There are two schools in southeastern San Diego where more than 90 percent of students come from the surrounding neighborhood. Families are welcomed on campus and students walk down neighborhood streets to get to school.

It is very much the image of the neighborhood school that San Diego Unified wants to create in every corner of town. But these aren’t neighborhood schools the way district officials imagine them. They’re charter schools.

While other nearby district schools are figuring out how to attract students from the neighborhood, students are clamoring to get into Gompers Preparatory Academy and The O’Farrell Charter School.

Charter schools are public schools that operate autonomously, like mini-school districts. They have open boundaries, meaning students from any ZIP code can attend. On the other hand, traditional public schools – which the district calls “neighborhood schools” – are the school students are assigned to attend automatically if they don’t opt out.

But Gompers and O’Farrell are complicating those definitions.

About 94 percent of Gompers’ 1,230 students come from within a five-mile radius of the school. And 80 percent come from within three miles. These students live within the boundaries of Lincoln High, the neighborhood high school they’d attend if they didn’t opt into a charter.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

It’s a similar story at O’Farrell, in Encanto. Roughly 90 percent of O’Farrell’s 1,690 students come from within a three-mile radius.

To understand how these charters are pulling in students, you might talk to parents about why they are avoiding Lincoln High, which for decades has been dogged by perceptions of violence and low performance. You might look at how charter leaders are marketing their schools or the work they’re doing in classrooms to move students toward graduation.

Or, you might also just show up at Gompers, where the first day of school this year looked more like a carnival.

Outside the school doors, sixth-graders tugged nervously at their uniforms, waiting for the bell to ring. They seemed to brighten when a beat-heavy version of “Beauty and the Beast” started to play.

Just then, a machine started kicking bubbles into the air, landing on teachers – many of them dressed in Disney costumes – as they twisted and gyrated, goading younger students to join in.

Seniors didn’t need convincing. By now, they understand that dancing is part of the program at Gompers. In fact, school leaders once debated whether they could make dancing a requirement for teachers they hired.

“It’s not about how well you dance,” said Jenny Parsons, Gompers’ chief business officer. “But if teachers aren’t willing to express joy and let themselves be vulnerable in front of students, we wonder if they’re the right fit for Gompers.”

Suddenly, Parsons excused herself – teachers nearby had started a flash mob, and she needed to join them.

“It all looks like rainbows and butterflies, but it took a lot of work to get to this point,” Parsons said. “Eleven years of building expectations and working with students to remove their shells and letting them know it’s OK to be schoolboys and schoolgirls.”

The music, the bubbles, the costumes are all designed to shock the senses, so when students step foot on campus, they’re transported to a place where anything is possible.

It might all seem a little too sweet if students weren’t buying in. When it’s time for the school song, no students, not even the seniors, are too cool to sing along.

It’s the brainchild of Gompers director Vincent Riveroll, who this morning is acting as emcee. Riveroll is the visionary, the school’s very own Willy Wonka of education. Parsons is Riveroll’s left brain, overseeing logistics, handling press and managing the charter school’s $13 million budget.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Vincent Riveroll, right, dances before classes at Gompers Preparatory Academy on Friday morning.| Photos by Jamie Scott Lytle. Copyright.

Together, they’ve been able to transform Gompers’ image from that of a ruinous neighborhood school to a charter school whose students are all but guaranteed acceptance to college.

Today’s Gompers looks nothing like it did 12 years ago. The old Gompers turned over 75 percent of its teachers every year. Fights, vandalism and riots regularly disrupted the school routine. On any given day, hundreds of students were absent.

Gompers today hangs onto 80 percent of its teachers from year to year. Student attendance hovers around 96 percent. Every student in last year’s senior class went on to graduate, and 47 of were admitted and offered a full scholarship to UCSD, said Parsons.

In southeastern San Diego, charter schools just might be the new neighborhood schools. If traditional schools want to compete, they’ll have to look to charters to see what they’re doing right.

‘Is it Wrong for Us to Want Good Things?’

Gerald Carroll, who today works as a Gompers counselor, went to school here in the late ‘90s. He can point to a chain link fence on campus and tell you about the years when staff used it to cordon off hallways and prevent riots from spreading.

“Anything could set it off,” Carroll said. “Sometimes the fights would start on campus. Sometimes they’d start off campus and end at school. One time we had a man that robbed a store then ran onto campus, and that started a riot.”

That’s the environment Riveroll entered in 2004 when he first became Gompers’ principal. Years later, in an interview with PBS, he recounted his first encounter with a student on campus. Riveroll had shown up to school dressed the part of a school principal, and one student called him out: “Why are you wearing a suit? It’s just going to get ripped when you break up a fight,” he remembers the student saying.

