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Charter course

Back to School | How to turn around a gang-infested inner-city school? It isn't easy, but a small, aggressive group of teachers and parents can make it happen

Issue: "Two-ring circus," Sept. 6, 2008

SAN DIEGO- Summoned by an old-fashioned, hand-rung school bell, 630 uniformed seventh- and eighth-graders line up at the chain-link gates to the interior campus of a college preparatory junior high school in San Diego. Separate lines form for boys and girls, boys on the left. Posted just inside the gates are school director Vince Riveroll and science teacher Rob Charleton.

With genuine smiles, Riveroll and Charleton shake each student's hand and greet him or her by name. There are also friendly reminders:

"OK, no 'sagging,'" Charleton says to one boy, who grins sheepishly and pulls up his khaki pants.

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"Get rid of the gum," says Riveroll to a girl wearing a skirt of tartan plaid. She cheerfully complies.

None of this might seem remarkable at a San Diego County private school, or even a public one in a moneyed enclave like Rancho Santa Fe or Del Mar. But the idyllic academic scene on this bright Wednesday in June is unfolding at Gompers Charter Middle School (GCMS), a public institution in Chollas View, one of the most gang-infested and crime--ravaged neighborhoods in the county.

Not only that, but just three years ago, Gompers was widely viewed not as a school, but as what one parent called "a prelude to prison."

At Gompers back then, hundreds of kids wandered the concrete breezeways in gang garb, but with no books, no paper, no pens. The breezeways themselves were lined with high chain-link fences and swinging gates that could be slammed shut quickly in the event of a fight, forming cages that would isolate a brawl while teachers scrambled inside their classrooms and locked the doors. More than once, San Diego police and SWAT teams swooped down to quell riots, handcuffing kids to the fences.

Academically, the school was the lowest-achieving in the county and among the bottom five in the state. Only one seventh-grader in 10 could read and write at grade level. Many hadn't surpassed third-grade literacy. The dropout rate: 50 percent.

That was then.

Today, Gompers Secondary is Gompers Charter Middle School. The 1,000 student suspensions doled out in 2004-05 plummeted to 100 in 2007-08. After decades in the tank, student test scores have risen in each of the last three years. Best of all, said Isaac Ramos, 13, who described himself as a bit of a nerd, "You can be whoever you want to be and you don't get bullied. The staff and faculty help you out. It's like family."

The No Child Left Behind program has been a favorite liberal punching bag. (It's also received plenty of criticism from conservatives.) One of the chief complaints: Poor and minority kids are the most likely to be hurt by NCLB's sanctions against failing schools.

But while NCLB is far from perfect, its failing-school sanctions are exactly what forced positive change in Chollas View.

In 2004, Gompers fell short of NCLB's "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) goals--essentially, incremental stepping stones of improvement for low-performing schools-for the fifth straight year. That triggered a menu of federally mandated reform options, including replacing key teachers and staff, a state takeover, hiring a contractor to run the school, or converting the school to an independently managed charter.

San Diego schools superintendent Alan Bersin was a charter advocate long before NCLB sanctions were leveled at Gompers, which was one of nine failing schools in the county that year. Bersin established work groups composed of teachers, administrators, and community leaders to examine options for restructuring the schools.

Much to the relief of some union--controlled school boards that worried about teacher job security, many of the work groups rejected the charter option. But the Gompers work group didn't. Instead, they envisioned a college preparatory academy that, unlike some charters that recruit from far and wide, would serve only neighborhood kids.

Allison Kenda was a key member of that work group. She came to Gompers as a literacy administrator in 2003, just off a mission trip to South Africa where she worked to help students return to the school system after the end of apartheid. During the mission, Kenda said she began to appreciate the virtues of school systems in the United States: "Then God put me at Gompers, and I realized He had prepared me perfectly."

In that first year on the first day of school, Kenda found herself locked in a confrontation with a school security guard who refused to let her use a school-owned electric cart to carry a sick seventh-grader to the nurse's office. The security guard, who had been busy with a personal cell phone call, snatched the keys away from Kenda, saying, "You don't know who you're messing with!"

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