inewsource published an investigation last week into the quality of education at Gompers Preparatory Academy — a nationally recognized charter school that promises “students can succeed at the university of their choice.” After the story ran, Felipe Morfin Martinez came forward to share his experience.
Morfin Martinez graduated from Gompers in 2016 and was awarded a full-ride scholarship to the University of California San Diego where he is studying communications.
He told inewsource that he realized early in his Gompers education that he wasn’t being challenged in his classes. Despite earning straight A’s, he said, he knew he wasn’t prepared to achieve his dream of pursuing a career in science. When he shared his concerns at home, he said, his parents responded: “You don’t believe in yourself, look at your grades.”
Morfin Martinez says he’s proud of his straight A’s at UCSD, “but they’re not the classes I wish I could take. They’re not organic chemistry, they’re not the chemistry series, the math series, they’re not the classes that people value.”
This transcript of inewsource’s conversation with Morfin Martinez has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re doing well at UCSD — you have straight A’s. Can you tell me what was it like before college, being a student at Gompers?
Being at Gompers was very different. The atmosphere was not necessarily academic. It felt very staged and everything was almost like we were going through school as a show or as an event. It didn’t feel real, the classes didn’t feel real, the material we learned didn’t feel real. It was “Here, let’s do this, let’s make the school seem better.”
The teachers want to help and a lot of the staff from Gompers, they’re amazing and they do want to teach and they want to help as much as possible, but there are setbacks. And the person who’s managing the school, I think he’s a big reason why they can’t do their job.
Because a teacher’s job shouldn’t be to teach kids how to sew or to teach kids how to dance or to make posters in AP bio, that’s not it. They’re there to teach the topic and support academics, not extracurriculars.
When you say the person who’s managing the school, are you referring to Director Vince Riveroll?
Can you describe the focus of the school?
A lot of the focus was always towards dancing and towards being on the media. I think that (the director’s) objective was to be recognized. To be recognized, but it kind of backfires. Do you really want all of this media attention because your students are dancing and twirling and putting on these elaborate shows when they can’t do a simple calculus problem? That’s not right.
We spoke with you earlier on the phone and you mentioned false hope, can you explain what you mean by that?
It’s the hope where the school wants their students to believe in themselves, but that’s not how it works. You can’t make a person believe in themselves that they can do everything and expect the real world to react the same. They believed the children were the future, but in like a utopic future. It was not the reality.
Can you give me an example?
Well, there would be cases where people would talk about their aspirations like “I want to be a nurse, I want to be a doctor. I want to get into Stanford, Harvard, this and that,” and I’m just like, really? But when the teacher gives you another calculus problem or gives you one homework assignment for biology you’re out there not wanting that and refusing to do that. You don’t understand simple materials that other high school students in grades lower than yours are comprehending.
And what were your aspirations when you were in high school?
My aspirations just growing up in general were always focused towards science and towards STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). I loved nature and I still do. I wanted to help the environment and do all of those things that people envision, like marine biology. I think another aspiration of mine was to become a veterinarian. Little things like that that give you that hope of being able to be a part of a bigger system…
I wanted to do science and I guess it clicked on me when I was probably in 10th grade or ninth grade where it was like, ‘my dreams aren’t going to happen because I can see it. I’m not ready for that, I’m not prepared for that.’
Because of what you were getting taught in high school?
Yes. I was not getting the education that I deserved.
I have some family members in middle school and two cousins who are still in high school. I don’t know how to say it to my family but their grades don’t reflect their potential. Grades in general don’t necessarily show your potential but those grades that we get at Gompers are not challenging you. An A does not mean an A universally.
Can you explain to me why you see this as such a big issue?
Even elementary schools in our neighborhoods, they are not performing at grade level, I understand that. Their solution of building confidence, of saying “You can do this” is not going to solve the problem. They need to focus more on education and less on the performance arts and less on the school’s image.
I think a lot of what the school is is because of the director’s passions. I totally understand if his passion is theater, if his passion is dance, music and all that stuff. But there’s a time and place for that.
