SUMMERTIME, AND THE GRADING IS EASY
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.
“I went to all the instructors ... all the different advisors and said, ‘Hey, do you have anyone that needs to take Spanish 3?’ ” Williams said. “They all gave me names, I talked to all the different athletes. Girls, guys, all different sports, got it approved by USC.”
Former USC academic advisor Cassidy Raher recalled Williams’ “knocking on all five of our doors” and pressing the athletic department’s academic advisors for more candidates. He said Kyle told him, “ ‘We need more people. There’s this class at Trade Tech, I know the professor, I passed her before, she’s nice, and the class would be easy.’ ”
Raher, who advised track and field athletes, said he directed one of his hurdlers to the class. “I remember the gears going into motion.”
Former Trojans receiver Colbert heard about the class from other football players. He had signed a four-year deal in 2004 with the NFL Panthers worth about $2.8 million. But last summer he still needed a foreign language credit to complete his requirements for a degree from USC.
The locker room promotional effort led by Williams and Sartz worked better than expected. Trade Tech and an overwhelmed Ross ended up having to turn away students.
And for the next five weeks in June and July, many of the 20 USC athletes would pile into Nelson’s Audi or Sartz’s truck to share the short ride up Figueroa. They attended Monday through Thursday from 4:30 to 9:05 p.m.
Even Ross acknowledged that lessons weren’t all conjugation and vocabulary. Sometimes her stories made the big guys laugh, she said, causing her to worry that the Trade Tech desks might break.
Ross (4 feet 11, 125 pounds) mistakenly estimated some in her charge to be “500 pounds.”
One of her biggest, Matt Spanos (6-5, 305), said classes were “extremely relaxed. Every day Senora Ross had a fun little story about her life and places she’d been to. She made it easy to learn.”
The offensive lineman, who sat out the 2006 season because of inadequate grades, earned an A from Ross. But at the university his fortunes did not improve. At year’s end Spanos again was declared academically ineligible and barred from the 2007 Rose Bowl game against Michigan. And like the others, he must retake Spanish 3.
“What else can go wrong?” he shrugged after his class credit was revoked. “Let’s add another thing to the list.”
Lou Ferrigno Jr. (6-1, 230) joked about siccing one of his parents on school officials for denying him credit for the Spanish class. No, not “Incredible Hulk” actor Lou Sr.
“My mom is like a pit bull,” the linebacker said.
But Ferrigno took serious issue with USC officials’ barring transfer of the class credits, saying it left the false impression that players might have hired their own teacher.
“We did the work and they’re discrediting us, like we did something illegal. It’s not fair,” he said.
Kenneth L. Servis, USC’s dean of academic records and registrar, said the decision to deny credit for the class was not aimed at “policing the athletic department,” but upholding the university’s academic standards.
He said that after examining class material and what was required of the students, it was decided that Trade Tech “did not offer the students the course we expected.” He called the order to rescind credit “a necessary action,” because the community college course “didn’t meet our academic requirements.”
Sartz, who participated in spring graduation ceremonies but remains a few Spanish units short of a degree, said he feels “cheated.” He and Williams are busy training for pro football evaluations and have had to put off retaking Spanish for now.
Football Coach Pete Carroll said he wasn’t concerned about the matter. Players routinely take general education summer classes at junior colleges, he noted.
“I don’t know what’s the big deal. Guys do stuff like that all the time,” Carroll said.
Pacific 10 Conference spokesman Jim Muldoon said his office “is aware” of USC’s trouble with the class but there are no plans to investigate further.
“As I understand, they disallowed this class, so there should be no violations, nothing to report,” Muldoon said. “It sounds to me like they monitored it quite well. They handled it in an appropriate fashion.”
Ross, meanwhile, remains feisty and unbowed, stoutly defending teaching methods she has used for more than 40 years.
“The most important thing in learning is that everyone likes the teacher,” she said.
Ross said she wasn’t trying to prepare any of her students to fly off to Geneva and be “a translator for the U.N.” But she said she did try especially to help her classroom of athletes.
“I gave them tests, diction, translation assignments,” she said. “I made them write compositions in Spanish about why they were in the class, why they played football.
“Having the football players ... " Ross paused. “I put in extra effort so that no one could call them big dummies.”