Forging an inner-city high school that works

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.

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.

I don't think that a necessary solution is the infusion of funds. Higher salaries are important, but that's not going to make schools work. What will make schools work is a greater commitment, along with the salary, to performance. You know that salary's not the key because you can double the salaries tomorrow and you won't double the test scores. Nobody believes that would happen.

How do you get commitment?

I think that if commitment does not come internally from the individual teachers, it must come from the administrators. Nobody should be an administrator who does not have commitment and vision. And that has nothing to do with an administrative credential. It has nothing to do with taking a test.

Personally, I think the superintendent of schools ought to have the right to appoint the principal, so he can take him out if he's not performing.

When you came to Washington High four years ago, what did you find?

It wasn't a disaster, but the situation was negative. There were some good teachers, some mediocre teachers, some poor teachers. There were a lot of rifts. There were racial rifts in the staff. The student body was divided between black and white, Christian and non-Christian. The community was divided. There was a lot of hostility.

I knew what I wanted to do, but it had to be the right time to do it. I wrote the prep-school model. At first I wanted to have the whole model system all together in one building, kindergarten through high school. I found that was too big a change for the district to accept. So an elementary school and a junior high that feed into Washington have adopted the prep-school model, both feeder schools. We communicate all the time, and there's continuity in the curriculum straight through.

The first thing I did was have every child and parent sign a contract. In the contract they agree to standards in four basic areas: attendance, conduct, homework, and dress.

Then we began to recruit heavily for teachers. We recruit teachers from all over the district. I believe we have the best teaching team in the state of California in a public school. But we're going to get better, because we're still recruiting better teachers.

How do you deal with teachers that don't share your goals or aren't performing?

When a teacher doesn't share my goals, I go ahead and assume he doesn't know any better. We'll work with him to make sure he knows what we want. I send out memos every day and talk to the staff constantly. If a teacher still doesn't have that exceptional ethic it takes here, then they request a transfer.

That doesn't mean they won't be a good teacher somewhere else, but they don't have what it takes to perform at this school.

I don't believe I can staff-develop a poor teacher. I can make good teachers better. I can improve their skills and give them better tools. But they have to have that ability to inspire children to learn - that leadership quality.

The prep-school model takes a good staff. That means it's harder to replicate at other schools.

How has morale changed here?

Morale is high. During class time, the halls are quiet. No longer do you see three or four kids standing around outside the classrooms. No longer are teachers distracted by noise from classes where the teacher has no discipline. Nothing is more discouraging to a good teacher than the feeling that (he is) the only one with high standards. It's frustrating to hear a class down the hall that's turned into a zoo. We don't have that here. It's quiet.

What do you think of merit pay for teachers?

I support it. My only concern about designating master teachers is if it means the best teachers have to spend a lot of their time outside the classroom.

Look at me, I can't teach anymore. And there's nothing I can do better than teach in the classroom. I can't run a school, speak to parent groups, inspire the staff; I can't even talk better than I can teach in the classroom. But when I was teaching I got frustrated with what I saw around me, so I had to go into administration and change how my school was run.

That's why I don't want to rise any higher in administration than I am now. I don't want to leave the school.

Are you getting students that are adequately prepared for high school?

Nope. That's why the test scores stay low.

We're dealing with poverty - poverty of the spirit, poverty of the mind, poverty of the pocketbook. That's why it takes an exceptional vision and commitment to hold high expectations for the children here.

Now you've got to do some miraculous things. We've got some miracle workers on this campus.

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