inewsource podcast on Gompers Preparatory Academy

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[RACINO] I’m Brad Racino, investigative reporter and assistant director at inewsource – a nonprofit, investigative newsroom in San Diego.

This episode of the inewsource podcast is about best intentions and shortcuts, struggles and triumphs, journalism and empathy. It’s about Gompers Preparatory Academy.

[TV clips:] “Gompers Preparatory Academy has risen from …”
“It’s a new chapter in Gompers history …”
“Once labeled an underachieving school and a place of survival, Gompers middle school is now considered a phoenix rising …”

[RACINO] The venerated charter school is in Chollas View, San Diego, where nearly half the children under 18 live in poverty. In the early 2000s, Gompers was a public middle school besieged by a culture of drugs, gangs and violence.

[PBS NewsHour] *Sirens* “Violence also plagued Gompers middle school, just a few miles away.”

[KPBS] “In the mid ‘80s it was a thriving magnet school, but is now one of the lowest performing schools in the San Diego school district.”

This story is one in a series about Gompers Preparatory Academy.
See them all here.

[RACINO] Failing student grades, year after year, triggered a demand: either restructure, let the state of California take over or become a charter. A charismatic principal, along with teachers, parents and academics, rallied hard for the charter option … and they succeeded.

[PBS NewsHour] “And on March 1, 2005, the San Diego school board finally gave its OK.” *Cheers*

[RACINO] More than a decade later, Gompers Preparatory Academy now boasts a nearly 100 percent high school graduation rate, a college going culture and an assurance that its graduates can walk …

[BUD MEHAN] “… can walk into the front door of any four year college, and do well.”

[RACINO] That was Bud Mehan, one of the school’s founders.

[MEHAN] “What I think I have experienced is both magical transformation in the physical outlay of this campus, and the instructional activity of the faculty, and the results.”

[RACINO] The reason for that interview is the other part of the Gompers story.

[BEN DAVEY]: “We were told that we were murdering children …”
[MARIA MILLER] … talk about lack of respect…
[DONNY POWERS] “I think that it would be disingenuous to say that I was a teacher looking out for the kids if I didn’t speak up.”

[RACINO] Today on the show … the good and the bad at Gompers Preparatory Academy, and a behind-the-scenes take of how we reported one of the year’s most divisive stories in San Diego.

[DEDE ALPERT] “I don’t want this to be true. It really does break my heart.”

[RACINO] Let’s start from the top.

The early years at Gompers

[RACINO] In the late 1970s, Gompers was a math and science magnet school … But problems with neighborhood integration and technology forced an end to the magnet experiment in 2001. When Tracy Johnston began her teaching career at the school in 2003, all hell was breaking loose.

[TRACY JOHNSTON] Toward the end of the first year a full blown race riot broke out in the high school lunch, that took the whole school on lockdown … it’s like what you see on the movies of this crazy inner-city school. It was just chaos.

[RACINO] Cops were frequent visitors, as were the neighborhood gangs that recruited students outside the gates. Academic performance was abysmal. Enter Vincent Riveroll.

[VINCENT RIVEROLL] “I’m passionate about this school because when I see children that haven’t been given an opportunity, that bothers me.”

[RACINO] Riveroll came to Gompers from a nearby middle school – also plagued by violence and low test scores. His enthusiasm and dedication to changing the school’s culture was magnetic from the start.

[JOHNSTON] “Very clear vision. Lot of professional development, just a lot of, ‘Here’s how we’re going to do things.'”

[RACINO] Riveroll joined a working group of parents, teachers and academics to tackle the big problem facing Gompers — the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Because the school had failing student grades year after year, the law mandated it do something different. Options ranged from turning Gompers over to the state to replacing all or most of the staff to becoming a charter school. The working group wanted to go charter, but it would be an uphill battle.

[JOHNSTON] “We were standing outside of school before school with signs, trying to get parent support and community support … it was just work. Crazy amounts of work.”

[RACINO] And in March 2005, Gompers became a charter school, free to operate on their own terms. Parents and teachers rejoiced.

