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At Manual Arts High, a caring teacher is at the end of his rope

Art teacher Jeremy Davidson skipped the annual back-to-school-night at Manual Arts High this week.

He’d walked off the job the day before — after 10 years at the mid-city campus — done in by a group of unruly ninth-graders who’d hijacked his sixth-period drawing class.

While Davidson was “trying to give a lesson on shading,” the troublemakers were “whacking each other with rulers, throwing paper across the room, getting up and walking around.”

They blocked the door when he tried to close it, talked over him when he tried to teach.

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The first time it happened this semester, he summoned security “four times during the period and help never came.”

Day after frustrating day, he said, the scenario replayed. And when he sought support, administrators met his request with a checklist: Have you contacted their parents? Have you encouraged the students? Have you treated them with respect?

Davidson bristled at the implication. “Seven students needed to be removed, so I could teach the other 45. … And I’m expected to spend a week providing all this documentation, while these kids spend 50 minutes each day destroying the class for everyone else.”

So two weeks after the school year began Sept. 7 — after a string of sleepless nights — Davidson called his principal from class midmorning and said: “It would be best if you got me covered so I can pack my things and go.”

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Davidson shared his story with me a few hours after he left campus. Two days earlier, he had emailed The Times, complaining about “the awful conditions” at Manual Arts.

“The overcrowded, dirty classrooms, and lack of support from administrators, is demoralizing and crushing the teachers — and not fair to students,” he wrote.

Still, I had to wonder, what kind of teacher abandons those students when the semester has barely begun? A teacher at the end of his rope, Davidson told me; one who has had his fill of broken promises and dashed hopes.

“You keep raising your expectations, but nothing changes,” he said. “After all these years, I look around and see that things are just getting worse.”

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After spending years on a year-round schedule, Manual Arts switched this month to a traditional school calendar, which puts 3,200 students on a campus built for 1,000, during a year when the Los Angeles Unified School District is drastically cutting teachers and funding.

Officials with the reform group LA’s Promise, which runs Manual Arts, decided to make the move even though a campus designated to take its overflow will not open until next year; the new calendar has students in school for 22 more days than last year.

That extra time is important to a school with some of the district’s lowest test scores, where two-thirds of the students drop out. But after talking to teachers this week, I wonder if the benefits will trump the chaos.

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Classes are crammed into “every available space,” they said; offices, wood shop, the library and computer labs. Teachers travel from room to room. There aren’t enough desks. The lines in the cafeteria are so long that students wind up missing lunch. There aren’t enough security guards to handle problems, or enough custodians to clean the 17-acre campus.

Two weeks into the school year, English teacher Antero Garcia said students still didn’t have lockers. “The administrator who did that job left, and no one else was assigned to do that.”

And textbooks didn’t arrive until Friday for some Spanish, algebra and history classes. “It will be the start of week four before every kid has a textbook in their hands,” said history teacher Daniel Beebe, who had “zero” textbooks for 160 students in U.S. history and government classes.

Beebe is the chapter chair for the teachers’ union. He’s also one of the school’s traveling instructors, with “a little black backpack and five minutes after every class to pack up, run to the next classroom and set up.”

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The class average is 42 students for 11th and 12th grades, and 32 for freshmen and sophomores. Davidson’s sculpture and photography classes had 60 and 65 pupils — and a budget that allocated about $2 for supplies for each student, he said.

I couldn’t reach an administrator at the school on Thursday or Friday; my telephone calls went to voice mail and I never heard back. The superintendent of LA’s Promise, Rupi Boyd, did email me a statement that read, in part:

“Class size is consistent with current LAUSD norms. We have started off the school year with a new principal, a re-invigorated teaching staff and students who want to learn.”

I wonder how much time Boyd is spending on campus. “Every single teacher I’ve talked to is frustrated this year,” said Garcia, who has taught at Manual Arts for seven years and runs a blog on education reform. “People are feeling burned out already, in the second week of school.”

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Teachers knew the change would be challenging. “But we saw this calendar as [a way of] raising scores,” he said. “I think there are many of us who, if we could, would go back to a three-track schedule in a heartbeat now.”

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I’ve followed Manual Arts’ ups and downs for years. It’s an institution in Los Angeles, with 100 years of history. And it’s a reflection of the challenges of educating this city’s least advantaged kids.

The school was handed off two years ago to LA’s Promise, which has built a culture of success at the nearby, newly built West Adams Prep.

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But Manual Arts is a bigger project. The school has had 10 principals in 10 years. Its faculty long has been considered a combustible mix of firebrand activists and holding-out-for-retirement deadwood.

LA’s Promise deserves credit for pointing the school toward success: a big jump in the percentage of 10th-graders passing the exit exam, and a 43-point increase in Academic Performance Index scores last spring. But improvement seems so fragile, help so fleeting. “It’s like we’re bombarded with change, but nothing ever changes,” Davidson said. “Everybody wants this to work, but what will it take to make it?”

That’s a question for my Tuesday column. In the meantime, Davidson’s decided not to resign, but instead ask for a leave of absence. “I still love teaching,” he insists. “And I’ve got some very talented kids.”

sandy.banks@latimes.com


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