That was also Gompers’ fifth straight year of failing test scores – a record that forced the school to restructure under the terms of No Child Left Behind, a federal law that established consequences for schools that failed to make academic progress. Gompers had three choices: It could agree to be taken over by the state, remove the principal or convert to a charter school.

Before charter schools can open, they must create a plan for their school. In California, charters are most often approved by local school boards and overseen by district staff members. Charter schools are given extra flexibility in exchange for a promise to raise student performance.

In San Diego, most charter schools aren’t bound to the same hiring and firing practices as traditional district schools. That’s important to Gompers’ story, because Riveroll believed it would be difficult to reverse decades of low performance at Gompers if he couldn’t staff the school with the teachers he wanted.

So in 2004, Riveroll put together a team to create a plan to convert Gompers from a neighborhood school to a charter school – a process that requires signatures of support from more than half a school’s teachers.

School board members at the time resisted – at one point they even removed Riveroll from the school. But parents, students and community members campaigned even harder for the charter school.

In a line that’s been etched into school history, a Gompers student stood up at a public meeting in 2004 and asked the school board: “Is it wrong for us to want good things?”

In March 2005, the school board approved Gompers’ charter. Since then, Gompers has expanded from a middle school to a school that serves students in grades six through 12.

It’s a story that preserves school tradition and reminds students they can’t take anything for granted, Parsons said. But it’s also a story of a community taking back a sense of control the school district could not give them.

A College-Going Cocoon

Gompers, home of the Eagles, is a school that sweats the details. School uniforms must be right: Ties are straight and collared shirts tucked in. College admission is sacrosanct.

Students and staff talk in school-wide vocabulary. Students don’t walk onto campus through an entryway. They pass through the Gates of Wisdom. When a Gompers student is accepted to a four-year university, someone announces over the PA system: “Another Eagle got its wings!”

In September, about 40 students lined up outside the school’s auditorium, in military silence, eyes straight ahead, for an eternity.

Discipline is about more than punishment, said Parsons. It’s about patience, stamina and mental control. Without it, students will flounder in college. “I think we’ve got a good group, here,” one teacher whispered. “They’re up to 14 minutes – and it’s only the first day of school.”

You’ll see a similar approach in Sean Bentz’s classroom, where he teaches computer science but frequently pairs lessons with games of chess to help students learn patience and problem-solving.

“Students are training their minds to focus, to plan ahead, to look for creative solutions to problems – the same skills they’ll need later on. We have kids who don’t think they’re capable of those things, but they’ll sit there playing chess for two hours straight. I ask them, ‘How did you just do that?’ Over time they learn to apply that thinking to their math problems.”

Gompers gets help from UCSD, which floods the campus with two to three dozen college students every quarter who mentor Gompers students.

Charter schools are often accused of focusing on standardized test practice at the expense of a more comprehensive education. But Gompers’ test scores have never been that high. Today, they’re only slightly higher than Lincoln High, the closest neighborhood high school.

Standardized test scores simply aren’t Gompers’ selling point, Parsons said.

Rather, Gompers’ leaders have turned the entire campus into a kind of college-going cocoon.

“We really try to be a helicopter mom to students who don’t have a helicopter mom,” said Parsons.

In order to graduate, all Gompers students must pass college-prep courses that students need to get into UC and CSU schools – the same requirements students must meet at traditional high schools.

In a room next to the library, known as the Wingspan, students get help applying to college or finding financial aid. Gompers boasts a graduation rate of nearly 100 percent for the past five years (it’s 100 percent if you count the students who stayed at Gompers all four years of high school).

And it’s been able to do it with demographics that mirror nearby traditional schools. Roughly 90 percent of its students qualify for free lunch. The poverty rate of the surrounding neighborhood is about twice San Diego’s average.

And in southeastern San Diego, where some students make it to high school still reading at a second-grade level, Gompers represents a powerful promise to parents.

Parsons said it’s not uncommon to get phone calls from frantic mothers who plead with them to accept their kids: “Please, will you please take my babies? They need to get to college.”

Gompers to Lincoln

A month into the school year, Gompers’ honor roll students got a visit from a very special speaker: Former superintendent Alan Bersin.

Students sat in reverent silence as Bersin walked down the auditorium aisle and onto the stage.

Bersin left the district 11 years ago, en route to the Department of Homeland Security, where he works today. But in some ways, Bersin never left San Diego Unified. Teachers and administrators continue to talk about his reforms with nostalgia or disdain.

For Gompers students, he’s the one who made their school possible. Charter schools existed before Bersin’s time, but he pushed the door open more widely to charters. And he supported Gompers’ transition to charter school from the very beginning.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Christopher Braggs and Vanessa Rojas, middle, dance with other Gompers students.