[JOHNSTON] “Everybody was really, really excited. We have everything in place, this is gonna be great. It’s going to be a brand new start, brand new school. It’s going to be good.”

[RACINO] Teachers hit the ground running. Private donations poured into Gompers, as did government grants. The school’s transformation caught the attention of local, state and national leaders. There’s even a signed letter from President Barack Obama in the school’s main office. And a lot of it was attributable to Riveroll. Here he is in a 2005 TV interview.

[KPBS] “We want to send the message that this is a brand new school, a brand new philosophy, a brand new curriculum, and feel.”

[ALPERT] “It was really like they had the right person to fix what was wrong with the culture of the school.”

[RACINO] Dede Alpert is a former California state senator and one of the original board members of the new Gompers Charter Middle School.

[ALPERT] “Somebody who could actually go in and completely change a culture. And this was Vince.”

[RACINO] Riveroll instituted a heavy focus on culture — teaching kids how to shake hands, look people in the eye, and tuck in their shirts. A partnership with the University of California San Diego lent tutors and additional resources to the school that previously were unavailable. And it seemed to be working. Here’s Riveroll again in a 2006 TV appearance.

[RIVEROLL] “We had 98 percent attendance for testing days. Which is unheard of. That’s a miracle.”

[RACINO] Over the coming years, the Gompers success story would continue with a new high school. A high school devoted to ensuring that every student get the education necessary to move on to college.

[RACINO] And that’s when the problems began.

[JOHNSTON] “I just know I walked away, and I felt like I had spent the last seven years being brainwashed.”

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The initial investigation into Gompers

[RACINO] I met Donny Powers on a Saturday afternoon in February, seated outside a bar in San Diego’s North Park neighborhood. The place served pre-made cocktails out of a tap, so I had a beer. Powers had a soda.

[RACINO] The former Gompers teacher had something on his mind, something that had been weighing on him for years. I didn’t record our first conversation, but a couple months later Powers sat down on camera to revisit that first meeting.

[POWERS] “The thing is about something like this is, I understand, the repercussions are huge. And I’m not against the school. To me, I’m an advocate of the students. That’s why I’m here.”

[RACINO] His story goes something like this:

[RACINO] Powers arrived at Gompers in 2009 as a support teacher.

[POWERS] “At first I really liked it and I was excited about it. It’s an inner city school, so it’s with at-risk kids and that’s what I found really attractive and interesting, that was the population I wanted to work with. I thought, at that time, I thought that they were being prepared to be out in the world.”

[RACINO] And he was warned ahead of time by colleagues …

[POWERS] “Expect to pretty much eat, drink, and breathe this place … And so I wasn’t surprised that a lot was being asked of us but I also felt like that was necessary for this kind of work.”

[RACINO] He delivered. School evaluations said Powers’ performance was “outstanding” and his dedication to a “whatever-it-takes” attitude supported the school’s mission of preparing every student for college. He routinely danced and sang for students, performances that Gompers expects of all teachers.

[RACINO] But he noticed pretty early on that something was … off.

[POWERS] “I found that what was appreciated there was what showed well and what looked good. Not necessarily anything much deeper than that.”

[RACINO] Look at the grades, he said. So we did. And here’s what we found:

[RACINO] Whether you looked at SAT scores, ACT scores, AP scores – it didn’t matter. Standardized tests showed Gompers performing among the bottom of schools in the state and in second to last place in the San Diego school district. Yet internal student grades showed those same students acing courses like precalculus and advanced biology, and a high percentage of them gaining full ride scholarships to competitive colleges. What was going on?

[RACINO] Powers explained.

[POWERS] “That was a constant pressure there. Initially, it was that students shouldn’t fail. No student should fail. The teacher is failing not the students. And it went from that all students should pass to all students should be getting A’s.”

[RACINO] According to Powers – and later, more than a dozen other former Gompers teachers we interviewed – the school’s administrators were forcing teachers to inflate student grades. Some teachers recounted direct threats. Here’s Ben Davey, a former chemistry teacher, describing an encounter with the school’s director, Vince Riveroll.

