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TV Hero One Day, Bloody the Next, Educator Pushes Crusade

November 16, 1986|BOB BAKER | Times Staff Writer

Life is a humbling experience. Consider what happened last week to George McKenna, principal of Washington Preparatory High School in Southwest Los Angeles.

Tuesday night, an estimated 13.5 million U.S. households tuned in to a two-hour CBS television movie called "The George McKenna Story," a dramatization of how McKenna became principal of graffiti- and violence-ridden Washington High in 1978 and force-fed the campus a diet of peace, love and understanding that has made it a model of inner-city educational decorum.

By 6:15 the next morning, McKenna, a cheerful workaholic, was back in his office. Calls of congratulations were already coming in from friends, alumni and relatives.

By 10:30 he had blood on his shirt.

Two feuding students had gotten into a fight during the nutrition period in front of scores of classmates. One boy's eye was badly cut, and the blood that ran down his face rubbed off on McKenna as the principal dragged the student away.

A hell of a welcome for a man who was suddenly the most famous public educator in the United States.

Yet this was the real George McKenna story. The TV movie had ended with a saccharine portrait of redemption: Proud seniors receiving their diplomas, a campus transformed. Here, graduation was seven months away. Drugs raged outside the campus fences. Test scores were still low.

Confronting all this was a short, hard-nosed yet compassionate 45-year-old black man who, having been raised in segregated New Orleans, is possessed by a fierce desire to lift the standards by which black and other "disenfranchised" youngsters are educated.

George McKenna III is bitterly critical of public education. It frosts him that the library has to close before the gymnasium does. He believes devotion to bureaucracy has numbed the system's conscience and robbed it of the moral outrage needed to salvage inner-city schools.

He has put demands on his teachers that have outraged the Los Angeles school district's teachers union. But at the same time, his sincerity and devotion to "my kids" is so unquestioned, that the union's president, Wayne Johnson, once said that if he ever returned to teaching he would like to work for McKenna.

McKenna chafes about having to use only the teachers the school district sends him. ("He will harass everyone down here," said one official in the district's main office.) He wishes he could hire and fire whom he pleases to create a teaching staff that shares his zealousness.

He covets the freedom of private school principals. "They get to hand-pick teachers. Teachers either buy into the corporate agenda or they leave. They don't get to grieve. They don't say, 'I have rights that prevent me from performing my duties to children.' We're not producing spare parts here."

Teachers at Washington must work harder than teachers at a suburban school, the principal believes, because Washington Prep is devoted not merely to learning but to overcoming generations of neglect and low expectations.

"We've got to rescue the masses," he said, his voice mounting a pulpit. "Because if I can find more doctors out of public schools, then that's the longer my life can be extended."

At another moment McKenna may put it this way: "Schools like this need to be uplifted to a level of reverence--to show that they can work."

Or: "I want these kids to have college so much on their agenda that they'll miss it if they don't get it. The way lunch is on their agenda--the way they salivate each day for food at 12:30 when the bell rings. I want to drill it into them--'You must, you must, you can.' "

Washington, located in a middle-to-lower-middle-class neighborhood of single-family homes near Century Boulevard and Normandie Avenue, with an enrollment that is 90% black and about 10% Latino, is where McKenna tries to sculpt this vision. He put in 14 years as a math teacher and administrator in seven district schools to get here. Now, having grappled with Washington for nearly nine years, he said it may take him and his staff another decade to make it a true model.

Some of his changes have been substantial, some have been symbolic and some are not unique. But all have been devoted to hammering home the same gospel: Washington is a sanctuary from the evils that lurk outside, not just a school but a "support system" that draws on parents and community members.

Under McKenna, the word preparatory was added to the school's name. Students and their parents are required to sign contracts pledging that homework will be done. Portable radios and street gang insignias and clothing motifs are banned.

Parents are recruited to monitor rest rooms and staff a "family room." Students are recruited to participate in "peer counseling."

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