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George Kiriyama, 74; Career Educator

August 22, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

George Kiriyama, a career teacher and principal who served a single four-year term on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, has died. He was 74.

Kiriyama died Tuesday of liver cancer at his home in Torrance, his wife, Ikuko, said Sunday.

The former principal of the Gardena Community Adult School was elected to the board's District 7 in 1995, as the handpicked successor of Warren Furutani. The district covered a diverse area stretching from Watts to San Pedro.

Criticized for moving into the district to run for the board, and doing little during his four-year term to improve student test scores, he was defeated in his reelection bid in 1999 by Mike Lansing, a favorite of former Mayor Richard Riordan.

Kiriyama defended his efforts and those of other board members during that campaign, insisting that test scores had risen slightly, dropout rates and teacher absences were down and school attendance was up.

During his brief tenure, Kiriyama was credited with restoring a music program in district elementary schools and encouraging instruction in character development, including truthfulness and loyalty.

"He was at heart a school site person. He just loved being with the students," said his wife, adding that even as the Gardena adult school principal, he made it a point to teach a citizenship class.

"My whole goal in my whole life has been education," Kiriyama told The Times editorial board during the 1999 election campaign.

After leaving the school board, Kiriyama directed a state-funded program at Gardena adult school to help parents improve their children's learning skills.

Kiriyama, who was held as a boy with other Japanese Americans at the Manzanar and Tule Lake internment camps during World War II, served in the Air Force during the Korean War.

He earned a bachelor's degree in history at UCLA, his teaching credential at USC and a master's degree in school administration at Pepperdine University.

Kiriyama joined the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1964 as an elementary school teacher. He went on to teach at Pasteur Junior High School and Monroe and Hamilton high schools, helping to develop the district's multicultural studies programs.

In 1968, he began a pilot course called "America's Intercultural Heritage" at Pasteur in West Los Angeles. The class was made up of ninth-graders from eight junior highs; half the students were black, a few were Chinese or Japanese, and the others were white. Kiriyama brought in guest speakers, assigned students to report on various ethnic cultures and history and sent them to interview friends.

The combination, he told The Times, "brings out things that they'll never learn in a regular course."

Kiriyama was a founder and past president of the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California and for 18 years was the advisory council chairman for Coastal Asian Pacific Mental Health Services. He also served on the boards of the East West Players and the Wattstar Theater.

In addition to his wife, Kiriyama is survived by four children, William, Bob, George and Traci; three brothers, Taketo, Steve and Yukio; a sister, Haru Ikkanda; and three grandchildren.

Services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday at Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple (Nishi), 815 E. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012.

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