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A Lesson in Giving : Two teachers pitch in with their own money to build a computer lab for their students.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Graphic arts teacher Joe Ferrell was teaching 1990s students with 1940s tools.

He cringed in frustration as student after student left his classroom well-versed in such archaic skills as how to set type by hand, but without the computer skills that could land them jobs in today’s high-tech market.

So when the Redondo Union High School teacher found himself with a windfall last year, he paired up with drafting teacher Steve Lester, who had influence over a wealthy cousin, and the two went computer shopping.

Eighty thousand dollars later, the teachers preside over a well-stocked computer lab with gleaming white workstations that they spent an entire summer building themselves.

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Their gift is an extreme case of a growing phenomenon in California schools--teachers digging into their own pockets because they cannot stand to see their students go without essential learning tools.

Surveys by teachers unions found that classroom educators, on average, spend $500 to $1,000 a year on supplies.

“They are buying everything from pencils and paper to special materials for science projects, computer projects and programs,” said Sandra Jackson, a spokeswoman for the California Teachers Assn.

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Although the magnitude of their donation was uncommonly large, both Ferrell, 49, and Lester, 52, insist that many teachers would spend similar sums if they had the means. But Redondo Union Principal Robert Paulson says the two men sell themselves short.

“Money is not what drives those guys,” Paulson said. “They are both craftsmen, in their mannerisms, their cars, the personal way they keep themselves--everything is neat, sharp. I just think they’re idealistic enough to think that what they do makes a difference.”

But Ferrell, a mustached, impeccably groomed man with a stiff, Marine-like manner, speaks about the donation as “a gift to ourselves really, to keep us halfway up with technology.”

Over the years, Ferrell said, he became increasingly frustrated at the Redondo Beach Unified School District’s inability to update his teaching tools. At conferences for graphic art teachers, he noted that wealthy schools could get parents to donate computers while schools in poorer neighborhoods could qualify for federal grants.

But at his school, which caters to a middle-class, largely white population, there was a gaping hole.

“I was feeling a kind of desperation really that I gotta come back with some thing for my kids,” he said.

Then he came into an inheritance from his aunt, Hazel Mann, who died last year. Mann, a housekeeper with no more than an eighth-grade education, took care of him when he was a child and helped him through college.

After talking it over with his wife, Ferrell decided to pay tribute to his aunt by setting aside $25,000 of his inheritance to buy computers for his students.

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“We’re not wealthy by any means, but we’re not that materialistic,” Ferrell said. “We’ve got what we need. And we thought this would be a nice way to remember her.”

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When Ferrell told Lester of his plan, both men agreed that they would need a lot more money to create a state-of-the-art computer lab that would serve both of their classrooms. So Lester agreed to ask his cousin, Vicki Lester, 55, a stroke victim who once worked as a teacher and who recently had asked him to handle her affairs, for the rest of the money.

She contributed $45,000, then came through with an additional $10,000 to help pay for software and other items.

In an interview at the Torrance retirement community where she lives, Vicki Lester said she made the donation because her cousin “is a teacher, so he will be able to use it.”

And how. The lab, a neat and quiet sanctuary between Lester’s and Ferrell’s workshops, contains 16 Macintosh computers, a laser printer, an ink-jet plotter and a color scanner and printer. Two plaques adorn the walls: one recognizing Ferrell and Lester and another honoring Lester’s cousin and Ferrell’s aunt.

Inside, students sit at the immaculately kept workstations, complete with cubbyholes for books and jackets, and design everything from logos and business cards to machine parts and even houses. The quiet hum of main drives and clicking mouses permeates the room. While at work, students speak in hushed tones, even when the teachers are not there.

“We treat it with care and stuff,” ninth-grader Ian Pantucci, 15, a beginning drafting student, said of the lab. “The computer lab in the library--people stick gum on the back or pull on the mouse pad. But here, kids show a little more respect for the computers, I guess because we allknow they bought them with their own money.”

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Along with respect comes gratitude.

Junior Brian Scarpetti, 16, an advanced drafting student who used the computer lab to help design his mother’s home office, describes the teachers’ gift as “really, really extremely nice.”

He clicks his mouse and a lopsided pentagon begins to emerge on the computer screen. He pushes a button and the two-dimensional figure is transformed into a room with walls. Another click of the mouse, another angle. Scarpetti looks impressed with his work, and begins “touring” the corners of the room.

Lester smiles at his enthusiasm.

“The students have done very well, have been very productive, more than I had hoped,” he said.


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