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Summertime, And The Grading Is Easy

USC disallows A's and Bs received by athletes and others who took an intermediate Spanish class at Trade Tech last June and July

February 02, 2007|Lance Pugmire and Gary Klein | Times Staff Writers

The stampede of student athletes up Figueroa Street from USC to Los Angeles Trade Tech College nearly two miles away drew curious attention during summer school registration at the downtown community college last June.

Among those signing up were three 300-pound Trojans linemen, including one with academic troubles at the university. There was also the beefy linebacker son of television's "Incredible Hulk" and a succession of strapping athletes, among them millionaire ex-USC receiver Keary Colbert of the Carolina Panthers.

They all wanted the same class -- a shortcut around the tough advanced foreign language courses required at USC.

Joining them was a USC song girl famous on the Internet in a photo of her appearing to cheer for the wrong side in the 2006 Rose Bowl -- along with members of the USC women's basketball, volleyball and water polo teams. And others from men's basketball, baseball and track.

Despite the time-honored tradition of athletes seeking easy classes, this one was puzzling. It wasn't basket weaving, the history of rock and roll or even ballroom dancing -- the choice of USC Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart a few months earlier.

Surprisingly to some, it was a hard-core academic class: Intermediate Spanish 3.

The unexpected turnout of 20 USC athletes for the Trade Tech class -- a dozen of them football players -- would lead eventually to hard feelings and academic squabbles at both schools.

Trade Tech administrators were especially surprised at the outset. Plans to offer the Spanish 3 course had been so tentative that no classroom had been set aside for it.

"Are you Senora Ross?" asked one athlete after another at the doors of other summer school classes.

"They knew who they were looking for," recalled one language teacher, asking not to be identified to avoid internal conflict. But months later faculty members still fume over what one calls "an image that if anyone at USC wanted an easy grade, they should take" Senora Ross' class.

In June, the athletes were looking for Senora Rose Mary Ross, 73, a grandmother and Spanish instructor with an engaging teaching style and a generous grading philosophy -- suddenly so popular that she had to take on two classes at once.

Ross normally taught only Spanish 2 during the summer but agreed to teach the Spanish 3 group in the same crowded classroom. Like many other community college courses, her five-unit classes qualified for transfer to USC and cost a fraction of the university tuition -- $141 at Trade Tech compared to about $5,500 two miles south.

And there was plenty of additional motivation.

"Those USC kids told me, 'If I took this class at USC, I'd get a D.' All of them said that," Ross said. But she is not apologetic.

"I've never given an easy grade in my life," she told The Times in a recent interview. "You come to my class and work, and I see you want to learn, I'll give you an A. I see some lazy ass, coming late all the time, acting like he doesn't care, I won't give him an A. I'll give him a B."

She said a primary goal was to make school a positive experience for students in an urban neighborhood where financial pressures and job stress are common.

A Times review of the 25-student Spanish 3 class list shows that Ross, a USC graduate from the 1950s, issued a B to five summer school students. All others got an A.

It was that grade distribution that finally set off alarm bells up and down Figueroa. Investigations and internal audits at both colleges ensued.

For USC, just coming off probation after its athletic program was hit with sanctions over academic fraud charges five years earlier, response was unequivocal. Officials notified students late last year that transfers of Trade Tech Spanish 3 credits to the university were rescinded and disallowed.

For Trade Tech, there is lingering embarrassment and concern among staff that the incident will harm the school's reputation.

"We need to do better," conceded Marcy Drummond, Trade Tech's vice president of academic affairs.

But for the athletes, there is profound disappointment and some resentment.

Trojans song girl and Spanish 3 classmate Natalie Nelson defended the class and complained that USC's national prominence -- "being at the top" -- makes its athletes easy targets for criticism.

"I totally think that's why [USC] did what it did," the song girl co-captain said.

"Obviously, someone assumed something was wrong with all those players getting good grades and ... others jumping on the bandwagon," Nelson said. "But I saw those athletes do the work."

It was football players Kyle Williams (6 feet 6, 300 pounds) and Dallas Sartz (6-5, 240) who led the blocking for creation of the Intermediate Spanish 3 class. Insufficient enrollment meant it was not going to be offered. Trade Tech officials said a minimum of 15 students would be required.

Williams and Sartz, A students in Ross' Spanish 2 class the previous summer, rallied teammates and friends to join them in signing up for the more advanced version.

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