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At Washington Prep, Lots of Toil to Offset Trouble

With complaints of chaos triggering action, the many success stories also can't be denied.

November 22, 2002|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

A mid-level Los Angeles Unified official named William Elkins earlier this week stood in the doorway of Washington Preparatory High School and temporarily barred reporters. The campus is not safe enough for visitors to look around, he explained in one breath. In the next, came a boast: Washington has academic and extracurricular successes that are too often ignored.

That is the strange dichotomy that faces Washington -- and other urban high schools where safety and order sometimes collapse. At this campus of three-story brick buildings and green lawns near Century Boulevard and Western Avenue, the wonderful and the terrible coexist, albeit uncomfortably.

Even as teachers and students publicly aired complaints this week about fights, robberies, open student sex and drug use, they expressed fear that the perception of Washington would become worse than reality. And as district Supt. Roy Romer visited the campus Thursday and pledged to buck up Washington's security immediately, he boasted about its test scores, which have risen slightly from among the worst in the state.

Its motto displayed in the main foyer ("Worthy Deeds Harmoniously Achieved"), Washington is a place where a student can lose a cell phone to pickpockets and also take two years of calculus.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 23, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 12 inches; 439 words Type of Material: Correction
Washington High -- In Friday's Orange County edition, a photo caption in the California section gave the wrong names for some student government leaders at Washington Preparatory High School. In the photo with the incorrect caption, the student on the left had been cropped out but was still named in the caption. In the photo shown above, the correct identifications are, from left, Sheena Fairman, Brandi Welch and Brandon Rainey. The woman in the background is unidentified.

Brandi Welch, the student body vice president, cringes as she walks through a third floor alcove notorious for drugs and sex -- on her way to a college-level psychology class.

"It's really two worlds in there," says Welch of the 3,800-student campus. "The school is so big, it feels like five or six different schools."

When it opened 75 years ago, Washington attracted students to what was then a semi-rural setting with its hard-to-find programs in subjects such as aviation. In 1981, Principal George McKenna, trying to focus students on college, added "preparatory" to the school name and opened magnet schools within the school.

McKenna later became the subject of a Denzel Washington television movie, "The George McKenna Story." His successor, Marguerite P. La Motte, became so influential locally that she is now running for the school board.

The principal for the last two years, James Noble, has suffered by comparison, with teachers saying he does not have a strong enough personality to command a high school of such operatic highs and lows. Noble said security is being improved but declined to answer questions about his role. On Thursday, Romer said he strongly backs Noble.

Washington's test scores put it in the worst 10% of schools in the state's Academic Performance Index, though it made slight gains last year. But nearly one-third of its students are enrolled in one of three academically ambitious magnet schools within Washington.

Those magnets -- music/performing arts, math/science and communications -- send 90% of their students to college.

More than 300 took Advanced Placement exams, or college-level tests, last spring, according to the school's own data.

In the school's renowned jazz band program, only two students in the last 12 years have not gone to college.

"I've had job offers," says Fernando Pullum, the band director and music magnet coordinator. Just a few months ago, a charter school offered him a $20,000 raise and more vacation. "But this is a great school. Why should I have to leave?"

Pullum says troublemakers leave music magnet students alone out of respect for their success.

On Wednesday night, even as teachers declared the school "unsafe" and "out of control," Pullum had the jazz band practicing until 9 p.m.

Since being recruited to Washington in 1984 by McKenna, Pullum has transformed the jazz band from a two-student afterthought into three 18-member ensembles, which are deluged with offers of gigs.

The jazz band has performed with Lionel Hampton, Wynton Marsalis and Jackson Browne, who donated $150,000 to a foundation that supports the arts at Washington High.

While school police tried to identify gang members who weren't supposed to be on campus, well-behaved music magnet students, who were supposed to be on vacation this week, sneaked in for extra practice on their instruments.

In the band room, at least, Pullum can ensure discipline. Students who miss a note must do five push-ups on the spot.

"We're trying to make role models. So when this news about Washington's problems came out this week, it felt like 10 steps backwards," Pullum says. "No one makes the distinction. Kids hear that Washington is dangerous and they'll go somewhere else instead of coming and participating in our program."

Washington's teachers say they decided to go public with their safety concerns this week for similar reasons. The atmosphere, they add, is not so much physically dangerous for them but is very difficult for teaching and learning.

Pat Holligan said the school was so lenient with tardiness that his health classes never started on time. English teacher Eugene Mackey complained that noise from hallway fights was disrupting his teaching of "A Raisin in the Sun."

Romer, after Thursday's visit, said the school could be made safer simply by adding security cameras, hiring 10 security staffers and finishing the iron perimeter fence with $37,000 allocated weeks ago.

"We have work to do," Romer said, adding: "I intend not to let this school drift back into an uncontrolled, undisciplined campus."

Those changes will begin to take shape in early December. On Thursday, however, teenagers from the neighborhood -- some of them not students -- were still sneaking through holes in the fence. One organized a spirited game of craps on an athletic field.

The teachers said their protest letters and angry statements were signs of life at Washington: They felt they had something to protect.

"This school is out of control," said Annette Harrison, an English teacher and leader of the protests. "But it's still a good school."

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