by Brad Racino | inewsource
In May, inewsource published an investigation into Gompers Preparatory Academy after digging into allegations of grade inflation and false promises made to students. The story sparked outrage, pushback and discussion among the school’s teachers, administrators, students and parents, as well as its financial supporters and affiliated academics.
The initial story and the series that followed centered around one question: Is Gompers living up to its mission statement, which says it provides a “college going culture to ensure that our students can succeed at the university of their choice.”
Gompers administrators responded with a resounding ‘yes.’ Dozens of former teachers and students disagreed, citing personal experiences as well as documents and data showing students consistently perform among the bottom of California schools in standardized testing.
Read the follow-up stories by clicking the photos below.
Critics of inewsource’s reporting insisted data were taken out of context, teachers were disgruntled and reporters didn’t interview enough students.
So, inewsource dug deeper. Two enterprising reporting interns spent the summer making phone calls, interviewing students and poring over paperwork to get nearer to the truth.
The result – which follows – isn’t a typical news story. It’s an experiment in weaving together news with a behind-the-scenes view of how inewsource does its work. Each section below features key takeaways from different parts of the project. You can go deeper into each section by clicking on the photos with headlines. Spoiler alert: We weren’t able to definitively answer several key questions, and we’ll explain why below.
You can listen to and download inewsource‘s podcast about this project.
Despite multiple requests, Gompers administrators declined to comment for this story.
Why track down Gompers students
Lorie Hearn is the executive director and editor of inewsource.
“When we published our first investigation of Gompers, it was clear – after we published it – that there was a lot of information we didn’t know,” Hearn said.
“And we felt that to tell the true story of Gompers and its cultural experience, and its teaching experience, and its results, we really needed to talk to the kids who had gone to Gompers. And the only way to achieve that was to track them all down.”
Enter Jaz Twersky and James Douglas.
Twersky is in her senior year at UC San Diego, where she’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree in linguistics. Twersky’s role as Editor-in-Chief of UCSD’s independent school newspaper, The Triton, brought her into contact with inewsource.
Douglas is also in his senior year, as an English and Communication Studies major at the University of San Diego. Douglas is the copy editor for the school’s newspaper, The USD Vista, and he offered to intern for inewsource after hearing Hearn guest lecture in his journalism class last year.
The two had an enormous task: track down and interview every Gompers graduate since 2012, the year of its first senior graduating class, to determine what happened to students after graduation. Did they make it into college? If so, are they still enrolled? How do they remember their time at Gompers?
How we reached out to Gompers students
A rough estimate put the number of students who graduated around 570.
Twersky and Douglas relied on social media accounts, recommendations from students and online reports to identify and send messages to 294 of them. The rest could not be found through traditional research avenues.
A total of 64 students responded with mixed reactions.
- “Hi, yes I would be willing to share my experience,” said one.
- “Why are you so obsessed with a school that serves people of color? You f***ing people are always so obsessed with this s***,” said another.
- “I’m sorry I don’t think I should, but good luck on your story,” said a third.
“I got some responses that were kind of laced with curse words directed at me and at inewsource so, that was a new experience for me …” said Douglas. “That took some getting used to, but it happened, and I think it was actually a valuable experience.”
In the end, Twersky and Douglas were able to interview eight students on the record and several more on background. They also sent out a survey to gather quantitative data; however, only 16 students responded to that questionnaire.
Breakdown of outreach and responses:
570 identified as Gompers graduates since 2012
294 messaged, called or emailed
8 students interviewed on the record
7 students interviewed on background
17 students responded to online questionnaire
While the relatively small number of responses didn’t form a truly representative sample size, there were enough new voices and information to expand upon inewsource’s original reporting.
“I felt it was important for us to share what we didn’t know as well as what we know, and that’s probably a new way of thinking in journalism,” said Hearn. “I think Jaz and James did a great job.”
Former Gompers Preparatory Academy students speak up
One of the first things that struck Twersky and Douglas after an initial round of phone calls was how many students spoke highly of their former teachers and of the familial culture at the school.
“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.”
“What these students iterated to us,” said Douglas, “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 that close knit community where the goal was to get them to college.”
The second thing Twersky and Douglas learned from their interviews was whether students felt Gompers prepared them for college – the question at the center of this project.
“Students often did not feel prepared for college or for their working lives after high school,” said Twersky. “A number of students talked about spending too much time on non-academic activities such as dance.”
Ivan Cervantes graduated from Gompers in May and is currently attending UC San Diego.
“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 …” Cervantes said, “and then the teacher couldn’t teach the rest of the content because a whole half of the class is gone dancing.”
“Students said that he could be like a mentor to them, and that he helped students out and was friendly …” Twersky said. “But sometimes they also talked about this edging into territory where they said he had favorites among the students or sometimes acted more like a friend than an authority figure.”
All students interviewed knew Riveroll, who teaches a class for seniors every Monday where students listen to the director deliver “life lessons,” such as “study a lot,” “don’t procrastinate” or “use your resources.” Students described other lessons that go into more detail – “leave the drama behind” or “stay single.” Several students said Riveroll encouraged them not to date.
Students described the close bonds Riveroll formed with their colleagues at Gompers as both mentoring and 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.”
Gompers students benefit from relationship with UCSD
inewsource’s original investigation raised a big question: With such low standardized test scores, how is it that more than one-third of Gompers graduates in the past two years not only gained acceptance to one of San Diego’s most competitive colleges – UCSD – but also received a full ride through the Chancellor’s Associate Scholarship? And how were graduates holding up once they got to UCSD?
“The fact that so many Gompers students go to UCSD was interesting to us,” said Twersky, “given that they continue to have such low test scores.”
There is no minimum SAT or ACT score required for admission to UCSD, though the school provides data showing score distribution among incoming freshman. These data indicate Gompers students are getting into UCSD and receiving scholarships with abnormally low test scores.
Twersky and Douglas reached out to UCSD’s Chancellor, Pradeep Khosla, to ask whether the university has a policy to admit a certain number of Gompers students.
You can read his response in the story above.
Douglas and Twersky also recapped how race and racism played a role in shaping UCSD’s campus climate and the Chancellor’s Associate Scholarship Program with the infamous Compton Cookout in 2010. You can read the recap here:
Social context plays significant role in Gompers story
While the mission of Gompers is to get every kid into college, the school faces an uphill battle.
In another Twersky and Douglas story, the two highlight the larger societal forces acting upon the school. These include socioeconomic conditions, racial gaps within the U.S. education system, funding disparities per school and the cultural shift of attending college.
For more context, Twersky and Douglas spoke with Professor Frances Contreras, an associate professor in the Department of Education Studies at UCSD, as well as Jen Vorse Wilka, the executive director of Youth Truth – a nonprofit organization that designs and administers student feedback surveys for schools, and provides support to school administrators in applying that feedback.
“Many of these students are coming out of their high schools with 4.0s, and they’re high-achievers in their school context,” said Contreras about first-generation Latino college students from low income families. “But there’s still that uneven footing …”
From the podcast
inewsource produced a feature-length podcast about this subject over the course of several weeks. The episode starts with Gompers in the 1980s and works its way through the drastic changes that took place once Vincent Riveroll arrived in 2005.
It also adds new voices from students and teachers and opens up the reporting process by going behind the scenes with inewsource reporters and its director.
You can listen to it here. Please let us know what you think – contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, please take to social media and share this project and the podcast if you find them valuable.