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Manual Dexterity 

Auditors probe whether high school is a model of reform or cheating

Wednesday, Aug 8 2001
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A principal and an assistant principal have left Manual Arts High School in the wake of an ongoing investigation into alleged grade tampering and financial improprieties at the South-Central Los Angeles campus, the Weekly has learned. Officials would not comment on the inquiry, but the school board has transferred principal Wendell C. Greer Jr. and assistant principal Irene Anton from the campus, demoting both administrators to classroom-teaching positions. Greer has since taken an unpaid leave of absence from district employment, according to the school district.

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Among the most serious allegations is that Greer allowed unqualified students to graduate in recent years, inflating the school’s graduation rate. Two school staff members told the Weekly they personally reviewed about 30 transcripts that were apparently altered. Investigators also have looked at whether Anton improperly raised the grades of her son.

In addition, auditors are reviewing alleged financial improprieties, examining whether all the revenue from the rental of school buildings and from parking fees was deposited into school accounts.a

Repeated attempts to contact Greer were not successful. But Anton categorically denied any wrongdoing, characterizing the district investigation as a witch-hunt spawned by teachers who resented Greer‘s hard-driving push to improve the school. (Anton’s name is familiar to district insiders; she is related to retired Superintendent Bill Anton and his wife, Donnalyn Anton, who is an associate superintendent in charge of supervising programs for disabled students.)

An investigation by the Weekly and by KPFK radio-station producer Jeff Kaufman essentially retraced the interview trail followed by the district‘s own auditors since last fall. According to discontented and concerned staff members, Manual Arts High was run as a petty fiefdom, with favors dispensed at will by administrators, and with selective adherence to district policies and procedures.

The results of the investigation will be telling. Scandals on the scale of the notorious $200 million Belmont Learning Complex are not really the norm in L.A. Unified. The more pervasive problem is tackling the petty and not-so-petty management missteps and abuses that strangle progress from one school site to the next, all the way down the line. The school district’s investigation into Manual Arts and the removal of its two top administrators, effective July 1, could be a harbinger of a new accountability in L.A. Unified -- or just the latest chance revelation that once again exposes a failing school system.

“We will not tolerate any malfeasance that occurs at a school involving changing grades [or] changing cumulative records,” said Los Angeles schools Superintendent Roy Romer in a written statement. “Once we became aware that there might have been irregularities at Manual Arts High School we initiated an investigation and are pursuing appropriate action.”

One staff member commented that the school district‘s reform effort itself contributed to the current morass, by ratcheting up pressure to perform. She recalled the principal saying to her, “We have to graduate these kids. We have to show these people that they’re doing well.”

A visitor to Manual Arts encounters clean hallways, friendly students and, according to administrators, 76 classrooms with Internet-ready computers. The school‘s unusual name alludes to its origin as a trade school founded in 1910, but it’s a comprehensive high school today, and boasts of a rigorous College Preparatory Magnet Program with 360 students.

But in terms of overall test scores, Manual Arts is one of California‘s lowest-performing schools. Two percent of its students score in the state’s top 25 percent on standardized math tests, for example. And reading scores are even worse. The school ranks in the lowest group in a statewide ranking of high schools based on test scores, and also ranks near the bottom when compared with similar schools. Almost 4,000 students attend the year-round school, less than half of whom will graduate.

Making positive change is not easy when 41 percent of students are not fluent in English and three-quarters of students qualify for federal poverty aid. But the school was making progress, said former assistant principal Anton.

Graduation rates were up, she said, as was the percentage of Spanish-speaking students who made the transition into English-only classes. The school also had established a program allowing students to pursue course work at an area college while still in high school. And, she insisted, there was no social promotion of students at Manual Arts.

But sources who supplied evidence to investigators contend that administrators were willing to cheat to make the school look better. Two staff members told the Weekly that they personally reviewed the records of graduating students whose folders indicated that they lacked the credentials to graduate. One staffer, who requested anonymity, said that in recent years hundreds of students were improperly allowed to graduate just because the principal said so. She first noticed the problem, she added, when she compared the list of actual graduates with the list of students eligible to graduate.

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