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An 'A' in Fraud

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.)

The other legal action was filed by former Manual Arts teacher C.C. Ryder, who had obtained substantial grant funding for a media academy. Disagreements arose over the academy, and also during Ryder's service as a teachers-union representative. Greer allegedly refused to provide Ryder an elevator key, even though a severe back injury made walking, let alone climbing stairs, difficult for Ryder. Nor would Greer obtain a special chair that a doctor had specified for Ryder, according to an official "accusation" filed in August 2000 by attorneys for the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

But even Ryder had grudging admiration for Greer's talent as a promoter. In August 1999, Greer appeared at a press conference with President Clinton in Washington, D.C. -- as an urban hero from the trenches. Soon after, he defended public schools on The O'Reilly Factor TV program. Greer took a pounding from pompous host Bill O'Reilly, who barely let him express a complete thought, but at least he was out there pitching. And less than two full years into Greer's principalship, state officials selected Manual Arts as a California Distinguished School. Newspaper accounts credited a decrease in suspensions, improved attendance, the academies, and all those new computers.

"I stand by my record of having led this school to be recognized by then-President William Jefferson Clinton as a 'beacon of hope' for inner-city high schools throughout the nation," commented Greer in his e-mail, "and having led to its being recognized as the first inner-city high school in the state to be recognized as a California Distinguished School."

Manual Arts would not qualify for this award today, however, because a school's portfolio also must include good test scores.

In 1997, Superintendent Ruben Zacarias took the helm of the school district with the motto "Student achievement: Our bottom line." Manual Arts immediately landed on Zacarias' list of the district's 100 worst schools, less than one year after being named a distinguished school, meaning that Greer was suddenly under unaccustomed pressure.

FOR MANY REASONS, MANUAL ARTS COULDN'T pull up its test scores -- the sine qua non for judging schools these days. Scores on the Stanford 9, the state's student-achievement test, remained low, even when compared to similar schools, as did scores on the SAT, which is used by college admissions officers. But in academic measures under the school's control, Manual Arts began a remarkable rise.

Dropouts virtually disappeared. And 100 percent of graduates completed all University of California admission requirements. By comparison, the rate at Beverly Hills High was 70 percent; at San Marino High, 67 percent. Manual Arts also reported that more than 80 percent of its graduates continued on to a two-year or four-year college. By comparison, the number of California college freshmen from L.A. Unified is only about 30 percent of the size of the district's entire graduating class.

In 1998, the last time L.A. Unified examined the numbers, a district researcher concluded that Manual Arts sent fewer students into the UC system than did any other district high school. Just one year later, Manual Arts reported that every single graduate had completed all UC entrance requirements.

Grade inflation or its near twin -- the dumbing down of academic standards -- could explain how some students were acing college-prep classes while performing so poorly on standardized tests measuring their knowledge.

To this day, the school district has never examined -- or even questioned -- why statistics controlled by the school varied so remarkably from those that were not. District officials apparently noticed the discrepancies only when they were pointed out by the Weekly.

But other matters had, in fact, caught the attention of the district hierarchy, which launched a confidential probe of Manual Arts in September 2000, looking into alleged financial impropriety and grade-changing. The Weekly broke news of the ongoing but hushed-up investigation last August. Nearly two years later, no official findings have been released, although some information has leaked out or been provided in response to repeated queries from the Weekly.

 

Independent of the school district, the Weekly learned of school fund-raisers for which there was neither documentation nor approval, which is against district policy. These fund-raisers included having students and coaches collect money from drivers who parked on school grounds during football games at the nearby Coliseum. No records show how much money came in nor how it was spent. Assistant Principal Irene Anton: Did she change student grades?

The Weekly found that grant funding also was not fully accounted for and that some funds were spent for purposes other than originally specified in the grant. Moreover, in the case of the two grants examined by the Weekly, materials for auditing the grant were not readily available, even though their availability was a condition of funding. But again, it's not clear that funds were misused. Greer's only response to questions about school finances was, "Principals rarely, if ever, touch moneys made from student fund-raisers."

