Angela Marrero stood outside the entrance of the Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School on Southern Boulevard, looking at the schoolyard through a high chain-link fence.
It was the first day of school for her son, a freshman, and the other Gompers students. They stood in a queue in front of the school doors on Sept. 8 and waited for the security staff to let them in. Marrero watched, both hands clenched together in front of her. She said she was worried.
“Some people say it’s a good school, some say it isn’t,” said Marrero, a dark-haired, middle-aged woman who spoke with a Spanish accent.
Last May, the city said it wasn’t. Just 51 percent of the students graduate after four years, compared to a citywide average of 65 percent. The school received a grade of C on its most recent progress report.
Last spring, the Education Department identified Gompers as one of more than two dozen low-performing schools eligible for a special federal improvement grant. The school would have been required to close down and reopen as a charter school or with a partner organization to help it improve.
But the city decided not to include Gompers in its application, prompting a protest by 20 students in May. A DoE spokesman has said schools needed a partner to be included in the program, but the agency did not reply to a request for comment for this article. Of the $59 million in federal aid, none will go to Gompers. Its future is uncertain.
Alice Soler, who teaches global history at the school, said the school’s problems are a result of the neighborhood’s long history of poverty. She said the current recession has made it more difficult for parents to get involved as they struggle with problems such as homelessness and unemployment.
“Students arrive at this school and have a 4th grade reading level, although they are in 9th grade,” said Soler, 52. “But the teachers get the blame.”
In a brief telephone conversation on Sept. 12, Gompers Principal Joyce Mills Kittrell said she did not have time to discuss the school’s improvement plans.
Redwin Mendet, 18, is entering his senior year. He said he likes all the programs the school offers in addition to the regular curriculum.
“There are guitar lessons for everybody who wants to learn”, he said. “As far as I know, they are planning to start some college lessons this year.”
Evelyn Rodriguez, president of the Parents Association, said the school needs money for everything from more teachers to lighting improvements.
Her son Fernando, 17, just started his senior year. Her two older children attended school in Manhattan, and Rodriguez said Fernando was a top student in middle school and had his pick of high schools. She said she was surprised her son chose to go to Gompers but said he was attracted by the science and computer oriented programs.
She said she was shocked to see metal detectors when she arrived on the first day four years ago. But today, she said, she sees Gompers differently.
“People at this school work very hard to improve things,” Rodriguez said.
“My son said there are two teachers at this school with whom he found a connection. He never expressed this to us before.”
In fact, 79 percent of the students agreed that the teachers inspire them to learn, and 76 percent said that their teachers give them extra help when they need it, according to the most recent school survey by the Education Department.
“Our teachers care about us,” said 15-year-old Alice, who arrived for the first day of school with her friend Stephanie, 17.
Jose Ayala, who dropped off his son Lucas, 14, for his first day of high school, said his biggest worry was that Lucas would become a victim of bullying. Lucas succeeded in his evaluation test and the school picked him for its engineering program.
“There are these kids that zoom in on the ones that are not like them,” said Ayala, as he paced in front of the school and watched security guards herd the students through the front door.
There was a list of room assignments next to the entrance door. It took more than half an hour for everyone to pass through security. Some students came walking to the schoolyard’s gate, then turned and walked back in the direction they came from.
“Attendance is low,” said Evelyn Rodriguez. “But they try to increase it.”
There were 723 names on the list that eventually fell on the wet ground. Some students laughed. Barely half of the students went to school on opening day, according to the city’s attendance report.