stood up at a public meeting in 2004 and asked the school board: “Is it wrong for us to want good things?”

In March 2005, the school board approved Gompers’ charter. Since then, Gompers has expanded from a middle school to a school that serves students in grades six through 12.

It’s a story that preserves school tradition and reminds students they can’t take anything for granted, Parsons said. But it’s also a story of a community taking back a sense of control the school district could not give them.

A College-Going Cocoon

Gompers, home of the Eagles, is a school that sweats the details. School uniforms must be right: Ties are straight and collared shirts tucked in. College admission is sacrosanct.

Students and staff talk in school-wide vocabulary. Students don’t walk onto campus through an entryway. They pass through the Gates of Wisdom. When a Gompers student is accepted to a four-year university, someone announces over the PA system: “Another Eagle got its wings!”

In September, about 40 students lined up outside the school’s auditorium, in military silence, eyes straight ahead, for an eternity.

Discipline is about more than punishment, said Parsons. It’s about patience, stamina and mental control. Without it, students will flounder in college. “I think we’ve got a good group, here,” one teacher whispered. “They’re up to 14 minutes – and it’s only the first day of school.”

You’ll see a similar approach in Sean Bentz’s classroom, where he teaches computer science but frequently pairs lessons with games of chess to help students learn patience and problem-solving.

“Students are training their minds to focus, to plan ahead, to look for creative solutions to problems – the same skills they’ll need later on. We have kids who don’t think they’re capable of those things, but they’ll sit there playing chess for two hours straight. I ask them, ‘How did you just do that?’ Over time they learn to apply that thinking to their math problems.”

Gompers gets help from UCSD, which floods the campus with two to three dozen college students every quarter who mentor Gompers students.

Charter schools are often accused of focusing on standardized test practice at the expense of a more comprehensive education. But Gompers’ test scores have never been that high. Today, they’re only slightly higher than Lincoln High, the closest neighborhood high school.

Standardized test scores simply aren’t Gompers’ selling point, Parsons said.

Rather, Gompers’ leaders have turned the entire campus into a kind of college-going cocoon.

“We really try to be a helicopter mom to students who don’t have a helicopter mom,” said Parsons.

In order to graduate, all Gompers students must pass college-prep courses that students need to get into UC and CSU schools – the same requirements students must meet at traditional high schools.

In a room next to the library, known as the Wingspan, students get help applying to college or finding financial aid. Gompers boasts a graduation rate of nearly 100 percent for the past five years (it’s 100 percent if you count the students who stayed at Gompers all four years of high school).

And it’s been able to do it with demographics that mirror nearby traditional schools. Roughly 90 percent of its students qualify for free lunch. The poverty rate of the surrounding neighborhood is about twice San Diego’s average.

And in southeastern San Diego, where some students make it to high school still reading at a second-grade level, Gompers represents a powerful promise to parents.

Parsons said it’s not uncommon to get phone calls from frantic mothers who plead with them to accept their kids: “Please, will you please take my babies? They need to get to college.”

Gompers to Lincoln

A month into the school year, Gompers’ honor roll students got a visit from a very special speaker: Former superintendent Alan Bersin.

Students sat in reverent silence as Bersin walked down the auditorium aisle and onto the stage.

Bersin left the district 11 years ago, en route to the Department of Homeland Security, where he works today. But in some ways, Bersin never left San Diego Unified. Teachers and administrators continue to talk about his reforms with nostalgia or disdain.

For Gompers students, he’s the one who made their school possible. Charter schools existed before Bersin’s time, but he pushed the door open more widely to charters. And he supported Gompers’ transition to charter school from the very beginning.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

To Bersin, giving parents options of which schools to send their kids was one way to increase competition – and competition makes both sides stronger.

Since Bersin left, the number of students opting into charter schools has steadily risen. Today, about 20 percent of students in San Diego Unified students attend charter schools.

That’s stirred anxiety and sparked tensions, but it’s also forced the district confront the need for better marketing and improved customer service.

The district is on a mission to create a quality school in every neighborhood, and one big way it measures success is the number of neighborhood kids a school serves. But neighborhood schools take on a more ominous meaning for students who aren’t lucky enough to live near a high-performing school.

Nowhere is this concern more real than in southeastern San Diego.

A study from University of San Diego’s Center for Education Policy and Law last year showed that 70 percent of area families opt out of their neighborhood schools by the time they get to high school – a higher rate of departure than any other part of town.

Last year, area principals surveyed parents to find out why they were leaving. Parents wanted safe schools, principals said. They wanted strong academics. They wanted to know teachers cared. And they had serious doubts about whether Lincoln and nearby middle schools could provide that.

Competition may be driving Gompers and O’Farrell to strengthen their programs, but so far, nearby neighborhood schools haven’t kept pace.

Lincoln today is filled at just over half of its 2,700-student capacity. To stem the tide of fleeing students, district leaders have restructured and rebranded the school multiple times, with little success.

That so many students avoid Lincoln High has a real impact on the district. In California, state funding follows students. Funding goes up or down depending on students’ needs, but if on average Gompers gets $10,000 per student, per year, and they have 1,230 students – every year $12.3 million that would otherwise go to the district goes to Gompers.

Charter schools don’t exist solely to drive competition, though. They’re expected to use their flexibility to practice innovative approaches that can then be shared with other schools. So far, however, the conversation has gotten stuck on competition – not collaboration.

But that may change, too.

O’Farrell superintendent Jon Dean said in recent years a number of community groups have approached him, asking if he’d be willing to take a leading role in transforming Lincoln High.

Riveroll has gotten similar questions, Parsons said. Last year, Superintendent Cindy Marten and district staffers visited Gompers to interview students and teachers to understand what’s working.

After the visit, Parsons remembers Marten saying: “I can’t unsee what I just saw.”

Both Dean and Parsons say they’d be open to working with Lincoln High, so long as the decision came from the community and district as opposed to having it look like they were moving in on someone else’s turf.

“We can’t be the ones to initiate that conversation,” Parsons said. “We don’t need that target on our back.”

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.