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Emancipation through Education: the mantra of George McKenna

Gregg Reese | 5/8/2014, midnight

Of all the candidates vying for the vacant school board seat of now deceased Marguerite P. LaMotte this coming June 3, possibly none have the name recognition of George McKenna. During his 50-year career in education he worked as a teacher at the high school and college level before making his mark as a secondary school administrator.

Born and bred during the segregation era in his native New Orleans, George McKenna III was fortified by a rich legacy of academic achievement in which his parents and other family members were teachers. This environment allowed him to witness the “caste” system that presented a formidable obstacle for the progress of people of color, and made him determined to stay the course for his own development.

“I’m not going to participate in my own oppression,” he declares.

The product of a rigorous Catholic curriculum shepherded by Josephite Priests—the mission society dedicated to uplift liberated slaves after the Civil War—young McKenna made his mark as a scholar/athlete before earning his math degree at Xavier University of Louisiana. Moving through graduate school at Chicago’s Loyola University, California State University, UCLA, and other institutions, he eventually received his Doctorate of Education from Xavier.

McKenna took a teaching position at David Star Jordan High School a year before the seminal Watts Uprising/Riot in 1965. This event empowered him to resurrect the school system to address the needs of the underserved community.

Referring to the events that shaped his life, McKenna philosophizes, “thank God for a messed-up situation, otherwise a brother might not get a job.”

During the 1980s, McKenna took the helm at George Washington Memorial High School, a decision that would have fateful consequences. Previously, this school, notable as the place where Los Angeles street legends Raymond Washington and Stanley “Tookie” Williams launched the “Crips” street gang a decade earlier, had a reputation of academic underperformance, low teacher moral, and the dual scourge of narcotics trafficking and violence that are a staple of the inner city. People seeking to evade this antisocial climate engaged in a mass exodus to outside schools via busing, a common remedy for substandard education in the era following desegregation, as McKenna dryly notes.

“We always run away from ourselves,” he says.

In what became his career defining moment, he turned what had a bastion of gang violence and drug infestation into a model of scholastic reform. Today, years after the Washington High transformation, McKenna refuses to summarize the methodology he used into a single sound bite, insisting the process is too complicated, involving a combination of many separate components, especially community and parental involvement, and the introduction of individual contracts with pupils in which they agreed to abide by standards of conduct while on campus and complete homework assignments.

The results included a reversal of the mass migration out of the school, with a lengthy waiting list of prospective students eager to enroll in its place, and an about face of the soaring dropout rate to a scenario in which 80 percent of Washington graduates were attending college.