More than 25 teachers and students have come forward to talk about allegations of grade inflation and unrealistic academic expectations detailed by inewsource last week in an investigation of Gompers Preparatory Academy. The school is a sixth-through-12th grade charter in southeastern San Diego that promises “students can succeed at the university of their choice.”
Maria Miller, a resident of nearby Encanto, was named Teacher of the Year during one of her three years at the school. She’s currently an 8th-grade teacher at Lewis Middle School.
Miller was impressed with the order and procedures where once stood chaos, gangs and drugs. She was excited as a first-year teacher, but said she immediately noticed a problem when her advanced placement (AP) history students couldn’t read at a sixth-grade level.
She has concluded there is a glaring disconnect between the school’s leadership and the surrounding Chollas View community, as well as a need for partnerships with the elementary schools that feed into Gompers.
This transcript of inewsource’s conversation with Miller has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your first week at Gompers like?
I was just in awe. I was like, ‘Wow this is pretty cool.’ The kids have this uniform, they’re okay with the uniform, there are processes and procedures that everybody follows. Everybody is doing what they should be doing. As a first-year teacher you’re like, ‘Yes!’
When I actually started to develop my lessons, and have my classroom and do what it is that I wanted to do … I started to run into some resistance in terms of how I had been trained for an AP class and what the expectation of an AP class was.
Students I knew were reading at a sixth-grade level were taking an AP class. Regardless of the content, just like — where do I start? Where? Obviously I would try to break it down as much as I could. It’s a fast-paced course. So not just the content, but the pacing of the course was going to be challenging.
I had a lot of resistance in terms of how fast and the amount of work that I was giving the students. And then the students themselves. I recall a student running out of my room because they couldn’t write a summary. ‘I don’t know what you’re asking me to do.’ This was 11th grade.
How did your students do on the AP exams?
That first year I was so, so proud. I had two students pass.
Those students, regardless of what school they went to, they would have succeeded in an AP class and done well in college.
(There are) academic habits that are said are taught but they’re not really taught. These are kids that would come in and say, ‘I was up last night until 12, I still didn’t get it, can you explain this to me?’ As much as I can try and teach that, I can’t… That has to come from the student. So if the student already has that, it’s because of something else. A lot of this is what the family has, what the students themselves have, and the groundwork of what all the other teachers have laid down.
Those scores that were being mentioned (that 40 percent of Gompers’ 11th graders aren’t scoring at or above the standard for English): Well at this stage of the game, the school has already had sixth grade students go through the whole system. So what happened? We can no longer say, ‘Oh well — this is what we have.’
What would you say needs to be done to fix the situation at Gompers?
There should be partnerships with elementary schools. How connected are they with those elementary schools in terms of, ‘How can we support you to be able to have the kids reading at somewhat of a fifth-grade level when they get to sixth grade here with us?’ I think that the more I’ve visited different sites and talked to different teachers, this whole idea of working in isolation — that doesn’t work. I think that’s one of the things that Gompers is trying to do, they are trying to work in isolation.
They talk about community partners. ‘UCSD is a community partner.’ OK. And who else?
The other thing is that reality check. To tell everybody that you are going to go to college, that’s a great thing, but to only say that and not say that there are all of these different options that are open — that’s a disservice. Because then (the student thinks) ‘Shoot, if I don’t succeed in college, does that mean that I suck? That I can’t do well anywhere?’
And the partnership with the parents and the transparency. A lot of it is dictated: ‘This is what we’re going to do for your child.’ OK, but where is that realistic input from the parents? That’s a huge part that’s missing. If most parents really knew the demands of taking four AP classes, maybe they would understand they can’t tell their child to babysit their little sister tonight because they have four AP classes. And I understand that’s not going to be the case sometimes, but then as a school you talk to the kid and say ‘four AP classes is not going to work for you.’ Instead of, ‘Yea, pile it on.’
How much of your time did you spend singing and dancing?
Oh my God. Haha. We did the whole ‘Friday mandatory dancing.’ Flash mobs. There was quite a bit of performing.
Was there ever a concern among teachers that, ‘We could be using this time to be teaching?’
Heck yeah! Just even the time to be able to prepare for a class, plan for a class, teach the students. The level of frustration that got to me was the amount of pullout time. If I had a student that was failing, they were failing for a reason. They needed to be in class because work wasn’t being turned in. So to have a student pulled out because they were going to rehearse for a performance, or they were going to greet a visitor, or do a performance for a visitor — talk about lack of respect in terms of respect for the kids’ education, respect for what I had planned that day. Because again it was about performing, having a good show. It became even more frustrating that they were being pulled out to practice for classes that didn’t have credentialed teachers. To be teaching dance — there’s actually a credential for that. To be teaching singing — there’s actually a credential for that.
And I know no place is perfect … but we’re talking about the community that I reside in. The community where many of the students still live. Eventually, they’re going to be voting. And you know, I am concerned about how they’re going to read a measure that’s going to approve something or not approve something. Because I’m a member of this community! I want my streets fixed. So can you click off the right box?
Did anyone force you to change a student’s grade?
Nobody ever approached me and said, ‘Hey Maria, this grade needs to be changed.’ I did get approached about my policy of not accepting late work. To this date I don’t accept late work. I don’t think that honors all of the hard work all the other students put in along the way. I was addressed about that. I remember one quote from a staff meeting where they said, “How dare you take a student’s future in your hands.” In the back of my head I’m thinking, ‘That’s not what I’m doing. You’re giving me more power than I have.’
I read a class review where Vincent Riveroll told a teacher his deadlines were arbitrary
I was even told, ‘You know Maria, they’re going to learn the importance of turning things in on time when they get fired from their first job.’
When they get FIRED or HIRED?
Fired. Fired. Fired. Because you didn’t turn your work in on time, then your boss would then fire you, and you would in turn learn that life lesson. Next time you will turn in your report on time.
Who told you that?
What struck you most after reading these stories?
What the board members were saying. To say that all these people were lying? To discount the students words? What is it, from the mouth of babes, right? Fine, disgruntled employees, whatever. But students telling you, ‘I was not prepared.’ Even if one student told me that, I’d be like, ‘Oh my gosh, what did I do?’ I would take that personally. I would want to go and try to rectify that.
For Bud (Mehan) and for Cecil (Steppe) to discount that? Not to validate that? I mean come on. Fine, you don’t want to take the word of the adults, but there’s something to be said for what the students are saying.
You’re not going to change the beliefs of the people that are dead set in whatever it is that they believe in, but I do think that definitely a lot of the students who have gone through this process and are reflecting — they’re adults now — and they’re reflecting on their experience. They themselves are saying, ‘There were holes here and holes here.’ So hopefully the students who are now 12th graders, some of them will really think critically in terms of, ‘Am I really being challenged? Am I really being prepared? This grade point average that I have — did I earn this?’
I think that if anything, what your story has created and been able to do is bring things out in the open so we can have dialogue.
I think that the community needs to hold itself accountable.
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.
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.