|Students at the oldest high school in Los Angeles say they have simple needs. They wonder: Is anyone listening?|
The people who work and learn inside the faded, peach-colored walls of Manual Arts High School want everyone to know they’re trying. They’ve got some good things going. They also know what blocks them from having a terrific school, and like so many schools in this troubled district, they need tremendous help to make the leap.
Los Angeles has a new superintendent of schools: Roy Romer, the three-term governor of Colorado and former general chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The students and staff at Manual Arts need his help.
But leaders like Romer seem largely irrelevant inside the high, padlocked gates of this school on Vermont Avenue, within sight of the old Olympic grounds and coliseum, in the infamous, loosely defined, now largely Latino neighborhood known as South-Central.
The issues that dominate the local headlines seem remote here: constant turnover at the top of the district, the split of the sprawling system into 11 zones, and battles over building new schools.
Instead, the students and teachers simply want a building that looks nice, feels nice, that’s not past due for a fresh coat of paint, not streaked with a graffiti message in a hallway that tells the world where to stick it.
Students want a place where all teachers—not just some or even most of them, but all teachers—are eager to see them, teach them, listen to them, help, befriend, care for them enough to change the way they teach so that students really get it.
They want to have their classes and records in order, not wait for days to see a counselor, or sit in the auditorium without proper classes, or be forced to repeat classes they don’t need.
They want a school that isn’t so crowded that it’s on a year-round schedule because all the 3,700 students could never fit inside at the same time. Even with a third of the students on “summer” break each semester, the school is still jammed. Just try walking across the blacktop during lunch break.
Many students need help learning to read better, and, in even more cases, to speak English better. They want more books. Almost every student says the school needs more books. Enough so that everyone can take a textbook home to study. They also want books distributed immediately—not weeks after classes begin.
They want a safe neighborhood with terrific schools, not a place where people have been shot and killed outside the school doors.
They want the same opportunities as anyone: a safe, lovely neighborhood with terrific schools, not a place where the riots of 1992 were centered, where people have been shot and killed outside the front doors of the school.
Luckily, Manual Arts doesn’t have to start from scratch. Many students want to work, want to learn. The neighborhood is safer than it once was. Manual Arts will see some renovations soon. More computers and books are on their way. Career academies now offer some students the comfort of smaller schools and meaningful training for careers or college. Some teachers and counselors work very hard. And there’s a friendly, intelligent principal, a man named Wendell Greer, who says he’s trying to make positive changes, step by step.
There are many, many steps to be taken for the students of Manual Arts. They believe they deserve better—from their new superintendent, their city, their school board, their principal and teachers, from everyone.
If Manual Arts High School were a man, it would walk with a cane, its bones would ache, and its face would be splotched with age. The oldest school building on its original campus in the 723,000-student district, it was built after the Long Beach earthquake in 1933.
Chewing gum creates a mosaic of hardened candy on some corners of the building. The salmon-toned walls outside the school are stained black in many places.
“The whole campus is dirty,” says Wendy Temblador, a senior.
A giant courtyard where thousands of students brush against each other during lunch recalls a prison yard: Metal screens separate tennis courts from a picnic shelter. A smaller courtyard offers a shade tree, beside a two-story classroom highlighted by purple doors, its balcony covered by a chain-link fence. It resembles an old motel.
‘This is an inadequate school facility—and it wouldn’t be tolerated in a middle-class, white community.’
“After a while, we don’t see it anymore,” says Josephine Zarro, an English and journalism teacher, as she walks along the blacktop, pointing out an empty orange Cheetos bag and other trash blown against a fence. She’s entering her 21st year teaching here, and she defends the custodial staff, saying the place is just run-down.
Inside a computer lab where the walls are various shades of yellow, bars cover the windows and pipes snake along the walls. Where desks are fastened to the scuffed tile floor, black grime surrounds each leg.
“These tables are about 40 years old. This room needs to be revamped totally,” says computer teacher G.L. Pettis. “They come into these rooms, they look like trash.”
Joshua Pechtalt teaches history in another classroom, where two men enter to examine a ventilation problem.
“The air conditioning smells like urine. I think it’s mold in the system. It’s about to make me sick,” the teacher says. “This is an inadequate school facility for young people—and it wouldn’t be tolerated in a middle- class, white community.”
Greer steers this ship known as Manual Arts. He’s in his sixth year as principal. He’s enthusiastic and easygoing, he’s working on his doctorate, and he attended elementary school a mile away.
He’s hopeful but realistic about the future of this school. Work on the building takes time, he says. Wiring for a new computer network must be finished before extensive painting begins. Renovations to individual classrooms can come only a few at a time because resources are limited.
“We’re trying to build the capacity” of the school to get better, Greer says. “It’s changing a culture. We’re turning the Titanic.”
Graduation rates are climbing. The evidence is found in photographs on a wall in Greer’s office. In each picture, the number of kids dressed in caps and gowns expands. Five years ago, there were 175. By last year, the number had grown to 472, and next spring, Greer wants 600 students to walk across the stage at the Shrine Auditorium, where the stars pick up their Oscars. Eight of 10 students at Manual Arts are Latino; the remainder are African-American.