[DAVEY] “When your principle, this person calls you in the office and says, ‘You’re murdering children just because you gave them an F,’ I don’t know, I don’t know what to say to that. We were told that we were murdering children, we were killing kids just because they got an F.”

[RACINO] Powers believed the school was harming students by sending them off to college unprepared.

[POWERS] “That was around the time when they were promoting these numbers about the student achievement and I remember going to my content supervisor, and she and I used to be very close, very good friends … And just telling her, ‘I want no part of this. These numbers are dirty. They’re not authentic. And now you’re promoting them. I don’t want anything to do with this.’”

[RACINO] He laid all of this out in a resignation letter sent to Riveroll and the school’s board of directors.

[RACINO] In May, my colleagues and I met with the school leadership.

[CONFERENCE] “Cecil Steppe, chairman of the board for Gompers Preparatory Academy. Hugh Mehan, better known by my nickname Bud … Jane Firpo, one of the assistant directors at Gompers … Jenni Parsons, chief business officer at Gompers Prep.”

[RACINO] Over the next two hours, we presented the group with everything we had gathered over the past three months looking into the school. Summaries of hours and hours of interviews with former teachers who said they were forced to participate in a culture that prioritized singing and dancing over actual academics, and pressured to inflate student grades to make them look good for college.

[RACINO] We showed the leadership team the data supporting those claims. And we shared with them Powers’ resignation letter. A letter that was sent years ago to the two board members at the table.

[RACINO] In the end, we were told the 11 teachers who spoke up were disgruntled …
[CONFERENCE] “… I don’t know what disgruntled staff may have told you …”
[RACINO] … That we took the test scores out of context …
[CONFERENCE] “… And I think there’s other metrics that you’re not talking about. There’s metrics you haven’t looked up.”
[RACINO] … and that the allegations in the resignation letter were not accurate.
[CONFERENCE] “… His actions toward the school were distressing.”
[RACINO] Nothing nefarious was happening at Gompers, according to the administrators.
[CONFERENCE] “So please, write your story. I’m not asking you to lie about us or asking you to falsify the data. Call it like you see it. Let it be said. Let it be loud and clear. Warts and all.”

[RACINO] So we did.

[NBC] “NBC7 News at 6 starts now … Tonight, allegations of inflated grades …”
[CBS] “But as inewsource reporter Brad Racino discovered, there’s another side to the Gompers story …”
[NBC] “Is one of San Diego’s biggest educational success stories based on inflated grades?”

[RACINO] And we kept writing after more students spoke up, more teachers came forward and after the accrediting commission that certifies charter schools started an inquiry.

[RACINO] The story divided the community. Parents and students reacted differently. Some thanked us for our coverage. Some sad they were saddened by it. Others felt it was a hit piece. Here’s Shamika Shropshire, who has two children at Gompers.

[SHAMIKA SHROPSHIRE] “This story may sound like the sweetest cake to some people. But it’s horrible to me. Because I’m on the inside looking out. And I’ve also been on the outside looking in. And I think this school has done a wonderful job in educating my two children.”

[RACINO] In the end, Gompers continued to deny or explain away our findings, and discount the voices of teachers and students that supported those findings.

[RACINO] So where to go next?

Reaching out to more Gompers students

[PHONE TAPE] *Phone ringing* “Hello.” “Hello this is Jaz Twersky.” “Hi.” “Hi, is this Cecilia?” “Yea, this is Cecilia.”

[RACINO] Cecilia Villegas graduated from Gompers in 2016 and is studying Anthropology at UC Merced.

[CECILIA VILLEGAS] “A lot of the time at Gompers, we would spend weeks learning about the school culture, instead of actually learning content, which was really frustrating.”

[PHONE TAPE] *Phone ringing* “Hello.” “Hello this is James calling for Gerardo. Or Gerardo.” “This is me.” “Hey man how you doing?” “Pretty good, how are you?”

[RACINO] This is Gerardo Munoz, who graduated from Gompers in 2012 and now lives in Dallas, with his wife and kid.

