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Approximately 80 students, staff, parents, alumni and community supporters held a protest at the district offices on Oct. 27. Photo courtesy of Gompers Preparatory Academy
Neighborhoods

Chollas Creek Neighborhood Fights to Save its School Leaders

This is the second installment of a two-part series on Gompers Preparatory Academy in Southeast San Diego. Read the first installment here

The Gompers community has made its position clear. 

About 80 students, teachers, alumni and community members staged a protest Oct. 27 at the district office, demanding that the San Diego Unified School District reverse its recent decision to eliminate on-loan agreements for four top Gompers Preparatory Academy charter school employees. 

The on-loan agreements would have allowed the four employees, considered GPA founders, to retain their employment and benefits from the school district while working at Gompers. 

Now the district is forcing the founders to choose whether to stay at Gompers and lose their district rights, or leave Gompers and return to the school district.

Four Gompers employees – GPA Director Vince Riveroll, Assistant Director Lisa Maples, Executive Assistant Paz Garcia-Ramirez, and Welcome Center Lead Judith Franceschi – have been with the school since its charter was approved in 2005 and until now have been granted on-loan status from SD Unified.

“A promise was made and it was made earlier in their careers and … they trusted the district’s word,” said Gompers Chief Business Officer Jenny Parsons.

Parsons said if these four left GPA it would create a leadership vacuum. “This school would not be this school without Vince Riveroll,” she said. “He is a visionary leader and a master teacher.

“Several leaders would most likely leave immediately after him and several staff would leave right away. I do not see how this school would survive very long or look anything like it does today.”

“This change in policy threatens to disrupt operations and jeopardize our success,” wrote Cecil Steppe, chair of Gompers’ board of directors, in a letter to the SDUSD board of education. 

Parsons provided a rebuttal to the district’s reasons for withdrawing the on-loan agreements, in a memo made public.

In it she claimed the reasons are unsupported by the facts and make it clear “that the district has no valid rationale for its abrupt change of position after so many years.”

She said San Diego Unified is “overreaching its right and responsibilities” as the charter authorizer and that the real motive “is to undermine GPA as an independent charter school and return it to district control.”

What really bothers the district, said Parsons, is that Gompers is demonstrating that there can be no excuses for other district schools that show a lack of progress. 

“Our existence creates pressure for them,” she said. “[Gompers is] showing that kids who have typically been written off can actually succeed.

“It’s like we have to go back to this mediocrity level so that they will not feel as pressured to do better by the community.”

GPA Director Vince Riveroll. Courtesy photo


School Board 

GPA is located in San Diego Unified’s District E, represented on the school board by trustee Sharon Whitehurst-Payne. 

In an October San Diego Union-Tribune interview, when asked for her position on charter schools, she said they should be free to try different ideas to help students learn.

“We work hard to support these schools and encourage their innovation,” she said in the interview. “I am especially interested in some of our charter schools enjoying success in the education of young people of color.”

“I think she has consumed the Kool-Aid provided by the superintendent,” Steppe said. “There are bits and pieces of what she says that are supportive of what we’re doing, but I think she’s reluctant to go all the way with it.”

Directing his comments at Whitehurst-Payne, Steppe said, “You have to stand tall. You represent us. So quit being shy. It’s time to get tough.” 

Although the directive to cancel the on-loan guarantee was initiated from the Office of Charter Schools, Parsons and Steppe believe SDUSD Supt. Cindy Marten was fully aware.

Because this was staff-initiated and not brought before the school board, Steppe has asked the district to place this item on a board agenda to make the issue public and allow school and community members to address the board directly.

Steppe said Gompers board members with an association with UCSD are contacting individual SDUSD board members “about their reluctance to have Gompers go backwards.”

Hugh “Bud” Mehan, Gompers board member and UCSD Professor Emeritus of Sociology, said on-loan agreements with educators who chose to work at a district charter school are guaranteed a “right to return” as provided by charter law.

“The current revocation of this status for the four colleagues at Gompers is in violation of that provision,” he said. 

Whitehurst-Payne did not respond to a request for comment by deadline for this story.

