Brad Racino & Brandon Quester | <em>inewsource</em>
When Vincent Riveroll swings an outsized bell to signal the start of the school day at Gompers Preparatory Academy, the director is sending a powerful message to the students and the community. Our kids are valued. Our kids can do it. Our kids are college bound.
It has taken 12 years to advance from a near state takeover of an underperforming, drug-and gang-ridden middle school in southeastern San Diego to a charter high school that promises “students can succeed at the university of their choice.”
Politicians, parents, philanthropists and news outlets in San Diego have praised the school’s cultural and academic transformation. The nonprofit has garnered nearly $75 million in government grants and private contributions since it forged a path away from the San Diego Unified School District in 2005.
Riveroll lives and breathes the Gompers culture he helped birth, carting kids to and from tutoring sessions, movies, field trips to Disneyland and visits to colleges. “Tuck in your shirt, please,” he tells one student shortly after welcoming another to the 26-acre campus where gates once served to contain outbreaks of frequent violence.
The spotless grounds erupt with a song and dance routine – Riveroll at the lead – every Friday morning.
Teachers who have worked with 48-year-old Riveroll say he’s an inspiring leader, a visionary with extraordinary charisma and passion. Parents adore the man who has been named teacher of the year, educator of the year and selected as one of four principals nationwide to participate in the Public Education Leadership Program at Harvard University.
Yet data, documents and interviews contradict the Gompers brand of preparing every student for college. Gompers’ standardized test scores — one metric for college acceptance — are among the bottom of schools in San Diego County and California. These numbers are in contrast to students’ straight A grades with courses in precalculus, advanced biology and AP history.
Teachers say grades are inflated, and if students still can’t graduate, they are “counseled” to attend school elsewhere. The same teachers who praise Riveroll’s talent blame him, saying he shames educators who assign failing grades by telling them they are “murdering” kids.
“He knows he’s not allowed to say, ‘Change their grades or else,’” said former Gompers chemistry teacher Ben Davey.
“But he can say, ‘You’re killing these kids, are you sure you want to leave it as an F?’”
Riveroll did not show up last week for a scheduled interview with inewsource. The chairman and vice chairman of the Gompers board of directors, Cecil Steppe and Bud Mehan, said Riveroll was busy helping seniors prepare to graduate and that they would answer questions, along with two administrative staff members from the school.
The two-hour meeting with board members came after 11 former Gompers teachers described to inewsource – over the course of three months – two faces of the school: Gompers the welcoming oasis, full of love and support for the most “caring” and “sweet” students they’ve ever known; and Gompers the regime, rife with pressure to go above and beyond – nights, weekends, holidays – no matter the toll to personal lives and finances.
Combined with Riveroll’s showmanship and self-promotion, they said, the director’s actions have set up kids for failure postgraduation and left a slew of educators traumatized and heartbroken.
The University of California San Diego is intricately connected to Gompers and its success. A shared network of professors, academics and educational programs has cemented the 12-year partnership. UCSD accepted 51 Gompers students this year, or nearly half the graduating class. So far, 39 plan to enroll and are expected to be awarded full scholarships.
Teachers and students told inewsource that despite Gompers’ university-focused charter, they are well-versed in stories of recent graduates who felt unprepared, and, as a result, dropped or failed out of college.
Steppe is a prominent resident of Southeast San Diego, retired head of the San Diego County Probation Department and a Gompers founder. He discounted the test scores and said he was not concerned about what the teachers had told inewsource.
Referring to the data, Steppe said, “All of that is wonderful but that’s not my ball game. My ball game is I have lived too long, 84 years in this community, trying to figure out how can I help a community that has been underserved, underrepresented and had stereotypical thinking about their inability to do anything to create an environment where success is possible.
“Most people talk about at-risk kids. What they define as at-risk is at risk to failure. We have at-risk kids that we say are at risk of becoming successful … That’s our play … my hope is that whatever you write, that you will include the heartfelt-ness of what we’re doing here.”
Dede Alpert is a former state senator and was a Gompers board member* from the charter adoption in 2005 until 2010. inewsource presented her with data and shared the conversation with Steppe and Mehan.
“Everything they said about things that Gompers does, and has done for this neighborhood, are true,” Alpert said.
“What that never excuses …” she said, “is cheating on grades.”
Alpert said no one other than Riveroll – employing a “cult of personality” – could have improved the Gompers culture so dramatically. She said she has “often stood in awe” of his dedication and service.
But there’s a line.
“I don’t think you can allow a person to continue to be the leader of a school if they are the one who has been basically forcing or coercing teachers into lying and cheating on people’s transcripts,” Alpert said.
“If these allegations are true, I believe the board needs to remove Vince as the director.”
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