On a recent sunny morning here, a student rings a brass bell he carries around the front courtyard of Gompers Charter Middle School. But the sound doesn’t just signal that it’s time to start school, explains director Vincent M. Riveroll, who greets students as they file in for the day.
“It’s to bring the concept of school back to the community,” he says. “That bell symbolizes to the community that learning is beginning to take place now.”
The bell is ringing in a new chapter for Gompers, a high-poverty school in the gang-plagued area of Chollas View, in southeastern San Diego. It’s one of three chronically low-performing San Diego schools that, under provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, were shut down and reopened this academic year as independent charter schools.
As underperforming schools around the country get to the point that the federal law requires dramatic action, very few have gone the charter route. Partly for that reason, the San Diego schools are attracting lots of attention. On the first day of school last September, for example, Gompers received a visit from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
By many accounts, the campus has been transformed from a place plagued by violence, disorder, and poor academics to a tightly run school with motivated staff members, a clear focus on learning, and a positive school climate. While no test data are available yet, attendance rates are up, suspensions are down, and grades have improved. An independent report by a county citizens’ watchdog panel issued in May, titled “Phoenix Rising,” offered a generally favorable picture of the school.
But the Gompers experience suggests that those looking to follow in its footsteps may not face an easy road. The effort required lots of legwork, as well as tussling with the district, thanks to an election that brought a major shift in the school board in the midst of the process, as Mr. Riveroll told a group of visiting educators who came in late May from Washington state for a closer look.
“It was a long fight to become GCMS,” said Mr. Riveroll, using the school’s abbreviation. “We were Gompers Middle School. Now, we’re Gompers Charter Middle School, and that C was very difficult to put into the name.”
Union Waiver Denied
In 2004, the 140,000-student district identified eight schools that had failed repeatedly to meet federal demands to show adequate yearly progress, including Gompers. The schools had fallen into what’s referred to as Year Four of Program Improvement under the No Child Left Behind law, the category that carries the toughest sanctions.
The district, then under Superintendent Alan D. Bersin, called for the creation of a work group at each school—composed of the principal, teachers, parents, and other community members—to come up with a proposed plan for action. They could select from one of five options, including replacing all or most staff members relevant to the school’s poor performance, or reopening as a charter.
Mr. Riveroll said charter status wasn’t the first pick for Gompers.
“Our first choice was truly to just have a waiver so that we could hire our own teachers,” he said, noting that at the start of the previous school year, the school had had 18 teacher vacancies, more than a third of the teaching staff. “Kids were not learning; there was no consistency, no community, no school culture.”
The district asked for a union waiver of key teacher-contract provisions governing how schools fill jobs for all eight of the low-performing schools, said Brian J. Bennett, who until recently headed the San Diego district’s office of school choice. The main issue was to get around seniority rules. The local union, the San Diego Education Association, never replied to this request, he said.
The president of the local union, which opposed the change to charter status, did not respond to calls for comment for this story.
Mr. Riveroll said that with the waiver request denied, Gompers went to Plan B: becoming a charter school.
Under California law, that required going door to door in nearby neighborhoods to get Gompers parents to sign a petition of support. Ultimately, more than 700 parents signed.
A Political Shift
Then, in November 2004, the district saw a political sea change when three of five school board members were voted out. The new majority made clear that it was not inclined to see schools leave the district to become charters.
The election also led to the early departure of Mr. Bersin, a champion of the charter plans who left the system in June 2005 amid tensions with the board majority. He is now California’s state secretary of education.
Charter advocates say the board put up additional hurdles. For one, reversing the earlier stance of the district, it voted 4-1 in January of last year to require that more than half the tenured faculty at each school approve a change to charter status.
Second, the board removed Mr. Riveroll as the principal at Gompers in early February, deciding in a closed-door meeting to place him into a principal-mentoring post at the district office, only months after he first started at the school. Mr. Riveroll and his allies believe it was a hostile move, given his efforts to help the school become a charter. Parents and students strongly protested, with many writing letters to the district.
School board member Sheila Jackson, who backed the removal of Mr. Riveroll, declined to comment on the decision other than to call it “a personnel matter.”
Still, in the face of strong community pressure, the board unanimously approved the plans for Gompers and two other schools to become charters. Those schools are Keiller Leadership Academy, a middle school, and the K-5 King Chavez Academies of Excellence, which converted into three charter elementary schools on the former site of King Elementary.
Ms. Jackson said that while she personally opposed the move to charter status, she didn’t want to block it.
“My concern … was that the district can fix the school if we have a new school board member and a superintendent that’s willing to work with them,” she said. “I didn’t like the idea of the district pushing them off on their own.”
