Teachers, staff, and parents of students at Gompers Preparatory Academy in San Diego say they fear that the return of a labor union after a 16-year hiatus will lead the school back down the path to gang violence, deplorable learning conditions, and poor academic performance.
Gompers was put on the state’s watch list of underperforming schools in the 1990s and was slated for closure until parents, educators, and community leaders rallied to save it. In 2005, the school became an independent charter school for grades 6-12, and the San Diego Education Association (SDEA) union was ousted.
But now, the union is back.
“We don’t want the union,” longtime teacher Kristie Chiscano told The Epoch Times. She and a number of other Gompers employees petitioned the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) to decertify the San Diego Education Association (SDEA) union in January. Though PERB granted the decertification vote, it has never been held.
“I was the petitioner, so as soon as I filed on behalf of over 30 percent of the teachers … the union refiled their first ULP (unfair labor practice charge) against the school and added in their proposed remedy of blockage of our decertification petition,” Chiscano said.
SDEA Executive Director Abdul Sayid and SDEA President Kisha Borden have not responded to multiple inquiries from The Epoch Times.
Meanwhile, the National Right to Work (NRTW) Legal Defense Foundation has backed Chiscano. In a news release, NRTW wrote, “[T]he union installed itself in January 2019 after conducting a controversial ‘card check’ drive, bypassing the more reliable method of a secret-ballot election whether to certify a union as the monopoly representative of all educators in the school.”
SDEA returned to Gompers after about eight teachers began working with union organizers, Chiscano said. They were able to convince two-thirds of the school’s teachers to sign a petition in support of unionization.
“We are dedicated and passionate teachers at Gompers Preparatory Academy (GPA). We love our charter school and we love our students. We are fully committed to fulfilling the GPA mission and vision and want to continue the work of guiding our school and our students toward college and beyond,” wrote the Gompers Preparatory Academy Organizing Committee in a December 2018 letter to the community.
“It is for these reasons we have decided to unionize our school.”
A few of the pro-union teachers have since left the school, but the union has continued to do everything possible to block the decertification, Chiscano said.
“As soon as the union heard about it, they stopped it, and it has been blocked since 2020. So, we have not been awarded a vote,” she said.
Of Gangs and Unions
Dolores Garcia, 51, is an administrative assistant at Gompers where she’s worked since 1997, when the school was Gompers Secondary. She has witnessed the astounding transformation of the school from the worst in the district to the best, and the school has a long waiting list to prove it, she told The Epoch Times.
“It’s been quite a journey,” said Garcia, as she and teachers prepared for this year’s graduation ceremonies held on June 19. Two Class of 2021 grads were admitted to Harvard.
“It was a failing school back in ’97. Kids were just dropping out and gangs were running the school,” she said.
It’s a story Garcia knows only too well.
“I come from the streets. I’m a former gang member myself,” she said. “I was a high school dropout. I was a pregnant teen. I didn’t have a school that looked out for me. They just let me go to the streets. I was a statistic.”
The school is located on 47th Street in Chollas View, a predominantly Hispanic and black neighborhood. According to recent demographic data, 87 percent of students at Gompers are Hispanic, 8 percent are black, 4 percent are Asian, and 1 percent are Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. White and other races make up less than 1 percent.
In southeast San Diego, there are at least 52 gangs, possibly more, which make it dangerous for students to walk to school, Garcia said. Outsiders may not realize the neighborhood is carved up into different turfs controlled by black, Hispanic, Asian, and Samoan gangs.
“There’s a lot of street lines … that our kids have to face every day. They’re crossing two, three gangs. It’s not easy for kids to live in southeast San Diego. There is a war zone going on still to this day,” she said.
“It doesn’t stop us, but one thing that our school has done is become a beacon of hope, that place where we really shut down the ‘pipeline to prison,’” which the school was once called.
Garcia grew up in Sherman Heights and Grant Hill and lived “in the streets of southeast.” The gangs protected her from getting in any serious trouble because she was too “bougie,” she said.
Years later, Garcia went back to school, got a degree, and an employment agency placed her at the school where she has worked ever since. However, union rules were getting in the way of what it takes to improve school culture and raise levels of student achievement, she said.
