By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photos from yearbook
NOT LONG AGO, THE ACHIEVEMENTS OF MANUAL ARTS High School looked like the best-kept secret in education. An all-minority urban campus in South Los Angeles, where 87 percent of students come from families poor enough to qualify for a subsidized school lunch, Manual Arts had every excuse to fail. Yet under the leadership of former principal Wendell Greer, the school made an apparent transformation.
Its purported accomplishments: Fully 100 percent of the school's 1999 and 2000 graduates completed every course required for admission to the University of California with a grade of C or better; four of five Manual Arts grads enrolled in post-secondary education; nearly every ninth-grader stayed for four years and graduated.
All of this gave administrators plenty to boast about in the school's official 2000 report card. They called the school "some type of magical 'black box' where students enter the box with an unlikely chance of success, and exit with a diploma and are mostly enrolled (82 percent) in a post-secondary educational institution." The report offered this challenge: "The reader is urged to unwrap the black box and examine the curriculum, instruction and general climate of this exceptional and unique school."
Now those words ring with irony. The school district has backed away from the glowing statistics. Last fall, Manual Arts was one of 14 schools singled out by L.A. Unified for possible intervention because of poor academic performance. Principal Greer, once a rising star, departed under a cloud, as district investigators probed whether ineligible students were allowed to graduate. An assistant principal has also left. She was investigated for allegedly raising the grades of her son -- and lowering the grades of her son's rival for quarterback.
The well-kept secret of Manual Arts today is the extent of wrongdoing; the school district has released few details of its two-year investigation. Last August, the district reported its findings to the county District Attorney's Office. The D.A. declined to file charges, characterizing the issue as one of academic integrity, not a criminal matter. Still, the district attorney agreed with the school district's internal auditor that administrators inappropriately raised some grades and lowered others and allowed unqualified students to graduate.
Greer and assistant principal Irene Anton were demoted to classroom teaching positions a year ago, although Anton insisted she voluntarily returned to teaching. Greer declined to accept a teaching assignment and left the district. Anton resigned from the school district as of July 1. Both have denied any wrongdoing, and a number of students and faculty members stand by them. But the miracle at Manual Arts is beginning to look more and more like a mirage.
IN AUGUST 1994, WENDELL C. GREER JR., A NEWLY MINTED principal, settled into Manual Arts High, a school performing miserably by almost any measure. Manual Arts is a prototypical urban high school -- overcrowded, battered in appearance -- despite superlative efforts from many staffers and teachers. Cooke: He sued Greer
Graphic-arts teacher John Santos liked seeing the new principal working weekends, just as he did. "That first Saturday, Mr. Greer came here and saw that mats on doorways outside class were completely filthy. Instead of leaving it for a custodian, he picked up a broom and started cleaning them himself."
Greer fully supported Santos' creation of a graphic-arts academy that allowed his students to take accelerated classes at Cal State L.A. and earn college credit. When Santos told Greer about what happened when it rained -- water came straight through the ceiling, leaving two-inch-deep lakes on the floor, forcing a frantic Santos to cover his equipment -- Greer somehow found money to fix the roof. And where Santos' students had formerly worked with semifunctional antiques, there now stand state-of-the-art printers linked to computers. The investment has paid off: Last year, Santos' students won the annual Southern California regional printing competition sponsored by the print industry.
With Greer's approval, other teachers, too, started "academies," with the goal of creating small schools within a large one. A pre-college magnet had been established even before Greer arrived. USC partnered with Manual Arts to guarantee admission and full tuition for every student from a group of seventh-graders (as many as 30 a year) who ultimately graduates from Manual Arts with a 3.3 grade-point average and an 1,100 on the SAT. Greer's most successful push was in technology: Every classroom, it seems, has at least five computers, and the school has 10 computer labs.
DESPITE THE VENEER OF SUCCESS, GREER CONFRONTED substantial faculty discontent. He and his supporters say some teachers were unhappy because he demanded better performance. "Principals do inspire anger and disgruntled employees by asking for academic and professional changes that best benefit students," Greer said in an e-mail. (He declined to be interviewed.)
Greer's campus critics say he punished them for real, independent initiative -- saying they were not "team players" if they questioned decisions or delved into how the school raised and spent money, or even if they enforced academic standards by flunking students.
Two teachers filed legal claims, prompting settlements with L.A. Unified totaling about $130,000. Band director Bruce E. Cooke, a Jehovah's Witness, declined to lead the band in the national anthem, in keeping with his religious beliefs. Cooke, in his lawsuit, alleged that Greer fired him as band director, took away his instrumental-music classes and allowed him to teach only general music because Greer claimed "he needed a band director that would conduct the national anthem." (District officials said they had other complaints with Cooke's job performance, but would not elaborate.)