The school district won't release its report on alleged grade-changing, but the District Attorney's Office reviewed LAUSD documentation and agreed with school-system investigators that some grades had been raised and others lowered. The district has acknowledged one example of a lowered grade, that of a student competing for school quarterback with the son of assistant principal Irene Anton.

Anton had two sons at Manual Arts; the older boy was popular and a football standout. The other son, two years younger, showed great promise as an aspiring quarterback, but had borderline grades, which could have threatened his athletic eligibility. The younger brother, Anton Clarkson, also had a rival, Marco Aceituno, who was a year ahead in school and a star student.

Aceituno had one or more of his grades wrongly lowered, according to the school district. Clarkson's were inappropriately raised, according to confidential sources at the school. At one point the school district confirmed that Clarkson's grades had been wrongfully improved, but this month the district declined comment. Several staff members, including assistant principal Anton, had access to student records.

One math teacher told the Weekly that Aceituno had earned an A in his class, but that the grade had come out as a D. To play football, students have to maintain a C average or better. Aceituno's overall GPA was excellent.

Compared to Aceituno, Anton Clarkson had poor grades. "I gave him a C," said one of Clarkson's former social-studies teachers, who added that he was told the grade later "went to an A." This teacher named three other athletes who had grades raised as well, but the Weekly could not verify the allegation. A former office worker, who asked not to be named, also stated that she had seen Anton Clarkson's altered transcript.

Head football coach Glenn Bell declined to discuss specifics but noted that assistant principal Anton "wanted her son to be in a competitive situation. I don't fault any parent for wanting their son in a competitive situation. She's like most parents." Coach Bell also made no apologies for giving Aceituno the nod: "He had the drive on and off the field. I just didn't see the same material in her son."

FORMER ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL ANTON TOLD the Weekly that she changed no grades. Compared to the polished, charismatic Greer, Anton is earthy, plain-speaking, someone whom parent volunteer Edgar O. Hernandez admired for her relentless attempts to reach students. "I saw her in action, especially on breaks or lunch hour, when girls would go and be dressed up very provocative," recalled Hernandez. "She would call them and say, 'You know what? I understand the way you want to dress, but this is not a fashion show, and you got to respect yourself.'" The boys got a similar message. "She gave a lot, a lot," said Hernandez. "To be very loving when a student would need it, and very tough when a student would need that."

Both Irene Anton and Anton Clarkson's father, Steve Clarkson, whom she divorced in 1988, have long LAUSD pedigrees. Anton is the niece of retired Superintendent Bill Anton, whose wife, Donnalyn Jaque-Antón, is currently an associate superintendent.

Steve Clarkson was a prep football star at L.A.'s Wilson High who eventually played pro ball. The elder Clarkson is revered locally as a prep quarterback guru whose teen clients have sometimes switched to different high schools to get better playing opportunities, better coaching or better exposure, which is what Anton Clarkson did in the middle of his sophomore year.

Irene Anton insisted that there was never a quarterback conflict at Manual Arts, because Aceituno was the upperclassman and had the job. The coaches, at any rate, were strongly committed to Aceituno, who was older, talented and, in the words of one coach, "everything you'd want a son to be."

 

Anton Clarkson's new school, Venice High, was a better fit, said Irene Anton: "Anton's style is that of a passing quarterback, not a running quarterback. Manual Arts doesn't pass the ball. Venice is very much a passing offense."

Both students went on to become star quarterbacks. Overall, the Venice team was more successful, and Anton Clarkson made the all-city squad.

Aceituno, now an undergraduate at USC, preferred not to discuss the grade-changing incident, but he confirmed that at least one of his grades had been wrongly lowered. At his June 2000 graduation, Aceituno was honored as valedictorian of B track at the year-round school.

Anton Clarkson, though less successful off the gridiron, graduated with his Venice High class in June 2001. In February, Oregon State announced it had signed the 6-foot-2, 205-pound quarterback to a "letter of intent" pending completion of college "eligibility requirements" at Venice High.

LAST AUGUST, THE SCHOOL DISTRICT'S INSPECtor general issued a "Fraud Alert," stating that student records at Manual Arts "were altered to show a student had passed specific proficiency tests (which are required for graduation) when he or she had not," that "unauthorized" proficiency tests were administered, that "records were changed to show a student had passed a required class when he or she had not," that "records were changed to reflect higher class standing and grade-point average," that "large numbers of ineligible students were allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies" and that "many ineligible students received diplomas and district records show them as having graduated."

The school district won't release its report, but county prosecutors reviewed it. In a response to the school district, prosecutors concluded, "A credible case has been made that officials at Manual Arts High School altered Student Cumulative Records beginning in the 1998-99 school year and continuing into the 2000-01 school year." Moreover, school officials covered up their efforts to graduate ineligible students by forging the initials of "those persons whose responsibility it was to maintain the integrity of the files," in the words of Deputy District Attorney Scott Goodwin. The prosecutor also wrote, "Several school administrators were involved in raising, and sometimes lowering, student grades without the knowledge or consent of the appropriate teachers."

Greer's response was, "Rarely do principals have much cause or opportunity to touch cumulative records of students, and I cannot think of one who would [choose to] lose his credential by tampering with them. Principals cannot give illegally authorized competency tests, which are maintained in central administrative offices and have to first be secured."

To this day, L.A. Unified officials won't say why they removed Greer and Anton, and the lack of public accountability is troubling. The reputations of Greer and Anton have been impugned and their careers damaged without a case against them or a report of findings ever being openly presented. Conversely, if they are guilty of serious wrongdoing, they should have been fired, not demoted. Either way, the school district is sending a questionable message to its administrators and the public.

"I stand by my record," said Greer, who has begun his new job as principal with the Baldwin Park Unified School District in the San Gabriel Valley. "My journey in reaching my achievements was long and arduous and everywhere I've been, we've made a positive difference for students."

WEEKLY WEB EXCLUSIVE: Read Greer's entire statement.

L.A. Unified has rescinded no diplomas and notified no colleges about the graduation problems -- on the grounds that students should not now be penalized for the transgressions of adults. Nor have any games been forfeited because of academically ineligible players. (Officials say that Anton Clarkson never became ineligible to play football.) The district claims that employees other than Greer and Anton have been disciplined, but it won't say who, or for what, or whether any employees lost their jobs. It doesn't appear as though anyone did. The district also says it has new policies that will prevent unqualified students from graduating in the future.

District spokeswoman Stephanie Brady proffered two reasons for not releasing the investigation. She suggested that the entire affair was a "personnel matter" for which no public disclosure was possible. The school district has released other investigations, however, and even named names, as it did with its probe into the Belmont Learning Complex. Brady added that Inspector General Don Mullinax has broad discretion over releasing investigation results and that he has decided not to do so.

In sum, the school district contends it has no obligation for public disclosure regarding a scandal in which its own investigators concluded that, over a period of three years, "Large numbers of ineligible students were allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies," and "Many ineligible students received diplomas and district records show them as having graduated." If this isn't a matter demanding a public accounting, it's difficult to imagine what would be.

 

It's anyone's guess whether pure arrogance or fear of liability is the greater motivating factor. But if this episode represents L.A. Unified's standard of public accountability, then don't put much faith in school-board claims of reform.

One school staffer, not speaking for attribution, alleged that hundreds of ineligible grads were let through. In last year's Weekly article, another teacher, Curt Ullman, said a staffer showed him about 30 doctored student files. School-attendance summaries, which list the number of graduates, contain an intriguing correction for last year. The number of Manual Arts graduates was reduced from 513 to 434. (Current Manual Arts principal Ed Robillard said it's not unusual for these numbers to be adjusted.) At one point, district spokeswoman Brady estimated that about 20 ineligible students had graduated and that 14 students had grades improperly altered. She later backed away from these numbers and declined to offer others.

"Why not inform us?" asked senior Omar Hernandez, who thought highly of both Greer and Anton. "They need to inform us what's going on around the school. I want to know."


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