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When we first set out to do this story and reached out to former Gompers students, one student said, “Why are you so obsessed with a school that serves people of color. You f****** people are always so obsessed with this s***. Why can’t people of color be successful and be left alone? Write a damn article on how the school district does not serve students especially those students that are from marginalized, underserved, black brown and queer communities.”
This student wasn’t alone in their concerns about the reporting, though they were maybe the most forthright. To place this story into context, here are some of the societal forces that could affect Gompers’ ability to ensure every student is ready for college.
The People at Gompers
A quarter of Gompers’ student body is classified as English Language Learners. Well more than a majority of students are Hispanic or Latino, at 83 percent. Ten percent are black, 4 percent Asian, and less than 1 percent white.
This story is one in a series about Gompers Preparatory Academy.
See them all here.
The neighborhood is full of low income families; the estimated median income was around $42,000 per year in 2015, with around 30 percent of the population living below the federal poverty line. Some students are the children of immigrants; about 28 percent of the population in the Gompers zip code was born somewhere in Latin America. Few parents went to college.
Many broader forces act upon students at Gompers. While these forces aren’t unique to these students, the burden falls disproportionately on them.
What It’s Up Against
Higher education in the U.S. has a racial gap. White and Asian students are overrepresented at college, and black and Hispanic students are underrepresented. This gap has gotten wider in recent years, according to a recent New York Times analysis. Gompers’ mission seeks to defy persistent societal trends.
Gompers uses a de-tracking system, which means students are not placed on academic tracks that tend to separate students early in life into courses that determine whether they are prepared for college and expected to succeed. In Gompers’ system of de-tracking, all students are assumed to be college material and are expected to take the same courses of academic difficulty.
When inewsource spoke to Cecil Steppe, chairman of the Gompers board, for the initial story, he spoke about the importance of de-tracking.
“Research shows overwhelmingly that there’s a social class in race and ethnicity bias in tracking, that students from low-income backgrounds, students from racial and ethnic-minority backgrounds, underrepresented minority students are disproportionately placed in non-college prep activities,” Steppe said.
Up until a referendum, Proposition 58, passed last year, California law limited education in any language other than English, even though it’s common knowledge in linguistics that education in a child’s native language can be beneficial. Standardized tests that check coursework knowledge existed in Spanish – but students could only take them if they had been learning English for one year or less. English learners at Gompers score lower on their standardized tests than the rest of the the school.
Demographics and location can affect students in other ways as well, sometimes for reasons stretching back into history. In the early and mid-1900s, banks deemed certain areas “hazardous,” and the process of redlining made black people substantially less likely to receive home loans. This created greater segregation and financial inequality along racial lines. Though the practice was federally banned in the late 1960s, recent research reveals that effects on family wealth still linger. The Chollas View neighborhood, where Gompers is located, falls in an area historically redlined, as does Lincoln High School.
From “Mapping Inequality,” American Panorama, accessible here.
Similarly, location can affect how much money is spent on education in public school. California has had wide disparities in how much funding is spent per pupil, depending on the district. In 2010, a school district in the bottom 5 percent of funding per pupil gave schools $7,421 per student, while one in the top five percent gave $21,260 per student.
This can have an affect on the resources a school offers its students. Professor Frances Contreras, associate professor in the Department of Education Studies at UCSD, gave an example of how a school could help compensate for things students might not have at home.
“Students are exposed to technology, where technology might not exist in the home. So even low-income students will have iPads,” she said. “That’s a way where you can mitigate some of the inequity.” But buying technology takes school resources as well, which means services are not necessarily provided equitably.
Life After Gompers
Once students get into college, financial struggles don’t vanish. Poverty is a known risk factor for dropping out of school, and we talked to several Gompers alumni who said money was a source of significant stress in college. Several had dropped out of school to work because, they said, they needed to take care of their families.
This stress is compounded by the transition to college. Students from Gompers, like others from low-income backgrounds who are the first generation to go to college, are at more of a disadvantage than their more privileged peers.
“Many of these students are coming out of their high schools with 4.0s, and they’re high-achievers in their school context,” said Professor Contreras, speaking in general terms about first-generation Latino college students from low-income families. “But there’s still that uneven footing … When I started college at UC Berkeley, for example, I had no idea you could pay to do SAT prep, and all of the students at Berkeley had done SAT prep courses.”
We couldn’t get comprehensive data on how many Gompers students graduate from college or how long they stay enrolled.
Some college is better than no college, statistics from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate; people with some college credits have lower unemployment rates and higher wages than those who have never attended college, though prospects improve with a bachelor’s degree.
The fact that so many Gompers students attend UCSD is a positive. The school a student attends can influence social mobility. According to a database kept by the New York Times, students whose families make little money have a better chance of earning a high income as an adult if they attend UCSD than if they attend SDSU.
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Listening to Students
We attempted, during the months spent looking into Gompers and reaching out for interviews, to hear the voices of the students.
Jen Vorse Wilka, the executive director of a nonprofit organization called YouthTruth, works constantly on listening to students. YouthTruth designs and administers student feedback surveys for schools and provides support to school administrators in applying that feedback.
YouthTruth doesn’t work with Gompers, but does work with hundreds of other public and charter schools nationwide, including High Tech High in San Diego. In their work there, YouthTruth heard students say that while they felt prepared for college, they didn’t feel prepared for careers, and the school proceeded to implement career-readiness programs.
The people at YouthTruth work to “partner [with schools] and develop a tool for systematically gathering feedback from the ultimate stakeholders, the ultimate beneficiaries of education, the students,” Wilka said. As far as we were able to ascertain, Gompers does not systematically take in student feedback, or partner with other institutions. As former teacher Maria Miller pointed out, Gompers works closely with UC San Diego, but not with other groups or institutions.
Former teacher Donny Powers, who criticized Gompers’ administration in the first inewsource report, said he worried about sharing his negative Gompers experiences because it might harm students. But he felt strongly that the school bears responsibility for not adequately preparing students.
“I can feel badly or poorly about disrupting something, but what am I disrupting?” Powers said. “I’m disrupting something that is not okay. So I mean – I can live with that.”
Though Gompers declined interviews, a spokeswoman for the school, Anne Robinson, said in an email, “We are committed to our continued growth and will continue on our journey onward and upward in service of our students, families, staff, and community.
“Raising student achievement in the inner city is an important mission that takes incredible effort, belief, support, commitment and time. GPA is not a one-man show, it is the hard work and heart work of many dedicated people who will never stop fighting for access and equity for all children.”
Disclosure: Jaz Twersky’s mother was involved in YouthTruth’s founding and still does work with the organization.