It has been a long road home for McKinley Nash, the new superintendent of the Inglewood Unified School District.
Nash did not grow up in Inglewood. He still has to ask directions to get around. But in his heart, he says, all ethnic communities are related, all are siblings parented by struggle and promise. So when Nash speaks of having returned "home," which he often does, he is referring to Inglewood, the African American and Latino community.
After four years away from public schools, working as an executive for the Assn. of California School Administrators, Nash has returned to school board politics, union negotiations and student test scores because of his broad definition of home and community.
The Inglewood school system, although it has some outstanding schools, also has ones with the lowest test scores in the South Bay.
"It's so painful to me," Nash said. "We have failed to protect our children. The failure of our children to achieve has to be attributed to the failure of black adults to nurture and protect our children.
"I may get in trouble for saying it, but I'm going to say it. Because there's nothing wrong with our children," Nash said. "We, the adults, have failed them."
Nash says he needs to find more money for the schools, create magnet programs and specialized curricula to keep Inglewood's best students from leaving the district, improve morale among teachers and principals and turn around the city's bilingual education program.
But he believes the district has everything it needs to excel. The only question remaining, he said, is whether he is the one to lead it to excellence.
Nash, who at 61 is near the end of his career, was raised in a nurturing Louisiana community, where teachers and family pushed him to achieve. He earned a bachelor of science degree at the University of Arkansas, a master's degree at Oklahoma State University and his doctorate at the University of Illinois. He left there to become principal and later deputy superintendent in Evanston, Ill., where he gained fame as a man who could improve student test scores.
A report in 1987 found that as a group, black students in the suburban Evanston Township School District had lower test scores than those in the Chicago schools, a district notorious for its problems.
Nash targeted a group of students, both black and white, of high intelligence but average grades and moved them from their easier classes to an honors track. Evanston Township's scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test soared.
From there he went to Centinela Valley Union High School District in Lawndale, also as superintendent, where his methods of reform and style of administration--so successful in Evanston--caused a civil war. New programs and sweeping changes led to rebellion by some teachers and parents. The district was divided between those who loved Nash and those who hated him, and students walked out of school in support of Nash. The board fired him shortly afterward, accusing him of having orchestrated the walkout.
Nash sued the district and ultimately won a settlement, as did several other African American staff members and teachers in Centinela Valley, who charged the board with racial discrimination.
Now he has again taken on an urban school district that will need a complete overhaul to achieve excellence.
The job before Nash is to provide a decent education for all students in Inglewood.
Immediate attention must be paid to bilingual education. A recent report by the state Department of Education found that the district has kept poor records and that it does not have enough books, materials or teachers for students who do not speak English. The 15,000-student district has about 5,418 bilingual students and needs 112 certified teachers, but last year had only 26.
Nash will need more money. It is not possible to educate students spending an average of $3,100 apiece, he said. But he's not worried about finding it. Ferreting out private sources of money has been one of Nash's successes in all past positions, including Centinela Valley. There, he worked with El Camino College and Toyota to begin a program in which students would work closely with Toyota professionals and, if they made good grades, Toyota would pay for them to go to college. After graduation, students would have a job waiting at Toyota.
Some immediate financial resources for the Inglewood district are apparent, he said. It has acres of land that he said could be sold or developed.
Board President Lois Hill Hale said the board is discussing the idea with city officials, who want to purchase some land, but selling off school land is not an idea that she supports.
The 40 acres around Morningside High School, Hill Hale said, could just as well be used for an entire education complex and athletic center, rather than city buildings.
Hill Hale, however, said she has promised Nash she will keep an open mind about his proposals and ideas.