Charter course

"Charter course" Continued...

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

Two weeks later, the principal demanded that Kenda explain herself. But Kenda wasn't having any of it. "Let me make this perfectly clear," she told the principal evenly. "I am going to write this incident up. Somebody should lose their job over it, and it isn't going to be me."

That the principal would put the security guard over the needs of a seventh-grade kid was sobering, Kenda said. She remembers thinking, God brought me here to fight.

It turned out she would fight her own colleagues. In 2004, when NCLB sanctions kicked in, most of the Gompers staff seemed to see the kids as an irredeemable pack of future felons. But Kenda, Vince Riveroll, and a few others saw hidden pearls-kids who inspired them to stay and try to turn the ship around.

"Like Anna, who wrote in an English paper about her baby sister's birth being the most significant event in her life because her mother had died during childbirth," Kenda said. "Or Paula, who had lost four family members to gang violence. We began to ask ourselves, what would it look like if we were to really put the kids first?"

Led by Kenda and Riveroll, a small group began to lobby the district for the charter conversion under NCLB. The very idea touched off a political war that pitted a tiny but scrappy band of teachers and staff against the well-organized machinery of the school board and teachers union. In those days, teacher attrition at Gompers was twice the national average. In 2004, full-time teachers filled only 16 of about 50 faculty positions. That's why the school was able to offer a job to Najib Mesdaq that fall, even though the school year was already three weeks old.

Mesdaq had just completed his teaching credential at San Diego State University when he got the call. "I didn't choose Gompers, but I had always wanted to teach in a school like that," said Mesdaq, 31. "I wanted to help, to make a difference."

By the time he took over the eighth-grade English/social studies class that year, seven substitute teachers had already flitted through. "You can't handle us either," the kids told Mesdaq. "We're too ghetto for you." If he didn't quit like the others, the students said, they would force him out.

And they tried their best: When Mesdaq assigned seat work, the students tossed footballs in the classroom and played cards. He told them to sit down; they kept standing, smirking and defiant. Whenever students felt like it, they walked out of class. But underneath their bravado, Mesdaq detected an almost universal sense of abandonment.

"No one cares about us," a few kids told him. "They just want to come and get paid."

Mesdaq kept making assignments and holding the kids accountable. He enforced classroom rules, wrote up required disciplinary paperwork, and made phone calls home. And, doggedly, he just kept showing up. Within a few weeks, he had won the kids over.

Gompers kids in 2004 gained another ally: Vince Riveroll. Raised by a single mother, Riveroll grew up poor in San Diego. His mother worked multiple jobs and relied on food donations from their church to feed her kids. Two of Riveroll's brothers died from HIV/AIDS and another landed in prison. But Riveroll earned a college tennis scholarship, majored in education, and at the age of 32, became principal of Keiller Middle School in blighted southeast San Diego.

At the height of the violence at Gompers, the San Diego Unified School District began deploying administrators from other schools to try to keep a lid on lunchtime race riots. "They called me one day and told me to go up there," Riveroll said. "I went kicking and screaming."

At lunch that day, one high-school kid walked up to Riveroll and stood uncomfortably close. "Why are you wearing that suit?" the kid said, tapping a crowbar against his leg. "It's just going to get ruined when you break up a fight."

Shortly after that introduction, the district assigned Riveroll to take over the school. At first, the Chollas View community received him as an interloper-"Who does this baby principal think he is to try to change this place? And what kind of Mexican doesn't speak Spanish?" They also seemed to blame him for decades of failure. At meetings he called to work out grievances, parents and community leaders ripped him to shreds, prompting him at least once after a meeting to call his boss and quit.


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