[JAMES DOUGLAS] “Do you feel that GPA adequately prepared you for college?”
[GERARDO MUNOZ] “Well … I … definitely want to say they could have done a little more.”

[RACINO] Those were snippets of two interviews that took place this summer, and the reporters on the other end of those calls are here with me in studio. Can you introduce yourselves?

[DOUGLAS] Hi, my name is James Douglas and I am a senior at the University of San Diego studying English and communications studies. I’m also the copy editor at our school newspaper, the USD Vista.

[JAZ TWERSKY] And I’m Jaz Twersky, I’m a senior at UC San Diego studying linguistics and I’m also the editor in chief of our independent school newspaper, The Triton.

[RACINO] Jaz and James spent the summer following up on the initial investigation by reaching out to hundreds of Gompers graduates. In the end, they interviewed 15 of them.

[DOUGLAS] Mainly, what these students kind of iterated to us, to Jaz and to me, was that Gompers provided them a safe environment where they could learn in peace and really kind of enjoy that entire experience of being in this close knit community where the goal was to get them to college.

[DOUGLAS] Here’s Martha Ayala, a former Gompers graduate. She’s currently studying nursing and English at Southwestern College in San Diego.

[MARTHA AYALA] “It’s very like, like welcoming. Every morning when I would go to Gompers there was always like welcoming teachers outside and sometimes you would see the director walking there.”

[TWERSKY] This is Gerardo Munoz, he graduated from Gompers in 2012 and attended San Diego City College for a while before leaving school. He has not received a college degree, but he currently lives and works in Dallas.

[MUNOZ] “One of the biggest things were the teachers. We had a group of teachers that stayed with us and I think a few of them are still there … I guess they cared a lot about the students and wanted to see them grow and very persistent in being there for them.”

[RACINO] For a teacher’s perspective, here’s Donny Powers again.

[POWERS] “It was a safe place for a lot of the kids. For some of them, it was the only time they got to eat. I do think that kids lives were saved there.”

[RACINO] And Jaz even though it sounds like these students overall are pretty affectionate toward Gompers, you found out they also have some major problems with the school, right?

[TWERSKY] Students often did not feel prepared for college or for their working lives after high school. A number of students talked about spending too much time on non-academic activities such as dance.

[TWERSKY] Here’s Ivan Cervantes, he just graduated from Gompers in 2017 and is currently attending UC San Diego.

[IVAN CERVANTES] “My senior year, I had AP computer science and the teacher was mad because he said he stopped counting at like 60 hours of work that we missed out on because we would always get pulled out to do performances …”

[RACINO] Here’s Felipe Morfin Martinez, who graduated from Gompers in 2016 with a full ride to UCSD. We interviewed him shortly after the initial story in May.

[MORFIN MARTINEZ] “A lot of the focus was always towards dancing and towards being on the media. 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. A lot of the staff from Gompers, they’re amazing and they do want to teach and they want to help but there’s setbacks. And the person that’s managing the school, I think it’s a big reason why they can’t do their job.”

[RACINO] He’s talking about Director Riveroll here…

[MORFIN MARTINEZ] “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.”

[RACINO] Again, here’s another teacher perspective on that same issue. Maria Miller was named Teacher of the Year during her years at Gompers and she’s currently an 8th-grade teacher at Lewis Middle School.

[MARIA MILLER] “So when the 12th grade experience, if it mirrors nothing what college is supposed to be other than, ‘Yes, we have lectures for our students and we teach them to dance and we shut down because they’re writing their senior essays, or whatever’ that’s not a realistic expectation of college.”

[RACINO] Now, what are the real world effects of that focus on performance over academics?

[RACINO] We asked Morfin Martinez.

[MORFIN MARTINEZ] “Yes, 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.”

[RACINO] And here’s D’ante Harper, who went from Gompers to UCSD on a full-ride scholarship.

