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L.A. Unified to retake considerable control of Manual Arts High

The campus is plagued by overcrowding and started the school year with shortages of desks and textbooks. It has been run since 2008 by a nonprofit that last month ended a year-round schedule.

October 07, 2011|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • Students walk in a hallway at Manual Arts High School, which has been part of a high-profile reform effort led by an independent nonprofit.
Students walk in a hallway at Manual Arts High School, which has been part… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles school district officials will retake substantial control over Manual Arts High, which has been part of a high-profile reform effort led by an independent nonprofit, officials announced Thursday.

The campus has been beset by overcrowding and endured a disorderly start to the school year that saw initial shortages of desks and textbooks and left some students without class schedules.

The move demonstrates a startling new development in the reform landscape of the nation's second-largest school system. The Los Angeles Unified School District, which has received acclaim from some and derision from others for turning over campuses to others to manage, signaled this week that it is also prepared to take them back.

Manual Arts High School, south of USC, is one of three public schools controlled by the locally based L.A.'s Promise, which describes its mission as neighborhood improvement centered on local schools. The group took charge of Manual Arts in July 2008.

Top district officials faced a dilemma in dealing with L.A.'s Promise. They wanted to address the situation at Manual Arts without alienating the backers of the nonprofit group. Officials did not want to derail a recently launched, major fundraising initiative led jointly by L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy and education philanthropist Megan Chernin, longtime head of the L.A.'s Promise Board of Directors.

L.A.'s Promise endorsed a compromise under which the district "will take the lead in the daily organizational, managerial, and educational operations," according to a district statement. The district will also provide additional resources to the group's efforts at the school.

"It is absolutely crucial that all parties come together," Deasy said in the statement.

The assertion of district authority is intended to placate critics of L.A.'s Promise, including school board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, whose district includes the South Los Angeles campus. She has vehemently objected to handing over schools to outside groups.

Frustrated by their relationship with LaMotte, leaders of L.A.'s Promise had backed her unsuccessful challenger in last spring's board election. LaMotte declined to comment.

The nonprofit's once-solid relations with the teachers union reached a new low in recent months, when the group forced many teachers at Manual Arts and Muir Middle School — which L.A.'s Promise just took over — to seek jobs on other campuses. Administrators also put more pressure last year on Manual Arts teachers with stepped-up classroom observations and critiques.

The high school faced major logistical challenges this fall.

It reopened last month on a traditional September-to-June schedule, ending years of a year-round calendar that reduced overcrowding on the 3,200-student campus. But on opening day, scores of students were unable to get through the lunch line; many also waited hours for class schedules and as long as three weeks for textbooks.

Ten teachers have no classrooms of their own; instead they share rooms and switch locations from period to period. A new school is expected to open nearby next year to relieve overcrowding.

"The primary problem is that the classes have ballooned," said history and government teacher Daniel Beebe, one of the instructors without a classroom. "We produced significant improvement last year, but it feels like this improvement is in jeopardy."

The school, despite significant progress, fell short of academic targets needed to retain a lucrative state grant that had provided an extra $1,000 per student.

The funding loss exacerbated the effect of budget cuts that have hurt all L.A. Unified schools.

A teachers union-led demonstration at Manual Arts on Thursday highlighted problems in the district as a whole as well as those at the school. Speakers accused the school system of enacting more budget cuts and layoffs than necessary, which they said imposed unconscionable conditions on students.

Senior Andrea Leyva complained of 50 students in an art class with no supplies and of using a 10th-grade textbook in a 12th-grade Advanced Placement English class.

"My education is at risk," she said. L.A.'s Promise "claim[s] to want to do a community turnaround. They've definitely done that, but not in a positive way."

First-year Principal Robert Whitman said desk and textbook shortages, along with other issues, were quickly resolved.

"As soon as we were aware of a problem we took care of it immediately," he said. "Manual Arts High School is operating fine. The biggest hindrance is the focus on political issues and not student achievement issues — that's my focus."

He also acknowledged, "We could always use more resources."

howard.blume@latimes.com

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