To Bersin, giving parents options of which schools to send their kids was one way to increase competition – and competition makes both sides stronger.

Since Bersin left, the number of students opting into charter schools has steadily risen. Today, about 20 percent of students in San Diego Unified students attend charter schools.

That’s stirred anxiety and sparked tensions, but it’s also forced the district confront the need for better marketing and improved customer service.

The district is on a mission to create a quality school in every neighborhood, and one big way it measures success is the number of neighborhood kids a school serves. But neighborhood schools take on a more ominous meaning for students who aren’t lucky enough to live near a high-performing school.

Nowhere is this concern more real than in southeastern San Diego.

A study from University of San Diego’s Center for Education Policy and Law last year showed that 70 percent of area families opt out of their neighborhood schools by the time they get to high school – a higher rate of departure than any other part of town.

Last year, area principals surveyed parents to find out why they were leaving. Parents wanted safe schools, principals said. They wanted strong academics. They wanted to know teachers cared. And they had serious doubts about whether Lincoln and nearby middle schools could provide that.

Competition may be driving Gompers and O’Farrell to strengthen their programs, but so far, nearby neighborhood schools haven’t kept pace.

Lincoln today is filled at just over half of its 2,700-student capacity. To stem the tide of fleeing students, district leaders have restructured and rebranded the school multiple times, with little success.

That so many students avoid Lincoln High has a real impact on the district. In California, state funding follows students. Funding goes up or down depending on students’ needs, but if on average Gompers gets $10,000 per student, per year, and they have 1,230 students – every year $12.3 million that would otherwise go to the district goes to Gompers.

Charter schools don’t exist solely to drive competition, though. They’re expected to use their flexibility to practice innovative approaches that can then be shared with other schools. So far, however, the conversation has gotten stuck on competition – not collaboration.

But that may change, too.

O’Farrell superintendent Jon Dean said in recent years a number of community groups have approached him, asking if he’d be willing to take a leading role in transforming Lincoln High.

Riveroll has gotten similar questions, Parsons said. Last year, Superintendent Cindy Marten and district staffers visited Gompers to interview students and teachers to understand what’s working.

After the visit, Parsons remembers Marten saying: “I can’t unsee what I just saw.”

Both Dean and Parsons say they’d be open to working with Lincoln High, so long as the decision came from the community and district as opposed to having it look like they were moving in on someone else’s turf.

“We can’t be the ones to initiate that conversation,” Parsons said. “We don’t need that target on our back.”

    This article relates to: Charter Schools, Education, Neighborhood Schools

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email:

    Lou Dodge
    Lou Dodge subscriber

    Donny Powers reveals a lot here and from experience, I would say, he is absolutely right to question what is going on at GPA. Back in 2004, Bersin placed many extra administrators there before it went charter; they formed a 'work group' committee and 'voila' two months later a charter was railroaded through.  And all the stories about the 'old' Gompers are just that, 'stories'.  There was NOT a 75% turn over of teachers every year and I challenge anyone to prove that.  There were NOT daily fights or neighborhood problems pouring into the school.  Those were lies propagated by the privatization people with their own agenda.  Not long before Gompers was taken over, it earned a distinguished school award under the direction of Marie Thornton and under the legendary drill, band and choir director, Ms 'Rich', Gompers won exemplary status for its performances.  Not only does Donny make a good point but so do many of the other commentators here.  The charters siphon resources from the public school, kick out students they do not want and 'have a good 'ol time' at the taxpayers expense.  Wake up people!

    DDunn subscriber

    Gompers Predatory Academy, aka GPA... absolute joke of a learning environment..!!

    Visited the campus a few times, students are bored, teachers are lemmings, and all seem to just adore the principal. Campus is an Alice in Wonderland and the exterior is an advert for the headmaster.


    Donny Powers
    Donny Powers

    I respectfully request that someone run a comprehensive comparative analysis of grades (including AP courses), test scores (including the CAHSEE-even though it may be phased out), college acceptance, and actual college attendance/length of attendance.  I worked at Gompers for five and a half years and struggled with what I considered to be a hostile work environment for anyone unwilling to do exactly what they were told by school leadership; this would include assigning grades which did not match student's true abilities.  If properly reported and analyzed, the numbers would prove disturbing and confusing that students who struggled with  passing the CAHSEE (which really only goes as high as 8th grade standards) would pass all of their classes- including AP classes with a C or better.  A comparison between grades given in AP courses vs AP exam pass rate may prove telling as well.  I resigned three and a half years ago and during that time there were seniors with GPAs of 4.0 and higher, yet the AP exam pass rate was in the single digits at best.  I would be curious to compare SAT scores against this  data as well.  I am not a huge fan of standardized testing and do believe that one should consider the whole student when determining ability- but the gap between grades "earned" and scores achieved should be somewhat close I would think.