Cruel and Shameful

Riveroll expressed his thoughts over the on-loan issue in a lengthy Q&A

“Under the disguise of the on-loan agreement issue, the district and members of the board of education continue to weaken the stability of our charter school,” he said in an email.

“The district knows the success of GPA is partly due to the stable leadership of its employees’ on loan for the past 16 years. The district must also know the notion of not having these on-loan leaders at GPA would bring instability to GPA.”

He said removing the on-loan agreement during distance learning and a pandemic should not be tolerated and called it cruel, shameful and unacceptable.  

“Gompers Prep is just one example of what our children deserve in southeast San Diego,” Riveroll said. “It pains us to see surrounding District E schools not living up to their potential of success for all children due to the tiresome political games of bureaucrats in power.”

In a recent press release, Ellen Nash said that by removing the on-loan agreement, SDUSD is trying to return Gompers “to a failing school.”

“We demand that the San Diego Unified School District protect Black and Brown students at Gompers Preparatory Academy by permanently establishing on-loan agreements of GPA’s director, leaders and veteran staff,” reads the press release.

Nash, chair of Black American Political Association of California in San Diego, called Gompers “the brightest light of excellence” for the community.

“Opportunities widen when our schools have the right leaders and the right staff to do the heavy lifting,” the press release reads. “Why place barriers where we should instead be channeling support?” 

Miles Durfee, southern California’s vice president for local advocacy for the California Charter Schools Association, said Gompers is focused on “student populations who have traditionally not been well served.”

The four employees, he said, “have had long careers both at the district and in charter schools with the single focus of improving student learning and outcomes.”

Systemic Racism

Last year Gompers’ total enrollment for grades 6-12 was 1,320 students, and the vast majority of students – 87.6%– were classified as socio-economically disadvantaged. 

Nearly 20% are English learners and 16%  are students with disabilities. Latinx students are 86.5% of the total enrollment, 8.2% are Black and 3.5% Asian. 

Because nearly 90% of students are low-income and almost 95%  are students of color, a legitimate concern has been raised that with this ultimatum the district is turning its back on equity in education. 

Placing the four GPA employees in this untenable position jeopardizes the movement toward providing a quality education for children in this impoverished community, supporters say.

Although academic scores are not where they’d like them to be, Parsons said achievement is increasing and outpacing other SDUSD schools in the neighborhood.

Since 2015, the percent increase in the number of Gompers students meeting or exceeding state standards was 11.8%  in English Language Arts and 17.1% in math.

“When you look at other district-run schools in our sub-district, none of them are performing at the level we are as far as academic achievement, college-going rates, safety on campus, school attendance and parent engagement,” Parsons said.  

“For the district to do anything to weaken a strong school in District E when so many other schools are really failing to deliver on an equitable educational promise is really a crime against children of color.” 

She said there are many bright, special children at other schools in District E, and it’s shameful that they’re not receiving the education Gompers provides.

“We’ve really been successful in the promise of changing what was a pipeline to prison to a pathway to college,” she said.

2020 Gompers graduate Patricio Ramirez. Courtesy photo


Parents and Alumni

Calling GPA a “beacon of light in our neighborhood,” Theressah Ramirez opposes the removal of the on-loan status for Riveroll and the other three founders, whom she called “crucial to our children's education.”

Theressah and Victor Ramirez are the parents of two honor roll students at GPA. 

“Under the direction of our wonderful Director Riveroll,” the Gompers founders “have transformed our school into a safe environment for our children’s education,” she said in an email.

“It’s because of GPA that my son Patricio was able to graduate and get into San Diego State University with a full scholarship,” she said. “That is a dream come true for us. Patricio is the very first high school graduate to go to college in our family.”

Patricio hopes to be a pediatrician one day, she said. 

“Don't our children deserve a quality education like everyone else outside of our zip code? Yes we do,” she said. 

Roosevelt Blackmon said the decision “to go back on the on-loan agreement is an attempt to undermine the leadership” by a school district that “doesn’t care about Gompers.” 

