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Forging an inner-city high school that works

By Marshall IngwersonStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 7, 1983

Los Angeles

When George McKenna became principal of George Washington High School - a virtually all-black Los Angeles public high school - four years ago, only half the school's seniors were headed for some kind of college.

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He renamed the school Washington Preparatory High School and started making changes. Now 80 percent of this year's 350 graduates are headed for college, helped along by over $2 million in scholarships. The absentee rate has dropped to 17 percent, half the state's inner-city average. The number of disciplinary suspensions in the past school year was a quarter of what it was three years ago.

In an interview, Mr. McKenna shared his views on what makes a school work.

First, what are high schools for?

A high school should be preparing students for further education, for higher education. That should be the primary goal of a high school.

I no longer think that in this technological age we can really believe that high school can prepare you for work right out of high school. That is like going out and picking crops in the summertime. It does not happen. It's unrealistic. It's not pragmatic.

If you made it this far you can go further, wherever that is, if that's a beauty college, if that's a computer operations school, if it's to learn how to fix cars - some additional school.

What does that mean to a high school curriculum?

It means that it needs to develop the skills that teach children how to learn , even at the expense of other subjects, if necessary. We need a return to the teaching of skills, rather than the imparting of information.

If their attitudes are poor, we can work on that. But they must all have that basic skill of being able to learn, which means being able to read, being able to compute. Then what they choose to read later is their business.

Does this mean a real change in what schools are doing?

What schools ought to be doing. I don't know if they're going to do it or not.

The search for quality teachers is the most critical thing in all of this. The one thing that's right about schools is the kids. The one thing that's wrong is the quality of the people who work in the schools, everything from the administrators to the teachers to the secretaries.

When I'm talking about quality, I'm talking about the level of mediocrity that manifests itself in public schools, so that we have fewer committed people to the children than we had in the past.

And maybe it's because the children changed. The children became predominantly minority. I don't think the people who came into the system are second-class people at all. But I think their level of expectations changed when the population of public schools turned from majority-culture children to minority-culture children.

Then the expectation level dropped - and for everyone, even the minority teachers. Particularly the minority teachers.

They gave up hope too, believing that these are simply the children of the have-nots, who will remain in that condition. And it takes an exceptional ethic to go beyond that, and exceptional people to believe that is not true . . . that we can be superior.

But I don't think every school believes that, and so they settle for whatever is available and turn out illiterate kids and blame kids and parents because they're illiterate.

I think the school has to assume the responsibility, whether we like it or not. We're the only institution that can make a difference. Police can't do it, churches can't do it. If the homes can't do it, our function is not to blame. Our function is to perform. It's like taking an implied Hippocratic oath, that we will heal the sick, no matter where they are or what condition they're in.

So when kids are uneducated, no matter what their age, no matter what the reason they're uneducated, we have taken an oath to try and educate them.

Is there a conflict between providing everybody with a minimum level of basics and providing what the elite students need?

There is a perceived problem, but in reality we can adjust that so it is not a problem. We can do both. All we have to do, those of us who have expertise, is be willing to deal with the remedial as excitedly as we do with the gifted. Sometimes I believe we fight to be participating in the gifted child's life and not the other child.