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."
Teachers are required to submit weekly reports on what they plan to teach and are instructed to telephone parents any time an unexcused absence occurs. A homeroom period has been added (unusual in a high school), and it includes a 10-minute segment in which the entire school is silently reading.
How much difference has it made? Scores on state academic achievement tests have not changed; they're still about 15% below the Los Angeles County average. Nor have scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test that college-bound seniors take changed significantly.
On the other hand, nearly twice as many seniors take the SAT at Washington as took it did four years ago. The percentage of black students who take chemistry, physics and advanced math is far above the statewide average for blacks. The number of students in Washington's attendance area who choose to attend school in the San Fernando Valley under the district's voluntary integration program (which historically drains better students from inner-city campuses) has fallen from 1,300 to 700.
The size of the graduating class this year was 600, nearly twice as high as when McKenna started. The absence rate has fallen to about 10%, about one-third as high as it used to be. And about 70% of the graduates go on to college, although more go to community colleges than to four-year institutions and a substantial number drop out once they get there because of inadequate preparation.
"The scores are still unacceptable," McKenna said. "We are still going to have to work more efficiently and harder."
But at least, he and others contend, an environment to promote success has been built.
When McKenna arrived, one former teacher remembers, it was not unusual for a student to assault a teacher, as often as once a month.
Today, there is still tension. The football squad had to run a relay race to settle the color of home uniforms because some players wanted the color used by one street gang and others wanted the color used by a rival gang. McKenna hires community members as security monitors to supplement school district police. And, as one teacher groused to a union leader after the CBS movie, "the students still piss in the hallways."
But generally the campus is clean, the atmosphere is congenial, the students are well-dressed and McKenna himself is hailed by the youngsters as cross between a celebrity, a father figure and a long-lost older brother.
"You visit a lot of campuses without seeing that display of affection," said Los Angeles School Board President Rita Walters. "The essence of that is the respect he gives the young people."
Some teachers say they wish McKenna had as much respect for them.
Most of the teachers who were at Washington when he arrived are gone. Some retired, some transferred--many because McKenna pressured them into requesting a transfer, according to those familiar with the campus.
"I get a lot of people down there who feel he doesn't treat them as professionals," teacher union president Johnson said.
"He's put pressure on teachers he feels are incompetent," said Washington history teacher Marvin Wolfe, a union representative. "I felt at times that some of the teachers (who transferred) were very good teachers. . . . He's got a vision for the good of the students and there's always that attempt to improve the academic program, (but) because he wants this vision so badly, he pushes too hard."
Responded McKenna: "I've never asked a teacher to go anywhere. I've asked them to improve and they've chosen to leave."
McKenna's concern for attendance illustrates his determination to impose his will.
Convinced that unexcused absences can be cut if parents are held accountable, McKenna requires that teachers telephone a student's home each day a child does not show up. Theoretically, that means a parent could receive a phone call from six teachers--one for each of the classes a child missed that day.
"Totally unrealistic," Johnson said.
Can Expect Call
"Look," answered McKenna, "the fact is that the moment you start making those calls, you start reducing the number you have to make because the kids start coming to school . . . that little sucker that's been out there hiding out at the liquor store, sleeping in the park, going swimming . . . if he knows all his teachers are going to call, he can't pick the class he wants to cut.
Besides, he said, look at the result. During every month of the 1985-86 school year, Washington had the lowest percentage of absences due to factors other than illness of any high school in the district.
"I'm well aware of the strain I put on people," McKenna said. "Sometimes I have to step on people's toes. I'm not saying that teachers are not good people. But I am saying that even good people can get caught up in institutional oppression and then lose faith in the system because they don't feel powerful enough to change it."
McKenna's innovation and rhetorical gifts made him a controversial figure in Los Angeles by the early 1980s. He became famous in 1984, when President Reagan, ever on the lookout for stories of heroes, heard about Washington Prep and mentioned McKenna in two speeches.
McKenna wound up being invited to the White House, but he is still a bit uncomfortable about the Reagan association. After all, it meant being lumped in with another Reagan-designated hero, Joe Clark, a black New Jersey principal who suspended a large group of youngsters after inheriting an out-of-control campus and carries a bullhorn in the hallways when classes change.
Thinking about the bullhorn makes McKenna furious.
"I think that is an unconscionable method to be used and held up by the White House as being an appropriate method for dealing with the inner-city child," he said. "That is a plantation mentality. He couldn't do that in white America.
"When I came here, it was bad, but what the bad was had very little to do with the quality of the children. They were wonderful kids, but they were allowed to fall into a pattern of powerlessness--allowed to look in a powerless fashion, speak in a powerless fashion, behave in a powerless fashion.
"The kids who come to us today come to us hopeful, loving, needing, wanting, caring. These kids want the same stuff that you wanted when you were 16.
"They have the same fears, same hopes, same dreams. The same things make 'em laugh. They're just as silly. They're just as confused. They worry about the way they look. They get angry about the same stuff."
The movie, while a romanticized testament to public education, was an imperfect characterization. Actor Denzel Washington, who played McKenna, was not only far taller, darker and more handsome but also projected a quite un-McKenna-like placidity as he encountered raging gang fights, trash fires and a cynical teachers union member.
The movie focused little on McKenna's nuts-and-bolts academic vision, concerning itself more with street gangs, a tilting McKenna was disappointed to see. And it contained a typically unbelievable TV cliche: The principal hires an idealistic middle-aged white English teacher who inspires her black students with Shakespeare.
Except that in this case the cliche is real. Her name is Aura Kruger. She's a tiny, 63-year-old grandmother who left the suburbs of Boston to become a freedom marcher and rural schoolteacher in Mississippi in the '60s and was recruited by McKenna when she was teaching at nearby Bret Harte Junior High.
Sharing McKenna's dedication to raising expectations and devoted to teaching the timelessness of Shakespeare, Kruger has watched her students win several trophies at regional Shakespeare recital festivals.
Hugs and Handshakes
The morning after the movie, McKenna was walking through the school's main hallway. Washington's 2,800 students were moving to the next period's classes, so everywhere McKenna went there were hugs and handshakes and affectionate taps on his shoulder and teasing questions about the film.
The bell for the next class was about to ring. The traffic dissipated rapidly. McKenna spotted a girl engaged in last-minute primping.
"You look good enough, darlin'," he called good-naturedly. "The book doesn't care what you look like."
Now the hallway was empty. Nobody gets into a classroom at Washington after the bell rings. Teachers are not to open the door. Instead, tardy students must walk to a central processing area in the cafeteria where they take names and keep records and threaten to call parents in for conferences.
McKenna walked up to the second floor and stuck his head in a classroom whose teacher had stepped out for a moment. More playful questions about the movie began to fly from the students.
Does he have a live-in girlfriend as pretty as the actress who played the role?
No, smiled McKenna, who is single. No girlfriend, probably because he often winds up working too late for a social life.
"You get home at 11:30 at night and call up and say, 'What's happening?' and she says, 'Not you,' " he told them, and they laughed.
Did he really paint over the graffiti that gang members scrawled and re-scrawled on the home of a woman who lived across the street from Washington?
McKenna nodded. But there was something else the kids needed to know.
"That woman died two years ago," he added. "She was hit by a bullet that somebody fired after one of our dances. Now, the wall out there is still clean but she's dead. It breaks my heart.
"We haven't won yet," he told them. "That's why I always say we have more work to do."