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Charter course

"Charter course" Continued...

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

"I'm out of here!" Riveroll said, calling from his car on his cell phone. "This is bigger than classroom teachers. You need an army!"

In time, though, students noticed that Riveroll didn't burn rubber to get off campus at the stroke of the afternoon bell, that he stopped to talk with them, that he listened and seemed genuinely to care. Parents noticed that he understood what it was like to be poor.

As they had Kenda and Mesdaq, Chollas View embraced him. Quickly, a small group of teachers, staff, and parents gelled in support of the charter conversion, including eighth-grade English teacher Tracy Johnston and a fiery mom named Michelle Evans. A mother at age 16, Evans had remained illiterate until her 20s when she spent money she didn't have to buy her own kids "Hooked on Phonics."

"I was not going to let what happened to me happen to them," said Evans, an African-American woman with short, stylish hair, big hoop earrings, and a smile that would light up Broadway. "I became a pit bull locked on to my children's education: No one was going to stop me from getting it for them."

But Gompers chewed up even good kids and spit them out. Because of transportation issues, Evans' oldest son, Zachariah, an athlete who had never been in trouble at his junior high school, enrolled at Gompers for ninth grade. Almost immediately, Evans began receiving phone calls: Zachariah was disrespectful and rude.

"Are you sure?" Evans said to the staffer who called. "Zachariah Parks?"

Then Evans found out that her son, who was taking advanced classes in junior high, had been placed in a classroom where high-school freshmen were reading third-grade books. Evans demanded that Zachariah be moved and Allison Kenda made it happen. And from that day on, Evans said, "My new job in life was Gompers Middle School. I was going to be there every day."

And she was, eventually becoming a prime force in convincing other Gompers parents that the charter conversion was the way to give their kids the same education available to other public school kids in the county. The community wasn't easily convinced. The work group had to get 700 signatures from parents agreeing to go forward, and the charter campaign and signature drive lasted throughout the 2004 Christmas season. Charter-boosting parents went door-to-door during Christmas vacation, with one parent redeeming cans at a local recycling center to get enough money for gas to continue her canvassing.

By January 2005, charter organizers reached their goal: Two-thirds of Gompers parents had signed. But when the group presented the signatures to the school board, one of the board members revealed a new requirement: Since GCMS was going to be an NCLB "conversion charter," and not a new start-up, more than one-half of tenured teachers at the school also had to sign on.

That news punched holes in the group's hopes. "We only had 16 tenured teachers, but many of them were a big part of the problem," Kenda said.

Still, the group went back to work, lobbying tenured teachers even as union leaders behind the scenes tried to persuade them to reject the charter petition. But again, charter supporters prevailed and more than half the teachers signed.

Still, the fight wasn't over. In February 2005, a month before the Gompers staff was to appear before the Board of Education for a final vote on the charter, the board removed Vince Riveroll as principal of the school.

The board's only explanation: "Personnel decision."

Charter organizers' explanation: The union-controlled board wanted to lop off what it saw as the head of the charter beast.

Chollas View revolted. Students and parents flooded local media with letters of protest and staged daily walkouts on the campus. The district sent nine administrators to attempt to keep order on the campus. It didn't work.

Finally, the night of the board's vote arrived. Parents, teachers, and community leaders packed the school auditorium, many hoisting pro-charter signs. Parent after parent took the podium to plead with the board to give their kids a chance at change. Kenda remembers watching the faces of the board members: They appeared unmoved.

Then a ninth-grade girl, known to be shy on campus, walked up to the podium. The meeting room grew quiet. Slowly, nervously, she pulled a sheet of folded paper from her pocket and began to read.

"My name is Maryam Saadati and I am a student at Gompers Middle School," the girl said. "I would like to read you this letter I wrote. . . . I thought that the school Board of Education wanted good things for us. But it seems not. They want to take good things away from us. . . . We had a lot of different principal[s] who we did not care for, but [Mr. Riveroll] made great changes and for once, we want this because we see that it is good for us. Is it wrong for us to want good things?"

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