She said she’s worried, for instance, that some of the early supports for the charter school, such as a partnership with the University of California, San Diego, may not last. The school also has received private grants.
Several reports have examined the option of changing regular public schools to charter status after they have repeatedly failed to meet student-achievement targets under the No Child Left Behind Act.
• “A New Option for School District Leaders Under NCLB,” a 2006 publication that’s part of the “Starting Fresh in Low- Performing Schools” series by the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers. (Requires PDF)
• “School Restructuring Options Under No Child Left Behind: What Works When? Reopening as a Charter School,” a 2005 report by the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory’s Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement, based in Naperville, Ill.
• “Closing Low-Performing Schools and Reopening Them as Charter Schools: The Role of the State,” a 2004 issue brief from the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.
• “Starting Fresh: A New Strategy for Responding to Chronically Low Performing Schools,” a 2003 paper by Public Impact, an education policy and management-consulting firm based in Chapel Hill, N.C. (Requires PDF)
SOURCE: Education Week
“Many of the charter schools start out with a lot of success in the beginning, and tend to … dwindle,” Ms. Jackson said. She also argued that the school could get considerable flexibility as part of the district.
But Michelle D. Evans, a Gompers parent who served on the work group and is now the school’s parent-engagement director, said she sees many advantages to the charter route.
“As an independent charter, we get to hire and fire staff; we get to have more say in the curriculum; we get to [require] the uniforms that you see the kids wear,” she said. “We get to have the supports from UCSD. And just the community involvement, period. … It just really gave us a lot of leeway.”
She said parents had watched with dismay as the school, once a popular magnet school in the 1980s, steadily declined.
“Parents in this neighborhood, they were angry at the school,” Ms. Evans said. “They were angry that nothing was being done.”
Before the change to charter status, staff and students alike recall, fights broke out regularly on campus.
The school had about 1,000 student suspensions in the 2004-05 academic year. This year, as of last week, it had about 275.
Mr. Riveroll said the first goal for the fledgling charter was creating a new school culture. That effort included holding a week of “Culture Camp” with teachers in the summer. “It’s a changing of the mind-set,” Mr. Riveroll said. “If the kids can become owners of the school, take pride in the school, that is half the battle.”
Control over hiring has made a big difference, he said, noting that the school filled nearly all vacancies, mostly with new staff members. And, he added, those teachers want to be at Gompers.
“Many teachers were assigned to this school and couldn’t wait to leave,” he said of prior years. “Kids pick up on that.”
The school enrolls about 800 students, mostly from Hispanic and African-American families.
The school has partnered with UC-San Diego, which helped with the school design and provides both teaching interns and more than 70 volunteer tutors.
The charter bills itself as a college-preparatory academy, and teachers and other staff members constantly emphasize to students that they should aim for college. There’s also been an intensive focus on staff development for teachers and regular coaching to hone their skills.
Gompers has an extended school day, offers voluntary Saturday-morning classes, and rearranged its schedule to hold 90-minute English and mathematics classes each morning with two teachers in every classroom. Students wear uniforms, and parent volunteering at school is strongly emphasized.
“The difference about the school is the attitude toward teachers and students,” said 9th grader Kenya Scott. “The teachers, they stay on us: They stay on us with our homework, classwork; they stay on us tucking in our shirts.”
Last year, said Margarita Martinez, an 8th grader, “people used to not care.” Now, she said, “people care more about coming to school.”
Carl A. Cohn, the former chief of the Long Beach, Calif., district who became San Diego’s superintendent last fall, said he’s been to Gompers and is impressed.
“I like the focus on high standards, dress, behavior, and achievement,” he said. “That’s actually sort of the mantra we had in Long Beach.”
And yet, Mr. Cohn said, he’s not convinced that chartering is necessary.
“I bring a track record of improving regular schools without their going charter,” he said. “That’s been my big question here in San Diego: Why is it that the district itself seemed to be suggesting that [the schools] wouldn’t get better under district guidance?”
For his part, Mr. Bennett, the former head of San Diego’s school choice office, notes the many challenges in switching to charter status, from union opposition to resistance from districts themselves, especially those with decreasing enrollments. Still, he sees it as a promising strategy that other districts should consider.
“If No Child Left Behind was anything, this was what it was supposed to do,” said Mr. Bennett, who now is the Western regional director for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. “My fear is that this will never happen again.”
Coverage of district-level improvement efforts is underwritten in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2006 edition of Education Week as School Reopened as Charter Under NCLB Winds Up Year 1