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Tough educator always relished a challenge

George McKenna has been called many things in his long career as an educator: dictator, egomaniac, tyrant, insufferably old-school. He can be blunt, impatient and unyielding.

But one thing he’s never been called is a quitter. He has always relished a challenge.

That’s why I was surprised to learn that he is retiring from the Los Angeles Unified School District, where he spent most of the last 50 years trying to stir things up in struggling inner-city schools.

His swan song was last week’s graduation at beleaguered Fremont High, which had failed for more than a decade to meet federal standards for academic improvement. McKenna was lured back from his first retirement three years ago to oversee the school’s restructuring as an area superintendent.

Dozens of teachers were replaced, rules were tightened, more services offered for struggling students. It was a task that McKenna took personally: He’s a former math teacher. How do you ask him to accept that math proficiency was in reach of only 45 of Fremont’s 3,220 students?

This year 700 students earned diplomas. That’s 200 more than graduated in either of the two years before.

“It was the highest graduation rate in the history of the school,” McKenna said. “I went there. I saw them all lined up.... I said, ‘We did this.’ It brought tears to my eyes.”

He announced his retirement at the ceremony. And spent the next three days in his district office, packing up to leave.

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McKenna began his career as a teacher at Jordan High the year before the Watts riots. He catapulted to fame 20 years later as the principal at Washington Prep High.

His campaign to remake that troubled school — plagued by gangs and violence and failure — drew the attention of then-President Reagan, which led to a made-for-TV movie starring Denzel Washington that brought McKenna’s tough-love version of school reform into millions of American homes.

I consider him a pioneer, promoting higher standards and more accountability long before No Child Left Behind and data-driven assessment teams.

He made teachers submit lesson plans each week and call the parents of every absent child each day. They were required to visit others’ classes because teachers learn best from one another, he said.

“You can’t just hide in your classroom, close your door and tell yourself you’re doing a great job ... and not notice that half your students didn’t show up and the other half are failing,” he said.

In his first three years at Washington Prep, three-quarters of his faculty transferred out, but hundreds of students who’d fled the school for San Fernando Valley campuses came back. Attendance improved, violence dropped, test scores began to climb.

“I didn’t fire anybody,” McKenna insists. “I just raised the bar.”

“The union called me a dictator. But I’m not afraid of taking responsibility for making decisions,” he said. “Everybody with a credential can’t teach, just like everybody with a driver’s license can’t drive.”

McKenna’s blunt like that, and he’s paid a price. He left L.A. Unified in 1988 to become superintendent in Inglewood, but had to move on after clashing with board members and feuding with union leaders. Stints in Compton and Pasadena made it clear he wasn’t a miracle worker, but he was a wise and tireless advocate for underachieving, underprivileged kids.

The fuss over his success at Washington Prep may have made McKenna a celebrity, but looking back, it rankles him.

“Why was it necessary to make a movie about a school because it works?” he asked when we had breakfast in Inglewood on his first day of retirement.

“As if that’s an unexpected occurrence. That means it’s normal when it’s failing. Instead of celebrating when one school works, we ought to be outraged when it doesn’t.”

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McKenna isn’t leaving because he’s outraged or tired or discouraged — though he admits he’s a bit of all those. He’s retiring because it’s time; the district has been reorganized so his position can be cut, and rule changes governing pensions will cut his income if he sticks around.

He thinks the district is in good hands with Supt. John Deasy. “He’s trying to shake up the system, and I give him credit for that, because it does need shaking up. I think he’s trying to do at breakneck speed things that might not be possible.”

McKenna is frustrated by the growth of a charter school movement that skims hard-working students from struggling campuses and dilutes support for neighborhood schools.

He’s angry about the teachers union’s influence over politicians: “If the state Legislature won’t make it easier to fire criminal teachers, what happens to the ones who just won’t teach?”

And he’s worried about state funding cuts that will trim the school years and sabotage efforts at improvement: “We will have 15 days of no education next year, and we’re still trying to reach these benchmarks.

“It will be quite a challenge for everyone in the district. I’ll miss the action, but I don’t envy them.”

McKenna said his last challenge — managing the fallout from the teacher sex scandal at Miramonte Elementary — was the most difficult of his 50-year career.

But it was also, perhaps, the most instructive — a reminder of why teachers teach and what we can learn from them.

Deasy decided to temporarily remove the entire faculty from Miramonte after two teachers were charged with sexually abusing students. McKenna was in charge of those teachers in exile.

McKenna won’t say whether he agreed with that call. “It doesn’t matter whether I agree. It was a bold move in a national nightmare. It was my job to make it happen.”

The teachers were housed for months in a new school nearby that had not opened. They were questioned by deputies and counseled by therapists. They were being paid to sit around, but all they wanted was to be back in their classrooms.

“They’re crying, ‘I had nothing to do with it. I want to be back with my kids. I can’t get up every morning and keep coming here.’ They were so heartbroken. They were innocent. But they didn’t fold. They hung in there and they made it through.”

They were reunited with their students last month, he said, at Miramonte’s graduation. And they’ll be back in their classes next year.

sandy.banks@latimes.com


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