[D’ANTE HARPER] “It was really a culture shock for a lot of students, more so for some than others. I feel like a lot of Gompers kids survived for a long time and really tried but I don’t see a lot of them nowadays in college or still taking the courses or doing the things that they really want to do anymore. It hurts, really. It’s crazy how we all started out with the same goal of finishing college and graduating together and I don’t even know who’s on campus anymore. That’s kind of crazy.”

Reflecting on the process

[RACINO] This story, and the follow ups, were emotionally draining for our staff. How do you report on an issue that’s so important, but could also be interpreted as saying “these kids don’t belong in college?”

[RACINO] First I’m going to have you introduce yourself and your position.
[LORIE HEARN] “My name is Lorie Hearn and I’m the Executive Director, the founder and editor of inewsource.”

[HEARN] “I think the one thing that i think is important for people to know if there’s a place for me to say this is that, when we embarked on this project it was all about the students. This was a very difficult story that caused all of us working on it quite a lot of emotional angst. And in following up on it, that emotional angst continued and our motivation still continued to be, ‘It’s all about the kids and what is best for them.’ What we really meant to do was open up a process to the community, to the parents, and to the children, to basically do an evaluation, do a step back and say ‘are we serving the community in the best way we can?’”

[RACINO] Jaz and James had a similar feeling after the summer.

[RACINO] Taking a step back after this was all done, you guys have spent three months here talking to lots and lots of people, how did this affect you just personally. As young people trying to start their careers in journalism, what did you think?

[TWERSKY] For me, as someone who is trying to go into journalism, it was a little bit of a trial by fire of figuring out who do you have to ask and what are the ethics of doing responsible journalism. It was important to me that we were having those conversations. Because all of us, I think in the office and the two of us in particular as we were reporting on this story were trying to figure out, yes what is the story here? And also how do we report on it that does not hurt the students who are in the end at the core.

[DOUGLAS] Well it really wasn’t too fun to receive some of the responses that I did from the Gompers alumni but really it was understable and this helped me realize that sometimes a journalist’s job can be tricky and it should be tricky really when you’re researching a controversial topic. Jaz and I both had second thoughts throughout. We were both wondering, ‘Is what we’re doing going to hurt the kids ultimately?’ Are we insinuating that they don’t deserve to be in college?’ And so she and I had this dialogue throughout the research process and compiling all this information and ultimately I decided on a personal level that this was a way for us to kind of ignite the dialogue about our San Diego school system and how it’s really failing students.

[RACINO] Gompers has declined to comment any further, and we’re now waiting to hear if the organization that’s tasked with investigating these types of allegations is actively pursuing an investigation.

What you can find online

[RACINO] If you’re interested in learning more, please head to our website at inewsource.org where you can read, see and hear more about Gompers. Jaz and James wrote five stories detailing what they learned over the last three months. One story goes into much more detail about the Gompers student experience, another dives into the data behind the UCSD scholarship program, and a third puts the academics at Gompers into a broader social context. You can also search our easy-to-use databases to find AP, SAT and ACT rates among all California high schools.

[RACINO] Lastly, if you enjoy this type of in-depth, contextual reporting, please consider supporting inewsource. We rely on our readers and listeners to keep us going. Head to inewsource.org/donate to give any amount.

[RACINO] And reach out to us on social media @inewsource on Twitter. Let us know what you think.

[RACINO] Music for this podcast graciously provided by AMFM Music, providing custom music and sound design for all media. Go to AMFMMusic.biz and mention ‘inewsource’ for 20 percent off your order.

[RACINO] For inewsource, I’m Brad Racino.

[MILLER] “I mean, 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 could have done this whole thing on the students themselves.”

More in the series:

Gompers Preparatory Academy inewsource
Gompers Preparatory Academy inewsource
Click here to read a new story about what Gompers graduates told inewsource. (Gompers YouTube screengrab)
Gompers Preparatory Academy inewsource
Gompers Preparatory Academy inewsource
Gompers Preparatory Academy inewsource
Gompers-Feature-Art

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About Brad Racino:

Brad Racino is a senior reporter and assistant director at inewsource. To contact him with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email bradracino at inewsource dot org.