In the coming years, Greer wants to expand the career academies at Manual Arts to include all students, training them in fields they like. Literacy is one of his big pushes; the school has started reading classes and other programs to encourage teenagers to dive into books. The school seeks grants to provide extra computers, books, and services. The Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles opened a medical clinic on site, beside the cafeteria.
But Greer and other Los Angeles principals will be judged in the future by other measures. What matters most, for better or worse, is higher test scores, as Superintendent Romer has made clear, and Manual Arts has Mount Everest to climb.
Most of Greer’s students have not proved on standardized tests that they can read, write, and compute at basic levels. This year’s average combined SAT score was 720, out of a possible 1600. Only one in six Manual Arts students scored above the national average in reading on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition given this past spring.
Students here praise some of their teachers as concerned, dedicated people who stay after school to help them. But just as often, they say, teachers lack the skill to help students soak up their subjects. Worse, reports are common of teachers being outright lazy, incompetent, or mean.
“How can they give you a bad grade if they’re not teaching you?” says junior George Lockwood
‘These tables are 40 years old. This room needs to be revamped totally. They come into these rooms, they look like trash.’
Shaniqua Clark, a junior, says a teacher told her class, “If you don’t want to learn, I’m getting paid anyway.” A faculty member verified her story.
“Our standards here are set low,” says Burnshell Brown, a senior. “They have low expectations of us. They don’t expect us to do well. We need more teachers who care about us.”
The most common complaint, by dozens of students and employees: “Where are the books?” says senior Talitha Heath. She’s often not allowed to take textbooks home to study, and like many students here, is forced to share, even in class.
Teaching at Manual Arts isn’t easy, with the shortage of materials, distracted students, and their struggles to read and speak English. All this for less pay than the suburban schools offer.
“It’s very difficult to maintain your enthusiasm,” admits Pechtalt, the history teacher with the smelly room. The reasons for a teacher shortage in Los Angeles, he says, are simple: “Working conditions and pay.”
Teachers could benefit from common planning time that allows them to work together on students’ problems, and to develop lessons and courses, says Pechtalt, a teachers’ union activist who publishes a newsletter. Although he and many other teachers at Manual Arts have been in the profession for years, he says he’d welcome a truly qualified person to talk with him about instruction and ways to better communicate his topics.
“That doesn’t happen very much. The administrators bop into your class once or twice. They’re not going to worry about teachers who are doing a decent job,” he says. “I think people are genuinely interested in doing better. You have to create a new environment in which you can do that.”
Zarro, the English teacher who was critical of the building conditions, leans over a table the day Advanced Placement exam scores arrive at Manual Arts. She scans the scores for anyone in her class who passed.
She finds none.
Frustrated, she says her granddaughter receives a different kind of education in suburban schools outside Los Angeles. “My granddaughter was preparing for the AP exam in the 1st grade,” she says.
Leonard Collins is a senior at Manual Arts, but he should be out of here. He claims that errors in his class schedule forced him to repeat two classes he had already passed.
“I was supposed to graduate this year,” he says, echoing the complaints of Manual Arts students who say their schedules are often wrong. The year-round calendar prohibits some students from taking classes they need, if they are offered during the student’s break. And it can take days for anyone to correct the errors—if at all.
“It’s stacked-up waiting. You have to wait three days for someone to call you, there’s so many kids,” Collins says
‘Our standards here are set low. They have low expectations of us. We need more teachers who care about us.’
Senior Liliana Martinez has had the same problem. “They’ll send you to the auditorium for like days and days” before schedules can be worked out, she says.
Complaints like those could easily be dismissed as teenage exaggerations—except counselors confirm the problems are real.
“Honestly, I think it’s the individual and how they approach the job, whether it’s a counselor or a teacher. I actually enjoy my job. Some of us want to be here and do this. Some of them really don’t,” says Joni Boykins, the testing coordinator and one of 10 counselors.
Students must take some responsibility for the mistakes if they don’t request help, says Boykins, whom several students call their favorite counselor. She realizes it’s a tall order for students to seek help if they have trouble with English or don’t know how to navigate the system.
Miranda Ráoof is the counselor for 336 students, many of whom attend the college-preparatory magnet program at Manual Arts. A pleasant woman with short-cropped hair and a beaded cross around her neck, she grew up near here. She’s the mother of four, including one daughter who enrolled at Yale University this fall.
And she says many students outside Manual Arts’ academies go without the guidance they need.
“I love the fact we serve a small group of people, and those people are successful,” she says. Then her tone sinks. “It needs to spill over to the rest of the school.”
Students say the same thing. “I know a lot of people in the regular program or regular school who don’t have anyone to turn to,” says Tiffany Brown, who had Ráoof as a counselor and graduated from Manual Arts’ finance academy last spring.
Just because students struggle with English or live in this neighborhood, Ms. Ráoof says, “does that mean they don’t get an education? You have to teach them. Teach them to write,” she continues passionately, leaning closer. “OK, so your home is dysfunctional. Does your school have to be dysfunctional?”
