Gompers Preparatory Academy is a community charter school in southeastern San Diego designed to “accelerate academic achievement for all students through a college preparatory culture and curriculum.”
An inewsource investigation published in May raised questions about how the school was meeting its mission – reporting on allegations of grade inflation and citing concerns that students were unprepared for college. The stories sparked conversation and outrage. Among the concerns were that reporters didn’t talk to enough students and that they focused on negative perceptions.
This story is one in a series about Gompers Preparatory Academy.
See them all here.
This summer, inewsource reached out to hundreds of Gompers graduates. We talked to those who were willing about their educational experiences, their observations about the school’s priorities and about their attachments to the school and its teachers.
Our findings are detailed in the sections below.
A feeling of family
Most Gompers students we interviewed expressed a great deal of affection for the school, and students who otherwise declined to talk articulated that as well. Several alumni referred to it as a family.
“That’s something about Gompers that’s really important,” said Cecilia Villegas, who attended from sixth through twelfth grade and graduated in 2016. “The adults that have been there through the years … and even the students – there’s a sense of family.”
Almost 100 percent of Gompers students get into a two- or four-year college. That doesn’t mean all go, and even those who do don’t necessarily graduate. However, the college acceptance rate is a draw.
“My mom had talked to her friend about it and they would talk about how the school would take care of its students for a good education and how they would motivate every student,” said Martha Ayala, who graduated from Gompers in 2013. Her brother, David Ayala, had previously struggled in school and had attended a special learning center, but both thrived at Gompers and went on to college. Martha currently studies Nursing and English at Southwestern College, a two-year community college in Chula Vista. David spent two years at Southwestern before transferring to San Diego State University.
A few students said that Gompers helped them significantly in the process of getting to college, and that they weren’t sure they would have made it otherwise.
“They were all really proud of me,” said Villegas of her family. “I was the first person in my family to go to college.” Graduating from Gompers had an edge of prestige for Villegas, because it was “college prep.”
Many students said they were grateful they didn’t have to attend other local high schools, such as nearby Lincoln High School.
“If it wasn’t for Gompers, I would be lost,” said former student Antonio Orozco, who graduated in 2012. “I would be at Lincoln … My first school in San Diego, it was going to be Lincoln, and I said no.” Orozco currently attends San Diego City College.
On paper, the test scores for Gompers and Lincoln don’t give either school a clear edge.
However, students said safety is a major point in Gompers’ favor. Students said they were warned away from Lincoln, both by staff at Gompers and neighborhood peers, because of its reputation for violence on campus. While Gompers was known for its gang and drug activity in the years prior to its becoming a charter, these days it has become more of a safe haven.
Also, while Lincoln now requires students to meet UC and CSU entry requirements (along with all San Diego Unified schools), in previous years, fewer than half of Lincoln students met those requirements. Gompers has required students to meet those requirements since it went charter.
La Shay Sakaria spent three years at Gompers before transferring to Lincoln in 10th grade, and she disagreed with critics of Lincoln.
If she had stayed at Gompers, Sakaria said, she “wouldn’t have gotten as much experience about the real world … because I feel like Gompers coddles people a lot.”
She remembered long periods of class time wasted, where “a lot of the time I felt like we were not doing anything.” Sakaria currently attends San Diego City College.
But for alumni who continued to feel connected to Gompers, talking about teachers often brought out a great deal of emotion.
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“One of the biggest things was the teachers,” said Gerardo Muñoz, who was part of Gompers’ first graduating class in 2012. Muñoz briefly attended community college in San Diego, but left the city for family reasons and never earned a degree. He now lives in Dallas, where he and his wife are raising their young son.
“I guess they cared a lot about the students and wanted to see them grow,” he said about the school’s teachers. “They were very persistent in being there for them.”
