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At Manual Arts High, same goals but different methods

Longtime teacher bristles at the 'failing school' label and dreads a pending restructure of his program. But he and his new bosses seem to share a vision: Preparing students to succeed in college and in life.

May 17, 2011|Sandy Banks
  • Sabas Garcia, 16, fine-tunes his team's robot at Manual Arts High's Imaging, Science & Technology Academy. The academy has been a bright spot in an otherwise struggling school, raising students' GPAs and logging a high college-success rate.
Sabas Garcia, 16, fine-tunes his team's robot at Manual Arts High's… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)

John Santos bristles when outsiders buy into the broad-brush image of Manual Arts High as a failing school.

"Why don't you take the time to get the entire story?" Santos challenged me in an email response to my column last Saturday detailing challenges at the school in a working-class neighborhood a stone's throw from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The campus numbers don't look good: Only half of ninth-graders make it to graduation, and 60% of students test "below basic" on skills.

But in his collection of classrooms in a corner of the campus, Santos sees ordinary kids blossom in extraordinary ways. And the rising tide of school reform, aimed at lifting every boat, feels to him like a menacing storm.

For 14 years, Santos, a graphic design instructor, has run the school's Imaging, Science & Technology Academy (ISTA), sending would-be gangbangers off to college and turning hardworking teens into prize-winning scholars.

ISTA students were once the brunt of jokes at regional technology competitions. Now they are a source of campus pride, turning the inner-city school from a laughingstock to the one to beat at statewide engineering exams and robotics contests. I heard from several former students this weekend, touting the impact the program made on their lives.

But Manual Arts is getting a makeover this year, moving from a year-round to a traditional calendar, revamping classes and collapsing its nine small learning communities into three specialized academies.

ISTA will be a casualty — collateral damage, Santos calls it — of a by-the-numbers approach to reform that "looks at students as nothing but data."

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It's the question at the heart of reform debates right now, from teacher evaluations to program overhauls or closures: Do you rely on the data generated by student tests or the light that goes on in a student's eyes?

Mike McGalliard takes the spreadsheet approach. As head of L.A.'s Promise, the nonprofit group that now runs Manual Arts, he needs to keep the big picture in focus.

"ISTA is a good program that's done great things over the years for a lot of individual kids," he said. "But if you look at the data, they're not performing any better than the rest of the school. … It's a marginal success inside a failing school."

His team relied on data — attendance, academic proficiency, progress toward graduation — to decide which programs to keep. ISTA, which serves about 350 students, will become part of a larger, more successful academy, the School of Medical Sciences, Arts and Technology.

It's not a knock on ISTA, he said. "The program isn't going away. We're trying to scale up the things they do that work — teacher collaboration, giving students access to industry and professionals, incorporating hands-on learning in the classroom — and translate that to the rest of the campus."

But the program stands to lose many of its teachers, who probably will be reassigned and replaced by teachers with more seniority, all part of the inevitable reshuffling once the district begins laying off teachers.

"I want to work to preserve the program," McGalliard said. "But I'm not sure how you protect those teachers in those jobs when the district is going through budget cuts."

This only frustrates Santos. The teachers are the program, he said. Their enthusiasm and commitment help him get grants, recruit volunteers and keep the students busy with field trips and projects on nights and weekends.

Outsiders who work with the program agree. "You can bring in a whole new crew, but you can't replicate what they do," said Navy Lt. Cdr. Sam Delgado, who helps mentor some of ISTA's students. "I see all the energy and the unpaid hours they put into these kids. … This is a hidden inner-city gem and it would be a tragedy to lose it."

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Programs that focus on math and science tend to draw the overachievers. That's not what I saw in Santos' classroom. There were plenty of budding doctors, lawyers and engineers, but other students' career aspirations included musician, cosmetologist and professional soccer player.

That's by design, Santos told me. Because his program gets special state funding, classes are required to recruit high-risk, low-achieving students. The average incoming 10th-grader in ISTA has a 1.5 grade-point average, he said. By graduation, the GPA is 3.0. That's a jump from a D to a B.

"As a teacher, I have a choice. I can train them to take a test, or I can teach them to be problem-solvers. Our goal is to get them to use their imagination, to apply what they learned, and not to be afraid to make mistakes."

After every project, students write reports "about what they learned, what they did right and wrong, what they'd do differently the next time. ... We tell them, 'In the educated world, people don't care what you look like, they just care what you know.' "

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