I was furious. I hated this school. I hated the fact that I was in this neighborhood,” recalls teacher Gloria Hernandez, sitting in a storage room so narrow that she’s placed her desk catty-corner. Her window is open, and the warm Southern California breeze enters the makeshift office.
When she walked these halls as a student, she and other Latino students were a minority. “I was also furious because I thought I was not being taught. I thought I was being cheated. I was really angry and upset with teachers.”
One teacher scans over Advanced Placement scores for anyone in her class who passed. She finds none.
More students now struggle with the problems Hernandez endured. She arrived from El Salvador at age 9, and felt like an outsider as a member of only the second Latino family on her block in a violent neighborhood. She spoke mostly Spanish until 1988, the year she graduated from Manual Arts.
Crazy, some would call her, for returning here to teach. But she had a revelation and says she was wrong about Manual Arts. She enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles, and found herself well-prepared for the work and able to communicate enough to make lots of friends. She succeeded, and returned to help others do the same. Now she’s the co-chair of the social studies department.
Today, Manual Arts’ students journey from Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Belize, among other places.
“Some kids have agricultural knowledge. Some have worked in factories, in sweatshops. Some are getting to know their parents again because they were left behind when they were little,” Hernandez says. “A lot of them have had interruptions in their education.”
Before they can show progress on tests, students need tremendous help, Hernandez says. “Every single teacher should engage every single student every day in writing,” she says, adding that such dedication doesn’t come easy. “I need books. I don’t need to be wondering where my books are. Nothing’s taken care of in this school unless you push for it.”
The school’s reading problem unfolds every day, during the midmorning homeroom period, when students are required to sit quietly with books. One boy who looks about 15 years old makes his way through a book for children half his age, with two lines written on each page:
“Slower than a snail?”
“No way,” I wailed.
“There are a lot of my friends that can’t read,” says Jasir Ayuso, a senior who works construction jobs part time and plays guitar in a rock band. “I’m not reading on the level I’m supposed to read.”
At the rear of the campus, in a long, single-story building marked by a wall of unused, twisted metal lockers, is a haven for students who seem to have found their calling: Inner- City Graphic Communications Academy.
Jesus Rojas is here most any day, even when he has no classes, even late at night. The eager, conversational senior might be repairing a piece of machinery, or finishing a job for a teacher. He might just be hanging out. He actually hangs out at school.
“It kind of says a lot about our social life,” jokes Rojas, who smiles a lot. Born to Mexican parents, the eldest of six siblings, he recently quit a part-time job to spend more time at school. “I just like to print. It just feels right.”
When Rojas is there, so is his mentor: John P. Santos.
‘OK, so your home is dysfunctional. Does that mean your school has to be dysfunctional too?’
A third-year teacher at Manual Arts, Santos founded the graphic arts academy, which has nine teachers. His students tell a story that’s different from those outside the career academies: They say their teachers work well together, care about them, know who they are, know where they’re headed.
The program allows students to attend graphic arts classes at a local college. “I try to make them competitive,” Santos says.
The academy won the Keenan Award, usually presented nationally each year to the most improved graphic communications program in a community college. This year, Manual Arts won the award.
Rojas says the academy would be even better if students had more modern equipment. At least they have a teacher on their side who can point students in the right direction—and knows exactly how to get them there.
“We didn’t discover him,” senior Jorge Morales says. “He’s the one who discovered us.”
Principal Greer says Manual Arts High School is addressing many of its problems. It offers a wider range of classes than ever before. Greer orders as many books as teachers request, he says: $600,000 worth in the past three years. Despite his efforts, teachers blame Los Angeles’ administrative layers for the shortages they endure.
The principal has added guidance counselors, sought grants to support the career academies, and bought hundreds of new computers. He promises that the building will be repainted within a year, and that other repairs will be made, slowly but surely. He doesn’t like the bars on the windows or chained- shut gates, but says he must be certain the school is a safe place where the problems of the streets don’t invade.
Those things, he can do something about. Others are beyond his reach.
For better or worse, Manual Arts has Mount Everest to climb.
Greer’s job requires him to manage a school larger than many colleges, under constraints imposed by labor contracts that limit what principals can ask of employees. The year-round schedule seems impossible to manage. And Manual Arts needs newer science labs, but more pressing repairs must come first.
Then, there is the challenge of helping teachers do their jobs better, overcoming language and cultural barriers, finagling help from bureaucracies where politics is king.
Greer is frank about the challenge of school leadership these days. A master teacher he isn’t. “Can I be the instructional leader? Hell, no. Let’s be for real,” he says. But he strives to give teachers “an environment where they want to teach,” where “there’s some instruction going on.”
People here see hope for Manual Arts. Teachers and students speak of the potential they see in the school, and in themselves.
“I know we’ve got a long way to go,” Greer says, “but look at how far we’ve come.”
“You see, we don’t have nothing,” says Zarro, the English teacher. “We have something. They’re bright- eyed. They’re nice kids.”
Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.