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Turmoil in West Adams Prep's sports program raises questions

The early promise shown after the school opened in 2007 has been replaced by a revolving door of coaches and lower participation levels.

November 13, 2012|Eric Sondheimer
  • Los Angeles West Adams Prep opened in 2007 with some of the best athletic facilities in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Los Angeles West Adams Prep opened in 2007 with some of the best athletic… ( Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles…)

Built at a cost of $176 million, Los Angeles West Adams Prep opened in 2007 with some of the best athletic facilities in the Los Angeles Unified School District. There is an all-weather football field, an all-weather track, a weight room, fitness center, swimming pool, two gymnasiums and lighted baseball and softball diamonds.

By the 2010-11 sports season, the football, basketball, baseball, girls' volleyball, soccer and water polo teams all made the City Section playoffs.

"We had a lot of young, motivated, hard-working coaches," said Rick Mathiesen, who was the athletic director and softball coach.

Last fall, the football team came up with a historic first victory over City Section power Crenshaw and finished second in the powerful Coliseum League.

Behind the scenes, though, there was an unexplained revolving door of coaches. A new principal, Jose Iniguez, took over in 2010, joined by a new assistant principal in charge of athletics, Eddie Cuevas, and they were putting their stamp on the sports program.

Mathiesen was sent packing in 2011. The football coach, Russell Shaw, was let go after last season. Last week, the baseball coach, Alexis Lopez, was fired, meaning there will be a fifth baseball coach in five years this spring.

"There was a real negative climate that developed," said Jose Casagran, the football coach at South Gate who spent more a year running an academic program at West Adams. "Everyone was distrusted, looking over their shoulder."

And with the changes came a steep drop in athletic success. This season, the football team finished 0-9 and had to forfeit its final two games for safety concerns because of a lack of players.

There have been three athletic directors since 2011. Sixth period is no longer used for athletics, forcing coaches to practice well into the evening .

"I wish I had an explanation," said Mathiesen, now the football coach at Lawndale High. "Everyone is just as puzzled why there has been a dismantling of an athletic program that was skyrocketing."

Iniguez did not return messages left by The Times. Cuevas said he had no comment about all the coaching changes.

West Adams has been run since its inception by LA's Promise, a nonprofit whose mission statement revolves around "transforming chronically failing public schools."

Mike McGalliard, the founder and former president of LA's Promise, said Iniguez was hired two years ago to get the school out of "program-improvement status" and make it a California Distinguished School.

"I think he's a very strong leader," McGalliard said.

West Adams was recently given a six-year accreditation by the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, which campus supporters point to as a major accomplishment.

Iniguez has focused on academic improvement, which is the job of a principal. Still, others in education believe extracurricular activities such as sports can be a vital part of the high school experience.

In June, the City Section athletics office released a survey conducted by LAUSD that the approximately 35,000 students on athletic teams attended school 21 more days than non-athletes and received between .55 and .74 higher grade-point averages than non-athletes.

Last week, the LA84 Foundation held a youth sports summit in which researchers presented evidence that sports involvement "can shape individual academic development."

Robert Canosa-Carr, a former West Adams assistant principal who was a finalist for the principal's job before leaving to become principal at Westchester in 2010, said, "There was a general belief athletics was an important part of school culture."

There were signs of the pending collapse of the football program last school year, including alleged problems with student eligibility. The school waited until late May to hire a replacement for Shaw. Ten players transferred to Compton Centennial, where Shaw ended up being hired as coach.

Now baseball parents are in a panic mode, stunned by the news that Lopez won't be back.

"It's the principal who doesn't want sports," said Ruth Herrera, the mother of a sophomore baseball player. "I feel there's no support."

LA's Promise issued a statement from Veronica Melvin, its president and chief executive, saying it "values and supports school athletics as an integral part of the holistic learning environment."

But the constant changes in coaching ranks have parents perplexed.

"Every year it's getting worse and worse, and next year I have another kid going into high school and he wants to go to Fairfax," Herrera said.

Napoleon Banks, the first-year football coach who ended the season with only 18 eligible and healthy players among an enrollment of more than 2,600 students, said he is waiting to hear if he'll be invited back.

"The principal will [say] good things and the assistant principal will say things contradictory," Banks said.

Uncertainty seems to be a way of life if you're a coach at West Adams Prep.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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