In 2005, SDEA was ousted, the school hired dedicated teachers who were willing to work harder, put in longer hours to tutor students before and after school, provide supervision outside the classroom, and put the needs of students first to improve school culture and academic performance.
“The reason we were so successful is because we had no union,” Garcia said.
“It’s hard to keep school culture,” she said. “It’s hard to have school spirit. A lot of our kids are fatherless, a lot of our kids are in foster homes, and a lot of kids come from two-parent homes where parents have to work two jobs. But one thing that they do have that is secure is their school, and the love and the joy that we’ve given them.”
Garcia credits Vincent Riveroll, the charter school’s founding director who has served as the school’s executive leader and principal teacher since 2004. The San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) originally appointed Riveroll to fix the failing school, she said.
“He starts telling our teachers, ‘Hey, we need to start putting our kids first. You’re gonna get on the bus, or you get off.’ And he was the first principal I ever worked alongside with who actually delivered a message like that. ‘Wow! Who is this guy?’”
Four months later, in what some say was as a purely political move orchestrated by the teacher’s union, Riveroll was orders to clean out his desk and was escorted out of the school, Garcia said.
“It brought chaos because this was the first principal that started listening to the students, listening to the parents, and directing the teachers to do their jobs. And their job is to focus on students first—not pushing kids out of the classroom. And that’s when our community rose up and said, ‘We need him back.’”
Recently, Garcia resigned from the school’s bargaining team because she felt her voice was being silenced and has instead spent her time warning parents about the potential harm union rules could bring.
Like in the past, Garcia has started a community-based a petition to fight against the union and has so far gathered more than 900 signatures.
Garcia even compares unions to gangs, in the sense that unions collect money from members for “protection” while gangs extort community members for protection from situations they may cause or perpetuate in the first place.
“Unions are about themselves. Nothing else. They’re like gangs,” she said. “They’re the gang members to me. … I don’t even pay my homeboys to protect me. They just protect me. I don’t have to pay my homeboys. I get paid back by pride, by taking care of their kids and making sure they get an education and keeping them out of the prison system. That’s the difference.”
Like a Hollywood Movie
Mari Barke, a trustee on the Orange County Board of Education, told The Epoch Times the change at the school was so dramatic that the story of Gompers “should be made into a movie.”
The school’s 2021-22 Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) states that to fully understand the “amount of effort and energy placed into re-culturing the school in the first several years, you have to picture a school before the charter that resembled the schools found in movies such as ‘Dangerous Minds’ and ‘Stand and Deliver.’”
“It is one of best charter schools in the state … and now the union has basically gone in there and is trying to destroy the school again,” said Barke.
While Garcia agrees the school’s transformation has all the makings of a Hollywood movie, she is focused on the fight to make sure the real story ends well for students and the community.
“People want to make movies … but we live this life. People drive into our community and drive right back out. But when you live here, it’s different,” Garcia said.
“I’m proud of where I live and work and who I work with … and I’m very proud to say I’m a former gang member because that’s what’s taught me more than any kind of book, or any kind of schooling,” she said.
“I don’t want the union back in our school. I’m going to fight, and I’m going to do everything possible to alert my family and my community because I know exactly what was destroying it. I solved the equation: … Unions are bad for our schools,” she said.
Parents, Teachers Unite
The Gompers Preparatory Academy (GPA) board of directors met June 15, after hearing the complaints of parents and teachers who are opposed to the SDEA labor union’s return to the school.
One letter signed “GPA Parents” stated, “We, the parents of GPA students, are completely unsatisfied and very unhappy that we have been left out of the bargaining process. First of all, the education of our children is being bargained. These SDEA union teachers are not interested in our children’s well-being or their education. What these teachers are asking for is shorter school days and shorter year. They do not want to do morning or afternoon supervision or tutoring after school.”
The parents accused the union of “trying to completely change GPA’s culture,” at the educational expense of the students.
“Our school does not need any third party to come in and take over our school and to tell us how it should be run. We do not need or want the SDEA union at our school,” the letter said.