“Some of the teachers were really dedicated to helping their students,” Villegas said. “There was a teacher that I had in 6th grade that I then had in 10th grade. He was a writing teacher. His name was Mr. Powers. He was one of the teachers that I’ll never ever forget. He was always pushing his students and teaching them. I remember in 10th grade when I was struggling with writing, he was just so helpful.” (Donny Powers was one of 11 former Gompers teachers who spoke out about the school in our initial investigation. You can read his resignation letter here)
According to Gompers’ report to its accrediting agency, over the years the school has rolled out a variety of programs to assist students. Teachers closely monitor student progress in a coordinated way, across multiple classes, and if students fall behind, they receive mandatory tutoring. Since fall 2014, teachers have hosted Saturday study sessions for AP classes. Students must take at least one AP class to graduate.
“I feel that Gompers did a lot for me,” Orozco said. He was especially grateful to the school for teaching him English. It’s not uncommon for students to learn English in high school. The year Orozco graduated, Gompers had 162 students classified as English Language Learners, including 26 in the 12th-grade class.
He said he was motivated to stay at college and to prove to his teachers that their faith in him was justified. Some students’ complaints might stem from having to wear a uniform, Orozco said, though he personally liked the uniform. He thought students who didn’t wear their uniform weren’t taking their education seriously.
“Gompers for me was my second home,” he said.
Less dance, more academics
Given the allegations of grade inflation inewsource reported in May, we dug deeper into how students assessed the education they received.
Even though several Gompers alumni spoke warmly of their teachers, many teachers don’t remain at the school. Representatives at Gompers have said the teacher retention rate is better than it was before the school went charter, but 38 percent of teachers last year were either in their first or second year at Gompers. This indicates a rather high turnover rate. A 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Education says only 26 percent of teachers nationwide left the school where they started teaching in their first two years.
Donny Powers, the former Gompers teacher who Villegas talked about as a favorite, regarded turnover as a problem. He was at Gompers from 2009 to 2014, but toward the end of his time, the teachers were “a lot more kind of ‘Teach for America groups’ or very young kids.”
Teach for America is a nonprofit organization that brings temporary teachers into what it calls “high need schools,” serving low income populations, for two-year stints. Teach for America began with members who were recent college graduates, and while other people can join the corps, it heavily recruits college students.
Kathryn Phillips, the Managing Director for Regional Communications and Public Affairs at Teach for America, says in this school year, Teach for America will have six people at Gompers – three in their first year and three in their second. In addition, two former Teach for America members continue to teach at Gompers.
Ivan Cervantes, who graduated from Gompers this spring, had one young precalculus teacher who frustrated him his senior year.
At first, Cervantes said he and other students thought, “Oh, he’s cool, you know, he’s passing me,” but soon felt like there was an issue.
“We ended up not really doing anything,” Cervantes said. “We did maybe a month of math and the rest of the year was just some playing.”
Powers said he stopped learning names of colleagues “because so many people came and went.”
He believed most teachers left because of professional differences with the administration, and those who did were “vilified” and “the message that the students got was that ‘Your teacher abandoned you’ or ‘It’s too much for them here,’ which I think is just a terrible thing.”
Cervantes began college at UCSD this fall, and said he had studied math on his own this past summer to prepare. Several students mentioned feeling unprepared – a couple of the alumni interviewed had to take remedial math courses when they reached college. Though some alumni suspected no high school could fully prepare a student for what they would encounter at college, several felt the school could have done more.
“A lot of the time at Gompers, we would spend weeks learning about the school culture, instead of actually learning content,” said Villegas. She said this was more dominant during her middle school years, since in high school students were expected to already know it – “but only sometimes,” she added.
“If something happened, we would spend a couple of days going over the school culture.” This could be triggered “if there was a lot of untucked shirts,” Villegas said, “or I don’t know, a lot of people who weren’t wearing their ties right.”
Muñoz, who graduated four years earlier than Villegas, also wished the school had done more to prepare students for life after high school.
