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Charter course

"Charter course" Continued...

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

Maryam's words stunned the crowd. As she walked quietly back to her seat, Kenda remembers, her final question seemed to linger in the air: "An entire roomful of adults had just been shamed by a 14-year-old."

Soon after Maryam spoke, the board voted on the charter proposal: 5-0, a unanimous yes. The auditorium erupted in joy. On July 1, 2005, the core of the Gompers work group "hit the ground running," Tracy Johnston said. "It was the longest summer of our lives. We had to write the curriculum, clean the campus, make the schedule, and we had 50-something teachers to hire. We were still interviewing and hiring the day before school started."

Even after the charter launched, union leaders and district officials carped from the sidelines:

"You'll never get those kids to wear uniforms."

"You'll never get them to behave in class."

"You'll never get teachers to stay."

The doomsayers were wrong on every count. On the morning of the last day of school in 2005, kids wore gang colors and flashed signs. On first day of the charter that fall, dressed in their new uniforms, the kids-by themselves-formed quiet lines outside the school gates.

"You could see they knew that something new was happening and they were excited," said Pete Chodzko, who had been hired that summer and labored with the rest of the staff in preparation for the charter launch. Not all of the kids bought in right away, said Chodzko, who was named California Charter Schools Association Teacher of the Year in 2006-07. Still, most warmed to the new paradigm: Order and structure combined with a stable cast of caring adults.

GCMS staff spent the first year transforming a "culture of chaos" into a "culture of learning." It was an enormous hurdle, teachers told WORLD, just getting the kids to believe they weren't going to be abandoned again.

As Year Two rolled in, the new culture solidified; kids began to relax, to understand that order, safety, standards, learning, and above all, adults who cared, weren't merely a short-term gimmick.

Now, GCMS scores on student achievement tests have improved for three years running, with science scores jumping 450 percent in that span. Numerically, the scores are still below federal AYP targets. But for the first time in decades, scores have met the state's growth targets. The GCMS program keeps kids in school from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day with an option to stay until 6:00 in extracurricular programs. Every child's daily schedule includes 90 minutes of reading/language arts and 90 minutes of math.

And where the old Gompers turned good kids bad, GCMS turns struggling kids around. At her old school, "I was in special classes," said Jackie Aguilar, 15, who enters ninth grade this year. "People said I had mental problems, that I was going to be nothing."

When she came to Gompers in seventh grade, Jackie was reading at a third-grade level. Today, she has an "A" average, is approaching grade-level reading proficiency, and is burning to go to college.

Najib Mesdaq wants to be clear about the realities of GCMS: "It's not all a bright, sunny day and everybody's happy and skipping," he said. "We still have a lot of issues, a lot of frustrations. Kids getting in trouble. A couple of teachers who really don't want to be here."

But the transformation at GCMS has been "amazing," Mesdaq said. "It's not rocket science. It's not something where you have to go to school and get a doctorate to make it happen. You just have to love the kids, get the right people, and do the hard work. The rest will come."

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