When Vincent Riveroll swings an outsized bell to signal the start of the school day at Gompers Preparatory Academy, the director is sending a powerful message to the students and the community. Our kids are valued. Our kids can do it. Our kids are college bound.
It has taken 12 years to advance from a near state takeover of an underperforming, drug- and gang-ridden middle school in southeastern San Diego to a charter high school that promises “students can succeed at the university of their choice.”
Politicians, parents, philanthropists and news outlets in San Diego have praised the school’s cultural and academic transformation. The nonprofit has garnered nearly $75 million in government grants and private contributions since it forged a path away from the San Diego Unified School District in 2005.
Riveroll lives and breathes the Gompers culture he helped birth, carting kids to and from tutoring sessions, movies, field trips to Disneyland and visits to colleges. “Tuck in your shirt, please,” he tells one student shortly after welcoming another to the 26-acre campus where gates once served to contain outbreaks of frequent violence.
Teachers who have worked with 48-year-old Riveroll say he’s an inspiring leader, a visionary with extraordinary charisma and passion. Parents adore the man who has been named teacher of the year, educator of the year and selected as one of four principals nationwide to participate in the Public Education Leadership Program at Harvard University.
Yet data, documents and interviews contradict the Gompers brand of preparing every student for college. Gompers’ standardized test scores — one metric for college acceptance — are among the bottom of schools in San Diego County and California, but these numbers are in contrast to students’ straight A grades with courses in precalculus, advanced biology and AP history.
Teachers say grades are inflated, and if students still can’t graduate, they are “counseled” to attend school elsewhere. The same teachers who praise Riveroll’s talent blame him, saying he shames educators who assign failing grades by telling them they are “murdering” kids.
Riveroll did not show up last week for a scheduled interview with inewsource. The chairman and vice chairman of the Gompers board of directors, Cecil Steppe and Bud Mehan, said Riveroll was busy helping seniors prepare to graduate and that they would answer questions, along with two administrative staff members from the school.
The two-hour meeting with board members came after 11 former Gompers teachers described to inewsource – over the course of three months – two faces of the school: Gompers the welcoming oasis, full of love and support for the most “caring” and “sweet” students they’ve ever known; and Gompers the regime, rife with pressure to go above and beyond – nights, weekends, holidays – no matter the toll to personal lives and finances.
The University of California San Diego is intricately connected to Gompers and its success. A shared network of professors, academics and educational programs has cemented the 12-year partnership. UCSD accepted 51 Gompers students this year, or nearly half the graduating class. So far, 39 plan to enroll and are expected to be awarded full scholarships.
Teachers and students told inewsource that despite Gompers’ university-focused charter, they are well-versed in stories of recent graduates who felt unprepared, and, as a result, dropped or failed out of college.
Steppe, a prominent resident of southeastern San Diego, retired head of the San Diego County Probation Department and Gompers founder, discounted the test scores and said he was not concerned about what the teachers had told inewsource.
Referring to the data, Steppe said, “All of that is wonderful but that’s not my ball game. My ball game is I have lived too long, 84 years in this community, trying to figure out how can I help a community that has been underserved, underrepresented and had stereotypical thinking about their inability to do anything to create an environment where success is possible.
“Most people talk about at-risk kids. What they define as at-risk is at risk to failure. We have at-risk kids that we say are at risk of becoming successful … That’s our play … my hope is that whatever you write, that you will include the heartfelt-ness of what we’re doing here.”
Dede Alpert is a former state senator and was a Gompers board member from the charter adoption in 2005 until 2010. inewsource presented her with data and shared the conversation with Steppe and Mehan.
“Everything they said about things that Gompers does, and has done for this neighborhood, are true,” Alpert said.
“What that never excuses …” she said, “is cheating on grades.”
Alpert said no one other than Riveroll – employing a “cult of personality” – could have improved the Gompers culture so dramatically. She said she has “often stood in awe” of his dedication and service.
But there’s a line.
“I don’t think you can allow a person to continue to be the leader of a school if they are the one who has been basically forcing or coercing teachers into lying and cheating on people’s transcripts,” Alpert said.
“If these allegations are true, I believe the board needs to remove Vince as the director.”
The new numbers
The challenge of working with at-risk kids was the most rewarding work of Donny Powers’ life, and he appreciated the strict regimen of tucked-in shirts, eye contact, firm handshakes and single file lines that greeted him at Gompers his first year in 2009. Powers had three years’ teaching experience and, upon arrival, was told by colleagues to expect to “eat, drink and breathe this place.”
He delivered. Administrative evaluations called Powers’ performance “outstanding” and noted his dedication to a “whatever-it-takes” attitude supported the school’s mission of preparing every student for college.
Powers routinely danced and sang for students, Gompers expects every teacher to do that — to embody the “E” in the school’s “REACH” value system — Respect, Enthusiasm, Achievement, Citizenship and Hard Work.