“I want to say that in the most respectful way because they did put a lot of emphasis on trying to get a lot of the students prepared,” he said. “There was always an emphasis on college and doing the most to get into it, but I don’t think there was ever an emphasis on what to do once we got there, or options for work.”
Advanced Placement (AP) scores are a fairly good measure of a student’s readiness for college because they test knowledge of college-level content, said Dr. Frances Contreras, an associate professor of Education Studies at UCSD. Her research focuses on the pathway to college for Latino students from low-income households and neighborhoods.
“It’s not enough for students to take the exam,” Contreras said. “It’s great that they’ve been exposed to a rigorous course, but are they passing the exam with a score of three or higher?”
Gompers offers 12 AP classes, but in 2016, data show students passing only three of them: US History, which seven percent of takers passed; Spanish Literature and Culture, which 13 percent of takers passed; and Spanish Language, which 80 percent of takers passed.
It’s unknown whether students passed the Environmental Science or Psychology AP tests, because fewer than 10 students took them, so by law the information is redacted to protect student identities. No students passed any of the other seven AP tests with the most common score a 1.
Despite low standardized test scores, the vast majority of Gompers students are accepted into colleges. Students emphasized that Gompers was doing the best it could to help students.
“When you approach the end of the year, the emphasis is on getting the students to graduate,” rather than get into college, said David Ayala, Martha Ayala’s brother. “I do believe that there’s compromising involved. You know, you can only do so much.” He graduated from Gompers in 2012.
Students said the school’s college advising office, called the Wingspan, was a valuable resource. At the Wingspan, Gompers students receive assistance writing essays and filing applications to public universities.
“The important message here is that there’s not one variable you can rely on to determine college readiness,” Contreras, the UCSD professor, stressed. “It’s a set of indicators.”
Those include the classes students take and their grades, as well as various test scores. The California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, which says only 9 percent of Gompers 11th-graders are meeting math standards, is new, and Contreras said it in particular should not be heavily relied on.
Alumni who we spoke to, even those who dropped out of college or never attended, expressed the belief that college is important. Xavier Trelease graduated from Gompers in 2015 and said he left college for family reasons, but now attends an online college part-time so he can work and still try to earn his degree.
Antonio Orozco, who currently attends college, speculated that many of his former classmates who dropped out plan to go back to school. “Colleges are there your whole life,” Orozco said.
Cervantes said non-academic activities took away too much time from learning at Gompers. The Open House, near the beginning of the school year, was a big deal.
“For that first part of the year, they’re so focused on dancing. They had like a month and a half of just working on costumes,” Cervantes said. Students talked about their classmates being pulled out of class to go practice for performances, making it difficult for teachers to continue with a lesson.
“The teachers never got through the whole lesson plan or the whole areas of the subjects that they were supposed to be teaching,” Cervantes said. “So we still learned some stuff, but we didn’t learn everything that we were supposed to about that subject.”
Though she was generally too shy to dance, Martha Ayala said watching her classmates do so was inspiring.
“In a way, it would motivate us, because it was a challenge for them,” she said. “Anyway, it was like, a motivation for us, too, to be happy and for everyone to be together and things like that.” She performed once, at a school Open House, and felt like it helped her get out of her comfort zone.
Teachers dance for students on a regular basis, and Gompers hosts many videos of student performances on its Youtube channel.
Contreras said that education in the arts can be good for students from low-income families, who otherwise may not have the opportunity to be exposed to it, and Gompers seems to think so as well. Its newly updated website lists six categories for donations: Visual & Performing Arts Program, Teacher & Staff Professional Development, Classroom Innovation, a college scholarship fund, Athletics, and General Donations.
The Visual and Performing Arts program is listed first, with a blurb that begins “Music, dancing, and JOY are essential to GPA’s mission.” “JOY” is all capitalized. No other category is referred to as “essential.”
Gompers is a college prep school – not a performing arts high school. Dance isn’t mentioned in the school’s official charter.
