President Reagan saluted Principal William J. McKenna at a recent annual meeting of the National Assn. of Secondary School Principals, citing him for turning around a school pocked with gang warfare, high truancy and low academic performance.
In six years and with the help of parents, teachers and students, McKenna transformed George Washington Preparatory High, a school in South-Central Los Angeles with 2,700 students, 90% black and 10% Latino.
Word of his success is spreading.
“There are a lot of William McKennas” emerging in schools around the country, according to George Nicholson, director of the National School Safety Center in Sacramento, a partnership of Pepperdine University, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Education.
“People like McKenna are popping up all over the country,” he said.
“They’re madder than hell and they’re saying, ‘We’re going to get crime and violence, narcotics and dangerous drugs and discipline problems out of our schools.’ ”
Saddened at ‘Heroic’ Label
McKenna said it saddens him to think that what he has done is heroic or unusual. He looks to the day when when the “bad school” is considered unusual and the good school is the rule.
“People should be outraged if schools don’t work,” he said.
His success strategies included dismantling six gangs, getting the teaching staff to stand up straighter (all of them must submit lesson plans and assign and correct homework) and not opening restrooms unless a parent volunteer can patrol inside.
“We only have one gang now,” McKenna said. “It’s the ‘Generals,’ and I’m in charge. Everyone belongs.”
Parents in the restrooms is McKenna’s way of snuffing out drug dealing and use on campus.
“Most of it happens in the bathrooms,” he said. Since parents patrol, the worst kids do there now is spend an unusual amount of time gazing in mirrors--normal for adolescents.”
10% Truancy Rate
In the once-bad school, truancy dropped to 10% from more than 30%. Six gangs and the spectacle of violent death on campus--"two students died before my eyes,” McKenna said--are no more.
Remarkably, students at the school set their sights on college. As a result, schoolwork improved, so much so that 80% go to college, half to community colleges. Nationally, McKenna said, only 27% of black high school graduates go to college.
“We force, push, encourage, persuade, beg, plead to get the kids to improve schoolwork for the kids and to get their sights set on college,” he said.
“Condemning, oppressing, repressing is not the way for schools to go.”
McKenna said variations of his formula can be used by suburban as well as inner-city schools. He asserts that suburban schools are not free of problems similar to those handcuffing inner-city schools.
“I have seen too many schools conforming to kids’ fads instead of forming children’s values,” he said. “I’ve seen too many teachers dress like kids. Power is given away.
“Kids take power from their teachers. Schools blame society, but the schools are ineffective. That’s the real trouble.”
No Personal Radios
In straightening out George Washington Prep, McKenna’s rules included a ban on personal radios, no earrings on males, no curlers in hair and no gang symbols. Also, a dress for success dictum. McKenna said if a student does not aim for success, he ups the chance of failing.
“I believe schools have the responsibility to shape values and set standards,” McKenna said. “The standards are peace, justice, nonviolence, equity, compassion, love, community service, sharing.”
In one example of how sharing works at George Washington Prep, football players help the elderly with grocery carts, read to the blind and push wheelchairs for crippled children.
Donna Shalala, president of Hunter College in New York City and also an authority on inner-city schools, agrees with some of McKenna’s views but disagrees on the point that suburban schools also are suffering from some of the same ailments bothering the inner-city schools.
Shalala, former assistant director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, recently sized up the problems of New York’s inner-city schools. She said it’s a case of “good apples (the students) in a rotten barrel (the system).”
The suburban schools, she maintains, have more money, more of a support system and more of everything good and, therefore, have problems that are less intense or less complicated than those of the inner-city schools.
“We know what works in inner city schools, but the great tragedy across America is that what we know is not being done,” she said.
“This is due to a lack of leadership and it is a great American tragedy.” As Shalala sees it, these brief guidelines work for inner city schools:
- Raising self-esteem of students.
- Starting school earlier, at age 4.
- Raising teachers to the level of professionals.
- Special education programs, including intense remedial work as it is needed.