George McKenna: When a Living Legend Speaks

  • 05/29/2014
  • Reporters Desk

By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor

Candidate for the Los Angeles School Board George McKenna is living legend for many in the African-American community.

His legend is largely due to role in turning Washington Prep High School from a failing and violent school to a renowned performing arts academy in the 1980s. The turnaround was so dramatic that a film was made about it with Denzel Washington starring as McKenna. With this film, his legend only grew.

His almost 50 years of service meant that he served as principal of the schools attended by my parents, uncles, aunts and cousins born before 1970. My mother, a former student of Mount Vernon Junior High School, has fond memories of McKenna and remembers him from when he served Dorsey High School.

I was reminded of this nostalgia listening in on the conversations of black educators, both retired and active, one recent Sunday at the home of San Pedro residents Ron and Vive Jones.

He shared with his small audience of 30 or so, what he learned while on his journey through life.

“What I’ve found, especially with people in California, especially those from disadvantaged circumstances, believe that what they have is the best they can get,” McKenna said. “And they learn to live in what I call a limited reality. The disenfranchised don’t always recognize their own oppression because they live in what I call a limited reality.”

McKenna, made clear on this evening, that he sees his role as a creator of appropriate abnormality. McKenna noted that the film made about his life at Washington Prep made what should have been normal, abnormal. The media and everyone else had the expectation that its supposed to be failing and impoverished, just because this school was filled with black and brown students.

“They pay attention to planes that crash or planes that disappear. And that’s considered the abnormal. When a school works in our neighborhood, it is considered abnormal,” McKenna said. “The Crips having people feeling terrified, that’s considered normal. You see, we’re abnormal when we work and normal when we don’t.”

Then he posed the question: What if we said allowing kids to drop out of school was the greatest crime that could be committed against a kid?

“I want zero tolerance for drop outs,” McKenna said. “We have zero tolerance for weapons on school campuses. We have zero tolerance for drugs on campus. The moment a child is found to have a small pocket knife or some other sharp object, they are run out of school and put into jails.”

McKenna was drafted out of retirement shortly after Los Angeles School Board member Marguerite Poindexter Lamotte died in December 2013. He was drafted because of his stature in education circles and the black community which is on par with  a cadre of black leaders that emerged in the late 1960s at around the same time, a group that includes former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, retired Los Angeles City Councilman Robert Farrell, and founder of the Congress of Racial Equality in Los Angeles Celes King II, among others.

This history and her personal experience in working with McKenna when he worked as an administrator in the Los Angeles Unified is whyVive, a principal of Menlo elementary school backed McKenna. She alluded to McKenna’s pragmatism noting that he won’t give everything teachers want but he’ll have their backs on the things that matter most.

Budlong Elementary School Principal, Cheri Hodo, recalled how the Inglewood School District attempted to remove a popular and effective African-American male teacher from her school. McKenna supported her in retaining him.

Former Washington Prep High School student, Ron recalled McKenna’s immediate impact just from walking the halls and setting the standard for excellence.

“McKenna used to say, ‘Everybody can’t get into a 4-year university. Just do something. Bring something to the table.’ Especially, at that time when kids didn’t have hope.” Ron said.

McKenna isn’t running for Los Angeles Unified’s 7th District. He’s running for District 1. But listening to him speak I couldn’t but get excited about the possibilities of having a smart, courageous, and independent voice on the board with a students-first mentality.


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