Xavier Trelease, who graduated from Gompers in 2015, said academics weren’t the priority at Gompers. When asked what was prioritized, he said emphatically, “Singing and dancing.”
Trelease went to Humboldt State University after Gompers, and was shocked by how unprepared he was for the schoolwork. He remembered breezing through Gompers, but in college, he said his classmates knew basic math and English concepts he had never learned.
“If I had gone to another high school, it would have allowed me to fall,” Trelease said. “Gompers doesn’t let anyone fall. We’re just not allowed to fail. And if you can’t fall, you can’t learn.”
Trelease dropped out of Humboldt State, and said he now takes classes through Independence University, an online nonprofit college.
Director Vince Riveroll
That enthusiasm that the teachers are all supposed to exude? According to students and teachers interviewed, it comes from the principal of the school, Vincent Riveroll, who goes by the title “Director.”
Riveroll was a teacher and principal at Keiller Middle School prior to being hired as the director of Gompers, where he helped lead the school’s transition to charter status in 2005.
Students said Riveroll could be friendly with them, laughing and joking as if they were peers. Teachers and students described him leading dancing sessions, choreographing in the middle of the group as loud music blared in the background. They said they believed the school’s emphasis on dance – evidenced through its promotional materials and videos – comes directly from him.
Students said Riveroll developed close bonds with some students, which they alternately described as mentoring and as favoritism.
“When I got to senior year, that’s when I noticed there was a lot of favoritism,” Villegas said. “Maybe he saw something in these kids that he wanted to help or inspire them, but Director definitely had a group of kids that he gave a lot of attention to.”
“Director loved the students who were in dancing …” he said. “Certain students get benefits, get excused from stuff, you know, because he likes them and they’re in his dance.” Several students attested to Riveroll taking certain groups of kids out to eat, or personally helping individuals pay for school materials.
All students know Riveroll, in part because he teaches a class for seniors, which they call “college class” or “senior Mondays.” From 7:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. every Monday, students sit in the school auditorium as if in a lecture hall and listen to Riveroll deliver “life lessons.”
Gompers reports that the class was “Designed after Director Riveroll and the GPA leadership team met with UCSD leaders to determine the top needs that our graduates encounter at UCSD.” Gompers also offers a spring class to students who have been admitted to UCSD and have received the UCSD Chancellor’s Associates Scholarship, in order to give them additional preparation for college.
“He talked about different stuff,” said Cervantes, including “gratitude, growth mindset vs. fixed mindset, going to college, choosing a college, relationship, different types of love …” Students read and wrote weekly essays on the various topics.
Martha Ayala said Riveroll would talk to them “about doing good in school, [and] what college would be all about. They would motivate us. That was the first goal.”
Students said the readings and essays tapered off about halfway through the year, and they wrapped up the year with senior projects. Riveroll gives tips to seniors at the beginning of the school year. Some are basic – “study a lot,” “don’t procrastinate” or “use your resources.” Others go into more detail – “leave the drama behind” or “stay single.” Several students confirmed that Riveroll encouraged students not to date.
Cervantes had been close with Riveroll, and once mentioned issues he was having in his romantic life.
“He gave me advice, just kinda told me ‘you shouldn’t be with her,’” Cervantes said. But, “he ended up backstabbing me.” Riveroll advised the girl Cervantes was dating not to be with him. For her, it seemed ordinary, because students and staff could be close, but it upset Cervantes. “That’s when I really stopped talking to him, or telling him anything about my life,” he said.
inewsource reached out to Gompers to ask if Riveroll or any other administrative staff would be willing to be interviewed, but the school declined. A spokesperson, Anne Robinson, said it was important to note that Gompers was “not a one-man show” and that Gompers has “been reflective and proactive in regards to the allegations printed thus far.”
This sounded as if Gompers had instituted new policies since the inewsource stories published a few months back, so we emailed Robinson back requesting clarification: What proactive steps did Gompers take? What changes might be coming out of that institutional reflection?
There was no response.
More in the series: