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Manual Dexterity

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.

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.

Another staff member, C-track English-department chair Curt Ullman, was willing to go on the record with what he saw. Specifically, he said that a staff member showed him files documenting the claim that unqualified students were graduating. Ullman said he inspected files of about 30 students. Each lacked the proper verification that the student had passed required proficiency tests covering such skills as math and writing. Such records, explained Ullman, receive a sticker with a unique serial number each time independent, outside graders give a passing grade to a student on a proficiency test. But these student records had initials instead of official stickers. Ullman could not say whether the irregularities were widespread.

Ullman, a former teachers-union rep, acknowledges having had run-ins with the principal, but he asserts that the probe is warranted.

A former Manual Arts assistant principal attributes such discrepancies to a simple mistake in the paperwork. “I can tell you that no kid graduated without meeting requirements,” said Deborah Wiltz, now an administrator at Northridge Middle School.

The allegations against former assistant principal Anton also involve transcript tampering, but the alleged alteration was a family affair, involving one of her sons. Two teachers said they gave the son low marks, only to discover later that his grade had been raised in official records.

At the time, apparently during the 1997-98 school year, there was some question about whether the grades of Anton‘s son would make him ineligible to play football. Head football coach Glenn Bell would not discuss the specifics, saying only that Anton was “like most parents” in wanting her son to do well.

District officials acknowledged this week that there were some irregularities at Manual Arts involving grades, but they declined to specify which administrators or students were involved. Anton would have had access to her son’s records, said a district spokeswoman, but so too would a handful of other staff members.

Anton denies that she ever altered her son‘s grades or anyone else’s. Anton also took issue with the notion that she‘d been demoted. She insisted that she voluntarily accepted a teaching job in East L.A. after it became clear that Greer was leaving Manual Arts.

Anton attributes the school’s problems to disgruntled teachers. “Mr. Greer was involved in some disciplinary action against teachers, and they were very vindictive.” In essence, she said, Greer was suffering for his virtues. “When I went to Manual Arts, I was absolutely thrilled at his attitude. I was impressed by his high energy level and his commitment to students, his expectations. He was personally involved with all of the students. He was easily accessible to all the students, and the parents.”

As for the teachers, “He was asking for them to teach. He was asking for accountability. He said, ‘I want to see lesson plans. I want to walk into a classroom and see exciting things.’”

Some teachers supported the former principal. “My impression was that Greer did a great job,” said health teacher Peter Senick. “There were computers all over the place. Buildings were being repainted; grass was being put in. This school was cleaner than any other school I‘ve been in. I used to work at schools where kids were throwing food around. This school seemed to be very well-organized.”

Critics offer a starkly different take, saying that the surface calm masked a troubled campus where everyone was not treated according to established district procedures.

Male athletes, in particular, could count on special privileges. For one thing, a staff member allegedly changed birth dates in student records so athletes would have additional years of eligibility to play sports -- this according to a Manual Arts employee with access to student transcripts. Another staff member, a coach, told reporters that his male athletes were allowed to earn “extra credit” to qualify for playing sports when their low grades would otherwise have made them ineligible.

Those associated with the girls’ sports program, on the other hand, were not as fortunate. One women‘s coach told the Weekly that the school would not reimburse him for his team’s tournament expenses. “I ask Greer, ‘How do I get my money back?’” said one coach. “‘Go park some cars,’ he says.” The coach explained that the school routinely raised money by opening its lots for events at nearby Exposition Park and charging parking fees.

“Apparently, for years Manual Arts has parked cars for events taking place at the Coliseum,” confirmed district spokeswoman Stephanie Brady. “The money should then be reported into school accounts and put to school use. A lot of the money goes to supporting the athletic programs.” Brady could not comment on whether improprieties were found, she said, because of personnel rules and because the investigation is ongoing. Investigators have been trying to determine whether school accounts actually got all of the money.

According to the coach, who requested anonymity, “You get 10 bucks a car. I parked 27 cars. I never did it again, because I thought it was unfair,” he said, to be reimbursed in this fashion. “It was unfair to me and to the girls‘ program.”

Brady noted that “It would be highly irregular for a coach to be reimbursed for team expenses by being allowed to park cars and keep the proceeds.” She could not, however, confirm the incident.

If athletes received any favored, improper treatment, said Anton, it had nothing to do with her.

Some of the allegations have more to do with mismanagement than intentional wrongdoing. Special-education teachers complain that some of their colleagues were never informed about the presence of learning-disabled students -- with special needs or learning impediments -- in their classes. They also contend that disabled students have been given legally substandard reviews of their individual-education plans. These allegations are familiar in L.A. Unified; they were supposed to have been addressed in the district’s landmark 1996 settlement of litigation filed by advocates for the disabled.

Longtime educators know full well that the name Manual Arts could be replaced in this account with those of other urban high schools, especially those that serve high-poverty, minority communities, where it‘s difficult to attract and retain qualified teachers and administrators. At these same schools, officials also have trouble removing incompetent or corrupt personnel because of well-established patronage systems. Allegations like those at Manual Arts permeated Compton Unified for years before the state finally took over that school system. But there was never much difference between the schools in Compton and L.A. Unified’s most struggling inner-city campuses, where reforms have had little visible effect on test scores and dropout rates.

If Greer and Anton suffered for their efforts to shake up and improve a school, then it bodes poorly for district reform efforts. Anton‘s version of events strongly echoes that of George McKenna, the recently departed senior district administrator who claims the teachers union helped force him out because he too was rocking the boat -- by demanding that the interests of children be served before those of the adults.

On the other hand, if some of the more serious allegations are true, then Anton and Greer are getting off lightly. Changing grades and manipulating graduation rates are fireable offenses by any reckoning. It would be hard to take school-reform rhetoric seriously if administrators could commit such offenses and be allowed to keep jobs in the school system. That sounds a lot like the bad old L.A. Unified.

When it comes to the current crop of principals, Superintendent Romer has little personal prestige at stake. For the most part, he’s still working with a cadre of educators that he inherited. So the outcome of the Manual Arts probe won‘t touch him -- as long as the investigation is sound, fair, and reaches for the truth, wherever that leads.

Then comes the real job -- educating the kids.

“We know we’re not sending our students to college,” said English teacher Ullman. “We‘ve seen all kinds of reforms, yet we never change. It’s all surface.”

Despair and hopelessness were visibly evident in one of Ullman‘s Manual Arts colleagues, who said simply, “I hate my job.”


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