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Troubled Gompers School Climate Reportedly Cools

Times Staff Writer

The troubled mood at Gompers Secondary School, the city’s stellar math-science-computer magnet facility in Southeast San Diego, appears much improved from last year.

The faculty is attempting to raise academic achievement for neighborhood minority students, a point of contention last year, without harming the high-powered curriculum that has long attracted white teen-agers bused in from other areas, according to a school-district evaluation.

The report cites: improved relations between Principal Marie Thornton and most of the faculty; a host of special classes and tutorials to give minority students help in basic skills and study habits and to encourage them to consider college, and much preliminary work to redesign both the high-powered science curriculum and humanities courses for next year to reach more students, particularly those at the junior-high level.

However the report also fund continuing problems with: counseling and discipline procedures; some aspects of requirements for teachers to teach both junior- and senior-high classes and the perception that more attention to minority students will ruin the rigorous curriculum that traditionally has lured a substantial number of white students to Gompers.

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The interim report by the district’s evaluation department has been shared with Gompers faculty and administrators but has not yet been discussed by the Board of Education.

Many, but not all Gompers teachers and parents interviewed this week found that the report accurately portrays both progress and unsolved issues at a school beset by problems of inequality at the same time it has garnered many national awards for academic prowess.

“I am encouraged by what I have seen going on,” said chemistry teacher Jay Rubin, who last spring was among the more vocal teachers during meetings and debates over how to improve the school. “Communications have improved slowly, there is progress in talking to each other, and in working on the academic curriculum,” said Rubin, who as the science department’s new chairman is heading a committee to revamp science teaching at the junior-high level as part of the Gompers Renewal Plan.

Math teacher Hans DeGroot remains skeptical about many academic promises in the plan but said “the school climate has gotten better, and I admit to being quite impressed with Mrs. Thornton . . . she has made a real effort at being more open.”

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Mood Has Changed

English department chairman Karen Wroblewski--another outspoken teacher last year--noted that six key teachers left during the summer because they wouldn’t accept the renewal plan drawn up by Supt. Tom Payzant and approved by school-district trustees. “The bottom line is that the school is still in transition, and many of us are waiting to see what it looks like in the fall” when the plan is scheduled to be fully implemented, she said.

“But the mood has changed, yes, a lot of people are trying to see if things can be made to work,” added Wroblewski, who had a chance to transfer to another school but decided to stay.

“I have put a lot of years into Gompers and I’m not ready to go. . . . a lot of us are still committed and I felt the school needed some stability.”

The heart of the plan calls for expanding the science-math magnet at the junior high level to include all seventh- and eighth-graders who live in the school’s area, almost all of whom are black or Latino.

Traditionally, Gompers restricted the junior-high magnet to a limited number of minority students and an equal number of white students, with the bulk of the non-white neighborhood students relegated to a different academic program, which many perceived as inferior. The smaller all-magnet 9th-through-12th-grade high school is not directly affected by the renewal plan.

Payzant drew up the plan in the face of many complaints by teachers and magnet parents about school administrators, touched off by a requirement that teachers at the high-school level teach at the junior-high level to improve instruction.

The months-long public dispute last year, which included some charges of racism, caused a drop-off of students, both white and black, attending the school this year. Enrollment is down more than 150 from last year--largely at the junior-high level--and Gompers administrators are aggressively recruiting sixth-graders, both white and black, for next fall. The traditionally long waiting list of non-resident students has dwindled, and Thornton said not all neighborhood children may want a school with a heavy math-science emphasis.

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“Next fall, the school will finally have a single focus, everyone will be a magnet student, and I think we’ll have better self-esteem” among students, said social studies teacher Richard Kadlubowski, the school’s teachers’ union representative and sponsor of the mock-trial debate team.

“I don’t feel there is tension this year anywhere comparable to the last two years” among faculty, he said. “We certainly have not gone backwards, though there is still much to be done.”

Computer teacher Christopher Lawrence, new to Gompers this year, is working on a new junior-high computer science course next fall that will allow students to work on joint projects with students in other schools. “We’re trying to rebuild the middle school computer offerings” for all students, he said. Lawrence has arranged a field trip Friday to Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, a type of activity once restricted to certain magnet students.

“These kids, almost all of them will work their hearts out for you,” Lawrence said.

There are still some strong dissenters, however. Science teacher Toni Wisehart maintained that most teachers “are indifferent,” drained by the past year’s disputes “even though the school is more screwed up than ever” because of what she said are efforts by Payzant to destroy the school’s reputation.

Parent Margaret Speckart cited the dwindling number of science fair projects as an example of a decline in curriculum quality. Last spring, science department teachers decided, during the height of the controversy, to make participation voluntary because they no longer wanted to spend extra time on the science fair.


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