George M. (264497)

He transformed a gang-infested South LA high school where kids were too afraid to attend into a place where enrollment swelled into the thousands and hundreds more who desired admission were put on a waiting list.  

Classrooms that were once covens of delinquency became pathways to success.

Teachers who fled in fear for their lives were replaced with instructors who didn’t just teach but led with a commitment to go beyond the call of duty.

This was George Washington Preparatory High School in late 1979.  This was former Principal George McKenna III’s defining moment.

The California African American Museum (CAAM) will hold “It’s a Reunion! Washington Prep High School” from 6:30 to 9 p.m. on Wednesday, July 18 located in Los Angeles’ Exposition Park at 600 State Drive. Admission is free, parking is $15, and registration is encouraged.

“I was approached by Washington Prep Alumni Tonya Matthews who heard about the CAAM exhibit and shared how many successful creatives from the entertainment industry came from the community despite its perceptual challenges,” said Chelo Velasco Montoya, director of Education and Public Programs at CAAM.

Montoya said Matthews provided a list of names of notable alumni which reads like a Hollywood red carpet. They panelists will include actress Wendy Raquel Robinson best known for her roles on the sitcoms “The Game” and “The Steve Harvey Show”; producer and writer Devon Sheppard, a writer on Showtime’s “Weeds” and a show runner on “The Legends of Chamberlain Heights’ on Comedy Central; and hip-hop recording artist and actress Yolanda Whitaker, also known as Yo-Yo, one of the most critical influential female voices of hip hop who collaborated with Quincy Jones, Ice Cube, Tupac and others.

L.A. legend Dr. George McKenna, who was actually portrayed by Denzel Washington in a film based on his contributions to the school, will moderate.

More than 30 years ago, CBS-TV aired the groundbreaking biopic titled “The George McKenna Story.” A cast of emerging Black stars highlight McKenna’s dangerous job as principal of a tough, inner-city school.  Oddly, the movie has been renamed “Hard Lessons” and can be seen on Netflix.

Perhaps the movie title change reflects how education has either forgotten or feels it has moved beyond that era.  Ironically, the movie was made about McKenna’s success in transforming a school, but today the Los Angeles Unified School District still faces low-performing public schools and charter schools that overpromise and under deliver.

“…a movie should not be about a school that works,” McKenna was quoted saying in a publication called “L.A. School Report” in 2016, the 30th anniversary of the movie. “It should work. Why should it be celebratory when it does work rather than invoking outrage when it doesn’t?” he added.

Ideally, he’s right.  “It should work.”  

In 1962, McKenna accepted a teaching position in the LAUSD. While continuing his education at Loyola University Law School, the University of California, Los Angeles and California State University at Los Angeles, McKenna remained a teacher, working at both the secondary and college levels.

McKenna became principal of George Washington Preparatory High School in 1979.  This was a unique time because the Athens community where the school is located was predominantly White.

“Following the Watts apprising of 1965, the diaspora of “White flight” resulted in 0% Caucasian students by 1970,” said McKenna who currently serves on the LAUSD Board of Education, District 1.

“African-American enrollment was nearly 90%, and the “Crips” gang originated in Athens in 1968. “  The rush of Black parents to voluntarily buss or integrate their children combined with White flight produced a perfect storm.  While McKenna navigated through the storm, he’s not a big believer in integration as much as he is a proponent of just good schools no matter what the student population is made of.  

Although this is a star is a star-studded reunion, the topic of discussion will focus on both humorous and sobering lessons learned from the past and how to uplift Los Angeles Unified School Districts burgeoning challenges.

Now, nearly 80, he has a vast repertoire of experiences to impart to educators, parents and students, making the CAAM event a mandatory attendance for all the above.

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