Blackmon is a Gompers parent who also serves as chair of Gompers’ school site council and chair of San Diego Unified’s Lincoln Cluster.

“I am saddened and frustrated by the district’s attempt to remove the founders of GPA,” said Gompers parent James Wiley, Jr. “They have built a thriving community of success at GPA.”

The founders, he said, have created “a culture of safety for our students which is of utmost importance to me as a parent.”

Wiley asked the district to “care for the safety, well-being and success of the students at GPA.”

Jameia Johnson, 20, graduated from Gompers Prep in 2018 and said the four founders “did the heavy lifting that the district could not/would not do.”

“They sacrificed and put in the hard work … and most importantly, the heart work, to make Gompers Preparatory Academy what it is today,” she said. 

Gompers, she said, “is the most successful college-going school in District E” and has a long waiting list of students who want the solid education GPA provides. 

“As an African-American, why am I still asking, ‘Don’t we deserve good things?’ I am forever standing with Gompers Prep and the founders … the people who have changed my life for the better.”

Let Them Be

The work is exceedingly challenging, given that many of these children come to Gompers already well behind their counterparts in wealthier districts. Their academic performance is still lagging, but there’s pride in the community now, school attendance is high, the culture has been transformed into one that values respect, integrity and hard work, and these children and their families can now see a way forward that offers hope and the promise for a better future.

Should the four on-loan employees be forced to leave Gompers – a very real possibility – students of color will suffer.

Our class-based society where income levels define one’s chances for success in life means power for the rich at the expense of advancement for the poor and lower-class.

Gompers can’t fight poverty, but the school is doing its best to battle against systemic racism in public education and provide an underserved community with a path forward for its children.

“It’s the reason we’re in this work,” Parsons said. “We’re talking about adults and personnel right now, but the reason this matters is because at the core of what we’re doing is trying to battle against that racism and make sure we’re closing opportunity gaps.”

“When you look at what we’ve accomplished in 15, almost 16 years, we are an example of what is possible with public education,” Steppe said.

Systemic racism in public education is real, and this challenge from SDUSD does little to indicate district support for the school’s progress toward giving students of color a chance at a decent education.

In this tiny corner of the world, Gompers is trying to make a difference in the lives of poor, immigrant, English learning, Black and Brown children living in a hierarchical society that disadvantages this class of people from birth. 

Rather than thwarting their innovations at every step, San Diego Unified should revel in their success at turning a failing, dangerous school into a model for what other inner-city schools should look like. 

Who is the district serving and what’s best for the kids?

These children need to be given a way out of the trap of poverty, crime, hopelessness and despair. Give them a chance at a quality education and at a bright future filled with hope and promise. 

San Diego Unified should take a step back, get out of the way and just let Gompers be.

Bring Your Lunch 

When I covered the Gompers conversion to a charter school in 2005, what stands out is the memory of a shy, respectful, diminutive and soft-spoken Gompers Middle School student named Maryam Soodati.

Speaking to the school board after a number of fiery speeches from pro-charter adults, Maryam walked slowly to the microphone, looked at each school board member directly and quietly said, “Good things don’t happen to Gompers. The school board wants to take good things away from us. Is it wrong for us to want good things?”

You could have heard a pin drop. After a few moments, the audience of more than 250 people exploded in applause, many of them openly weeping. 

She spoke simple words that were more forceful and persuasive than the most eloquent and passionate of orators. And those words still echo today. 

Besides needing to overcome societal hurdles, Gompers has been faced with so many artificial obstacles in their drive to succeed, by a school district that seems deaf to the need for educational equity and social justice in low-income communities. 

Fifteen years have passed, yet the district’s tune is the same as it ever was. But Gompers is determined to fight this battle, just as it has all the others.

Said Steppe, “We’ve always said if you’re coming after us, bring your lunch because it’s not going to be easy.”

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About the Author

Marsha Sutton

Marsha Sutton is a reported columnist who has covered education in San Diego for 20 years. Her award-winning work has appeared in Voice of San Diego and The San Diego Union-Tribune. She can be reached at [email protected]

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