Never underestimate the power of one determined man. So goes the lesson that students at L.A.’s George Washington Prep learn every day from their principal, George McKenna. As other urban public schools fight a losing battle with classroom violence, low budgets and poor teaching, McKenna, 42, has transformed one of L.A.’s most badly blighted high schools into an inner-city American dream. With minimal funds and an attitude as old-fashioned as the little red school house, McKenna told students, teachers and parents that he wanted more effort from them—much more—and wouldn’t stop hounding them till he got it. And he has gotten it.
When McKenna arrived at George Washington Prep six years ago, his life was in danger every time he walked the halls. Students fought with knives, sold drugs, and gangs cordoned off areas where no nonmember dared to go. Other kids assaulted teachers and plastered neighborhood houses and stores with graffiti. The absentee rate was more than 30 percent (the national average is 6.3 percent). Seeking safety, 1,200 students out of about 3,000 begged to be bussed to other schools.
Then came the McKenna plan. The first step in restoring order, he decided, was to make the place look better. He helped the football team scrub graffiti off nearby houses and started a dress code: He sent students home if they wore curlers and hairnets (a fashion with both sexes) or the medallions that identified gang members. Then he went to work on attitudes, starting a nonviolence training program based on the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. In order to stay at Washington Prep, every student had to sign a contract promising to complete daily homework assignments and to swear off truancy and gambling on campus. Those breaking these rules or fighting would have their parents summoned to school to discuss disciplinary action and possible expulsion.
The response was astonishing. “When I told the first group of kids I was going to do this,” says McKenna, “they gave me a standing ovation. They understood. They wanted a safe school.” Today, students show their gratitude in other ways. Enrollment is at a maximum, with 350 waiting to get in. Absenteeism is down to less than 10 percent; 80 percent of the seniors will attend college next year (the national average is 63 percent), and many students proudly wear the “We Are Family” buttons that McKenna printed to remind them of their responsibility to one another. “He gets hurt just like a father when we don’t do what he expects,” says one student.
McKenna insists he couldn’t meet his goals without help from one other group: the adults. He recruits community members as daily homework tutors; he urges parents to volunteer as campus monitors and to visit classes regularly to evaluate teaching. “The presence of parents improves education,” he says, “because teachers feel someone cares about the job they do.”
Teachers have some new rules too. They now must submit weekly lesson plans for approval, call students’ homes to inquire about absences and assign daily homework. All this means more work—and McKenna admits that his sometimes self-righteous manner has generated conflict. Of the 142 teachers he first worked with at George Washington, 122 have chosen to move elsewhere; even a few of those who remain suggest that McKenna’s reforms overtax teachers. Still, the overall feeling is euphoric. “Teaching here requires more time than we’ve ever spent in other schools,” says math instructor Beatrice Dupass. “But I just talked with a former student who is graduating from UCLA in mathematics. I know she learned some math from me, and that’s worth every bit of time I spent with her.” Psychology instructor and one-time George Washington student Melonka Turner says, “When I was here, people were jumping out of windows from drugs. I was afraid to come back, but Mr. McKenna made me believe I could handle whatever the kids handed me.”
Keeping a toothbrush and tie in his office so he can sleep over, the resolute principal spends just about every waking hour at school. “I don’t have a lot of time for social life and ladies,” says McKenna, who lives alone a few miles away. “I’d rather be with my kids to make sure they’re safe.” This attitude is startling coming from someone who became a teacher only “because it was one of the few good jobs you could get as a black person at that time.” During his childhood in New Orleans, McKenna himself tortured teachers. “I broke all the rules,” he admits. “Everything I wasn’t supposed to do, I did.” His all-state basketball career helped him win a scholarship to nearby Xavier University to study math. But only after McKenna got his master’s in math at Chicago’s Loyola University did he realize that he wanted to try school on the other side of the desk. For 16 years he taught math and worked as an administrator in L.A.’s public schools before becoming the city’s youngest principal at George Washington.
“This is the only institution that can save America,” maintains McKenna, whose school reforms include giving students a voice in budget decisions and teacher selection. He also would like employers to give parents periodic leaves for school duty, somewhat like jury duty. But after being asked to share his ideas at a White House conference on school violence, McKenna felt discouraged. “The President’s people wanted to crack down on kids,” he says, “but I’d rather crack down on the system.” McKenna, however, is hardly a softie. Once when he ordered an outsider to turn off a loud radio in a school hallway, the offender pulled a knife. McKenna jumped the guy, grabbed the knife and threw it down the hall.
Still, students say their respect for McKenna is not based on fear. “I have to look stern,” he says. “But never a day goes by when I don’t have a belly laugh over something the kids have done.” And there are other good moments. This spring you could have seen Principal McKenna running for a football pass from a student in a school yard where roses bloom untouched by vandals.