Do you have any friends from Gompers who also go to UCSD? How are they doing?
I do have acquaintances from Gompers that are here and it’s a bit sad to see, but their hopes and dreams are kind of slowly crumbling and they’re realizing it now. It’s sad to see that. It’s sad to see a person that was so excited in high school come to college and have to rethink their entire life because we’re put in this mindset that you have to be college-prep, college-ready, always thinking about college. You know, probably since seventh grade it’s been “What’s your dream for college? What’s your major? What do you want to be when you grow up?” But then it comes to reality and nothing that you planned and nothing you aspired can become true. Even the people who are following their passions they know how hard it is. They have to work twice as hard as anyone else.
When we spoke earlier, you mentioned some current Gompers students recently contacted you about UCSD. What were those conversations like?
Some of them contacted me and they were saying “Well, we hear you’re doing well in college and I just wanted to hear your advice. What do you think about engineering at UCSD?” I remember one of them was saying they were disappointed at one of the school counselors discouraging him from applying as an engineer. He was saying, “Yeah she didn’t believe in me” sort of thing. But that wasn’t the case. I know that counselor and I respect her and I think she’s resigned now, but you can’t tell someone yes go ahead and apply for engineering when you know yourself that’s not going to happen. If they want a shot at UCSD, they’re not ready to apply for engineering or certain majors like that.
When you applied to UCSD, what pre-major did you declare?
My major declared was Latin American studies, I think. I did want communications and I had the idea when applying that I wanted to become a teacher and I still remember towards the end (of high school) the director saying “If anyone gets a teaching credential they can come and teach at our school.” Now thinking back, I don’t think I would take that deal. If I were to become a teacher, I would become a teacher because I want to help out and help the children fulfill their hopes, not follow orders from someone else and not to help him fulfill his own dream.
When you speak about others mentioning you doing so well now, you seem disappointed. Are you not happy?
I’m happy that they kind of look up to me and they say, “Oh, you’re doing well.” But I get disappointed in myself because I wanted to do so much more, but I’m limited. And, yes, I do have straight A’s in college but they’re not the classes I wish I could take. They’re not organic chemistry, they’re not the chemistry series, the math series, they’re not the classes that people value.
To say yes I’m doing well is still a bit sad in a sense because I’m doing well in something that I have to conform to and not necessarily want.
When you did realize that STEM wasn’t going to work out, you still had a few years left in high school. Did you ever speak to your parents about it?
I did tell my parents throughout high school, “You know, I’m not feeling challenged, I don’t think they preparing me well enough,” and my parents’ justification was “You don’t believe in yourself, look at your grades.” It was a sad thing to hear back and I wanted to believe in my grades but deep down inside I knew this was not my potential.
Now do you feel you have to work harder to keep up with students who graduated from other high schools?
I see a lot of Gompers alumni at UCSD struggling in their classes and their entry level writing class and it’s a bit sad to see. I feel like I’ve figured out college, yet I still push myself to work hard because I’m still trying to validate my self worth in a sense. I still aspire to get A pluses, although an A and an A plus are the same thing. That’s just the person that I am.
Is there anything else we should know? Anything we’re missing?
I think it’s important to acknowledge the improvements that the director did do. I respect him for that. I do thank him for making the environment safer, but safer is not what the community needs anymore. We deserve more than just a clean campus and a gang-free environment — it’s just not enough anymore. He can’t justify his actions with, ‘Well this school is behind and look where the school came from.’ I feel like they compare it a lot to where the school was and where it is now. You can’t justify that. You have to realize your mistakes and see where can we go on from there. The school is safe. The school needs a true education.
More in the series…
Data, documents and interviews contradict the Gompers brand of preparing every student for college. Teachers say grades are inflated, and if students still can’t graduate, they are “counseled” to attend school elsewhere. The same teachers who praise the director’s talent blame him, saying he shames educators who assign failing grades by telling them they are “murdering” kids.
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.
We'll let you know when big things happen.