Another letter signed “Class of 2021 Parents” claimed union organizers have attacked parents on social media for not supporting their cause.
“Our school was founded on different morals and these union organizers have completely destroyed it all,” the parents wrote. “We do not trust any of the organizing committee teachers due to the tactics they have used to force this unwanted union on all of us and we certainly do not trust them with our children. A lot of us parents fear these teachers. All we are asking is that you take our comments and opinions seriously. We do not want or need a union at GPA.”
‘It’s the Enemy’
Ellen Nash, chair of the Black American Political Association of California (BAPAC) San Diego chapter, was part of the original community group that fought to change Gompers from a public school to charter school under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Nash, 67, is Gompers alumna. Her children attended the school before it became a charter. But the year after her daughter graduated, her son ran into some trouble with gangs.
Street fights, shootings and stabbings near the school were common. “It’s true,” said Nash. “It was awful. It was a completely different school. Lunchtime was throwing desks and chairs. Teachers were quitting.”
Nash said that later, when her father was a district school board member, he visited the new Gompers charter school and talked highly of its achievements. But, she said, the Democratic Party and the SDEA union promptly “disciplined” her father and other school members and issued a gag order warning them not mention Gompers again.
“So, they never acknowledged ever again the positive academic outcome of Gompers Preparatory Academy,” she said.
Nash told The Epoch Times on June 17 that BAPAC doesn’t oppose the union itself but has been called “anti-union” because it opposes SDEA’s collective bargaining agreements that she says prevent schools and teachers from doing the “heavy lifting” students need for a healthy and safe learning environment.
“Everything that Gompers is doing, the [other unionized] teachers in District E refuse to do. And what we’re saying is we don’t want SDEA, as far as the collective bargaining agreement, dictating how we educate kids,” Nash said.
“The SDEA collective bargaining agreement really is the enemy in terms of preventing positive academic outcomes for black and brown kids in District E,” she said.
“It’s the enemy. It fails black and brown kids,” she said. “I was actively involved with the Democratic Party in 2016. I know lots of people; they know me. They know where I stand, particularly on charter schools. None of them have challenged one iota of what we’re saying—no challenges, nothing—because they know that what we’re saying is correct.”
Uniforms and Colors
Cecil Steppe, board chairman and a founding member of the school, spent 12 years as the county’s chief probation officer, later becoming the director of Community Initiatives in the Health and Human Services Agency.
He played an in instrumental role in working out a deal with gangs not to bother students wearing school uniforms, said Nash. In other words, “If you see kids in these uniforms, back away,” she said.
The uniforms prevent students from wearing gang colors and being mistaken for rival gang members, Garcia said. But lately, some teachers have suggested to students that they wouldn’t have to wear uniforms if they weren’t a charter school.
“I want them to support us, and not tell our kids that they don’t need a uniform,” Garcia said.
“Do you know what that would do to our kids to become targets out there on the street with a red shirt or a blue shirt?”
Labor Battle Continues
Steppe said at the June 15 meeting he’s concerned about “behavior attributed to some members of the GPA Teacher’s Union (GTA),” the SDEA local, and “GPA teacher treatment of GPA students.”
“Our school was founded by the community and parents who use their voices to turn a failing district school into a thriving college preparatory charter school,” Steppe said.
Steppe said PERB overturned an unfair labor practice ruling last fall which “held that GPA had bargained in bad faith and then had retaliated against one of his teachers.” He said, “the findings of bad faith and retaliation were dismissed.”
“The last several years have been challenging for a number of reasons and have tested the fabric of our community. … We must all support the mission of GPA which has helped thousands of students be successful. We continue to be extremely proud of our students, parents, leadership, staff, and community for choosing GPA.”
The board later held a closed session to continue ongoing negotiations with the union, after which Steppe said the board had “nothing to report.”
Despite the union’s presence at Gompers for more than two years, teachers at the school remain without a contract.
Gompers first opened in 1955 as a junior high school. It was named after labor leader Samuel Gompers, the first and longest-serving president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The school now serves about 1,200 students.
Brad Jones is an award-winning journalist based in Southern California.