“Dancing, music, and laughter are all proven strategies to support a positive learning and working environment for staff and students,” Steppe wrote in response to questions about the video, “as evidenced by staff retention, improved discipline and increased attendance.”
Powers said he realized within a short time that despite the public performances and constant promotion of the Gompers metamorphosis, it was all “this great kind of show, with nothing behind it and nothing deeper.”
Standardized tests show proficiency in math and English language arts at Gompers has gotten worse from 2011 to 2016. Forty percent of 11th-graders are below basic proficiency in English. Ninety-one percent didn’t reach the state standard for mathematics.
Gompers’ leadership acknowledge the low test scores. “You’re not telling us anything we aren’t aware of,” said Jane Firpo, an assistant director at Gompers. But, she added, the school views the scores with optimism.
Firpo said Gompers celebrates that half the junior class is reading at grade level “because that was historically never the case. So for us, every year showing progress means something.”
inewsource found state test scores are at odds with internal grades.
However, inewsource learned that of the 113 students graduating this year, not one earned a grade lower than a C in the first semester of their 2015-2016 school year. More than half of the class had straight A’s with courses in advanced chemistry, AP history and precalculus. Some of those students failed several lower-level classes the year before.
The class averaged a 4.7 GPA out of 5 the first half of their junior year.
Toward the end of a semester, he said he was asked to spend weekends leading “emergency teaching sessions” to catch up failing students who completed “piles of paper,” Powers said, and “more often than not, that helped them pass the class.”
Could one weekend make failing students that proficient, that fast?
“Absolutely not,” Powers said.
Jenny Parsons, Gompers’ chief business officer, said students who are faltering are tutored, go to “Saturday School,” summer school or are even made to repeat a year.
“The CliffsNotes version is, ‘Oh this child was heading towards a D or F and ended up with a B or C, so clearly there’s grade-changing going on,’” she said. “That’s the CliffsNotes version that does not take into consideration the work that’s done by individuals on that campus to make sure that child doesn’t fail.”
Former 11th-grade chemistry teacher Davey described being chastised in his first year at Gompers for giving three students F’s. He said Riveroll put the kids’ faces on a TV during a meeting, and said, “You killed these kids … These kids are not going to be able to graduate high school, they’re not going to be able to go to college, they’re going to end up in jail, because of you. How do you feel about yourself right now?”
Davey said, “We were told that we were murdering children, we were killing kids just because they got an F.”
inewsource emailed Riveroll about this incident, but a response came from Steppe. He said Gompers “will not disclose specific personnel data/information” and cited privacy concerns. In the earlier interview, Steppe said, “There’s nothing in that kind of commentary that says ‘now you have to change the grade.’ It is more, in my judgment, an opportunity for a teacher to change their approach to teaching.”
“I did see kids that I knew I had failed, and they were in algebra 2. They shouldn’t be moving on. I would think, ‘That’s weird.’ And I would get some excuse like they came to summer school. But I had them again in algebra 2 and they weren’t really doing that well,” she said.
Powers shared with inewsource a lengthy review of a class Riveroll once wrote for him after observing his teaching. In it, Riveroll quoted the school’s deputy director to share the Gompers expectation and belief system:
Deputy Director Allison Kenda said that urban graduation rates nationally were 50 percent, an “injustice that can be stopped” by changing the approach to teaching and beliefs. Kenda challenged teachers to name 36 students — or 50 percent of their senior class — who were “throw-aways.”
“It will give you a whole new context for the new numbers GPA is trying to create,” she said, “and why the new numbers require a staff that will do ‘whatever it takes’ for kids to truly learn while at our school and in your class.”
“Back pocket of knowledge”
D’ante Harper breezed through Gompers, he said, earning A’s and B’s and spending lunch time with his head in a book. Former teachers remember him affectionately, as he does them. Speaking to inewsource at the UCSD campus in April, Harper spoke highly of his seven years at Gompers, where he said teachers instilled in him values he carries at 21 years old.
He learned respect and how to best present himself to the world during those formative years, which he said helped him get to where he is today. Harper’s mother died when he was a high school junior, but the loss inspired him to strive, to show her he could make it. During that period, Harper said, Riveroll “stepped in more just to make sure that I still wanted to go down the road of going into college, and make sure there wasn’t anything he could do for me.”
“Being here,” he said of his first year at UCSD, “I just felt like the other kids were so much smarter than me, just had this back pocket of knowledge that they could just pull out at any moment and I’m like, ‘Where are you guys getting this from? You learned that?’
Harper said he scored low on his SATs — a 900 the first time and 1,100 the second (out of 2,400) — and was denied entrance to San Diego State University. Yet UCSD, a tougher land than SDSU, accepted him on a full ride.
“It was because the algebra class was fake,” Davey said, meaning the coursework wasn’t actually grade-level algebra. “They earned an A, so they got put to geometry class, which was fake and they earned an A, and they got in algebra 2. The cycle repeats.”
Gompers provided some data about its graduates, which showed that 59.6 percent of the 89 college-bound students from the class of 2014 were still enrolled one year later. Gompers also provided data (not yet independently verified by UCSD) that said 14 of the 19 students who went to UCSD on a full ride in 2015 are still in school as of April 2017.
inewsource reached out to 20 former students, and heard back from six. Only Harper agreed to go on the record.
It helped mentally, he said, to feel like a cohesive unit, everyone doing well and heading to college. That said, Harper added, “It’s perpetuating bad habits that’s going to affect that student later on, especially as soon as they get to college.”
Former classmates have echoed Harper’s concerns on social media.
It’s not news that many kids feel overwhelmed when they move from high school to college and Mehan said Gompers graduates “fall within the parameters of other students going to UCSD at the same grade level.”
Gompers administrators said they do the best they can to track graduates, and they try to find out how they’re doing in college so they can use those lessons to better prepare current students.
Six weeks after submitting his resignation in January 2014, Powers wrote to Mehan — who is also the founding director of UCSD’s Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment and Teaching Excellence. Powers detailed his experiences with grade inflation, pressure and his “source of honest emotional pain” that “came to light the more I learned of the fate of many of the alumni of the school.”
“For many of these students,” Powers wrote, “the GPA on their transcripts did not align with their true mastery of the content or readiness to go off to college. Once they entered an environment where they need to be 100 percent responsible, independent, prove content knowledge, and meet deadlines, they crumbled. Many of us were marginalized for trying to teach these real life survival musts — just as we were for assigning authentic grades.”
Mehan, Steppe and Powers met over coffee. Then, in May 2014, Mehan told Powers that he and Steppe had engaged in “deep conversations with the relevant people at Gompers” about the issue.
“You will not be surprised to learn that these have been heartfelt and sometimes very emotional conversations,” Mehan wrote in an email. “You can also be assured that actions that will improve the situation at Gompers are under way.”
Mehan had difficulty recalling details of the email exchange with Powers in the interview with inewsource last week. He cited confidentiality in declining to say what “relevant people” he had reached out to or what “actions that will improve the situation” he took. He also said he did not know what “the situation” he referred to in the email meant.
Both he and Steppe, however, said they concluded Powers’ concerns were not valid and could be damaging to the school.
Steppe said, “I had my own envisioning of what the environment was at this school … It gave me, personally, a lot of chance to talk to other teachers, to the leadership team, to see if there was any credence to the kind of things that he had mentioned to us.
“I walked away very clear in my own soul that what he saw was a single vision, but it was not consistent with what I saw as the campus climate.”
Steppe didn’t write back to Powers, he said, “because there was nothing much that I would be able to say to him other than ‘I don’t find your accusations solid.’”
inewsource attempted to speak to people currently teaching at Gompers but was unsuccessful. We were told the teachers were warned not to speak to a reporter and reminded their employment was “at will.”
Parsons, Gompers’ chief business officer, said she led those meetings with teachers and employment status was never mentioned. She wanted to assure them that the administration had not given their cellphone numbers to a reporter. Parsons said she told the group “that’s their right to speak, but to recognize that … if they were to speak and be listed as someone from Gompers Preparatory Academy, that there is a different weight to that than just Joe Smith on the corner.”
The 11 former teachers who did speak to inewsource told a tale of two men: Riveroll the supportive and inspiring instructor who taught them teaching techniques and mindsets they still use in their career — “When you speak about students, always say ‘My kids, our kids.’ Never say ‘those kids.’” They also told of a man magnetized to attention and publicity.
“He’s very much a showy guy,” said former Gompers teacher Johnston, who spent five years working with Riveroll. She remembers a strict but supportive director who valued 12-hour days out of his staff, along with sacrificing vacation time, career goals and a personal life. But she also remembers that Riveroll would bring her coffee after she’d put in late hours the night before.
“It is very challenging to balance this work,” said Parsons. “It is truly missionary work.”
Johnston was at Gompers for seven years and was asked to take on more and more responsibilities as time passed. That, combined with the birth of her son and constant pressure to make sure students were successful (and Riveroll’s berating when they weren’t), led her to resign.
*Dede Alpert is an inewsource donor.
More in the series…
The inewsource investigation into Gompers Preparatory Academy, in addition to dozens of interviews with former students, teachers and key stakeholders, relied on the results of this data to compare Gompers to schools across the San Diego Unified School District, San Diego County and total individual schools in California.
The association tasked with accrediting charter schools confirmed it is looking into allegations of grade inflation documented in inewsource’s investigation of San Diego’s Gompers Preparatory Academy.
A Q&A with Felipe Morfin Martinez, who graduated from Gompers in 2016 and was awarded a full-ride scholarship to the University of California San Diego where he is studying communications.
We'll let you know when big things happen.