    I take exception to a lot of the information in this article but do agree that the atmosphere is very carnival-like.  A LOT of time and effort does go into the show- much to the dismay of those of us who would have chosen  to better use that time to help close the academic achievement gap and authentically prepare the students for college readiness.

    Mario Koran
    Mario Koran author

    @Donny Powers " I respectfully request that someone run a comprehensive comparative analysis of grades (including AP courses), test scores (including the CAHSEE-even though it may be phased out), college acceptance, and actual college attendance/length of attendance."

    I support this. I'd like to see them for district-manged schools, too. 

    David subscriber

    @Donny Powers  I have a good friend that was an administrator at traditional public schools and now charter schools and he says the same. You have good and bad in both places. The difference is that a charter can be closed if it falls below the surrounding schools student academic achievement. Traditional schools stay open no matter what? 

    Donny Powers
    Donny Powers

    @Mario Koran @Donny Powers

    I agree with you. Wouldn't it be great if ALL schools were transparent and honest with their data?  I  commented on this article, not as a criticism of your reporting, but in reaction to Gompers continuously promoting and publicizing numbers which I believe are less than accurate or authentic.  I brought my concerns to the school while I worked there three and a half years ago, then again in my letter of resignation in January of 2014, and yet again later in emails and meetings with two of the members of the Board of Directors.  It troubles me that little or not enough has changed since then so I am compelled  to raise these concerns here.  It seems unfair and inappropriate to compare one school to another based on data which has not been thoroughly vetted- especially given that students' futures are at stake,  families make what they believe to be  informed  decisions based on the numbers provided by the school, and millions of dollars are spent sometimes directly related to that data.  I dedicated myself to serving the students and families of Gompers, that does not end just because I am no longer employed there. It is offensive both personally and professionally that business as usual continues at GPA until those who can make an honest change do so.

    Johnny Ridicalous
    Johnny Ridicalous

    Some charters are great, and some are garbage. Like other public schools, it boils down to who's running them. 

    Ron Hidinger
    Ron Hidinger subscriber

    So what's the intersection between Gompers and O'Farrell and your other educational thread: bilingual education?

    KIm Carpender
    KIm Carpender subscriber

    It is no surprise that charter schools have such cooperative students.  They throw out the behavior problems and have very few programs for special needs students.  These students end up at the true neighborhood schools, the public schools which actually serve any student in the neighborhood.  If we want great schools we need to be sending many more resources to the public schools, especially those in the same neighborhoods as Gompers and O'Farrell.  Those public schools are dealing with many children living trauma filled lives.  At one of the middle schools in that area 20% of the population is a special needs student and the supports for these students are so few that 8-10 of them are in clusters in general ed class rooms.  I know that at the same school an average week has 1-2 students in such crisis that they are actually hurting themselves by cutting or threatening self-harm.  Despite these facts that middle school has made huge progress in creating a positive environment.  Academics are stronger, behavior problems are decreasing and many new clubs and extra activities are creating happy environment on campus. 

    David subscriber

    @KIm Carpender look at the true numbers. You will see that the special ed numbers are higher at these charter schools than their similar surrounding schools. 

    richard brick
    richard brick subscribermember

    Mario, Why do so many charter schools have the word academy in their name? My niece attends Gompers and has since 9th grade. On her first day of school she was given a ticket by the clothes police, because her khaki pants had one row of stitching on the seam not two. We bought her pants at Target to save some money, but she was told she had to buy her pants at a small store in Lemon Grove along with her shirts embroidered with the Gompers name. These items were very expensive for a family living at the poverty level, as most families are whose kids attend Gompers. To me khaki pants are khaki pants, whether they have one row of stitching or two. When her father called and asked about this ridiculous ticket he was told to either buy the more expensive pants or go to another school. My nieces family lives 1/2 block from Gompers.

    Every time I drive by Gompers parking lot and see the painting of the director on the wall it reminds of the film 1984, it looks exactly like Big Brother as depicted in the film. 

    What is the name of the company that runs the for profit Gompers High School? How much profit do they make yearly? Are the teachers represented by a union?

    Allen Bersin was one of the more loathed superintends in the history of San Diego Unified. He main objective was to retrain teachers into his vision of how a teacher should teach and what the should teach. Lots of class time missed by teachers so they could be retrained.Lots of money spent on substitutes. Morale of the teachers and staff at San Diego Unified was at an all time low while he was the boss.

    David subscriber

    @richard brick Again, no for profit runs Gompers. Richard actually knows that there are NO "for-profit" charter schools in the entire San Diego county. It's hilarious what people put out there as "facts."