A recipe for teaching from LAUSD board member George McKenna, who’s been at it 55 years
Mike Szymanski | March 28, 2016
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George McKenna is going into his 55th year as an educator, and he has a lot to say about it.
In fact, he declares: “Give me a school that’s supposedly poor-performing for three years and I guarantee you no charter school would be able to snatch any kids from that school, and no kids will want to leave that school. Now, I’m not bragging, but I can do it.”
Of course, he adds, “I’d have to have the flexibility to be able to do what charter schools do and be able to get the right teachers in there, but it can be done.”
McKenna, who started teaching math at LA Unified in 1962 and now sits on the school board of the second-largest district in the country, said he has some common-sense ideas for making schools better. His style is peppered with homespun anecdotes and folksy humor, sometimes referred to as McKenna-isms, but they also offer solid solutions.
McKenna remains critical of some structures of the institution that he now is a leader of, and he is skeptical of Common Core and and various district policies. He has succeeded in implementing some solutions, and he has failed at others. But at 75, he is still trying.
“You have to figure out what will make the students interested in coming to school,” McKenna said in an interview with LA School Report. “Why did kids like to come to my trigonometry class? I had jokes, and I try to show them the practical side to what they’re learning. I would have them figure out the height of a fence that they would have to jump if a dog was chasing them over it, things like that. I keep them entertained.”
Not all of his ideas succeeded. He wrote a bill for the California legislature to consider that would permit parents to take time off from work to visit schools and sit in classrooms. The measure didn’t get out of committees, but he still thinks it’s an important idea.
INVOLVING THE PARENTS
“Parental involvement is one of the most important elements to a successful school,” McKenna said. He disagrees with the use of automated robo-calls or sending home flyers because parents rarely respond to them. Teachers need to call the homes of their students if they’re not coming to school, and if necessary the principal needs to make those calls too. “Parent involvement is crucial, and I believe if you have somebody sitting in the back of every classroom, smiling, education would improve 500 percent. That’s why I asked the business community to release parents to their schools for two hours a month to do that.”
When he took over a failing high school and turned it into Washington Preparatory High School, he had parents sign contracts with students and teachers that outlined specific goals and expectations. He implemented a dress code, cleaned up the graffiti and gang tagging and created an air of respect for each other and among the staff. That’s the model that became the subject of a movie, “The George McKenna Story” in which he is played by Denzel Washington.
Mandating homework was a challenge for both the teachers and the students, but it helped them create a structure. McKenna said he wanted to nationalize homework throughout the U.S. “That way no parent would ever have to ask, ‘It’s Monday night, do you have any homework?’ because Monday will be national Math Homework Day and maybe the TV stations will have instructional shows that night.”
SHARING WITH CHARTERS
One of the things McKenna said needs changing in the system is to share practices that work and are replicable. He said that would solve a lot of the problems between charter and traditional schools.
“We have more charter schools in my little pocket of District 1 than any other in the whole state. There’s a big concentration. It does keep traditional schools under-enrolled, and I wished that weren’t the case.”
Great Public Schools Now, a plan partly funded by the Broad Foundation to increase the number of high-performing schools in the district including through charters, is not as threatening to him as it is to others in the district. McKenna’s district, just south of downtown Los Angeles, is predominantly lower-income and mostly black and Latino. McKenna said, “I’m not worried about charter schools, it depends on your lens, it’s an alternative. We are all public schools, but we should ask ourselves why children want to go to charter schools, what are they seeking? We should encourage all to do better.”
He added, “Some charter schools take advantage of exclusivity and they go look for better students and they fill up and say they don’t have any more room. Then they have better test scores. Sometimes it’s separatism and classism that works for them.
“The educational system must be education for all, not a few. Not for some in the Silicon Valley, but not for the ones in Napa Valley picking crops. That is ridiculous.”
TEACHING THE TEACHERS
Teachers sit together in the lunchroom, ride in carpools and have their own cliques, but McKenna pointed out, “They have never been in each other’s classrooms to watch how they teach. It doesn’t matter if it’s a different subject, but it helps to see how teachers handle classroom management and see how good practices work first-hand.”
At Washington High School, teacher Allan Kakassy was skeptical at first of McKenna’s plans for the teachers. Once the union representative among the teachers, Kakassy said he heard many complaints from teachers who were concerned about extra work that McKenna required of them, including calling parents at home for students who needed more help, working extra hours or weekends to help with tutoring and turning in lessons plans for the next week every Friday afternoon. Kakassy, who was depicted in the movie about McKenna, became one of McKenna’s leading supporters. Now retired and living in the San Fernando Valley, Kakassy keeps a few boxes full of newspaper clippings, photos, videos and other memorabilia of McKenna’s heyday of teaching, and he still serves on committees in an advisory capacity.
“There were some teachers who were resistant to what McKenna was doing, but others saw positive changes,” he said. Within five years, only 20 of the 140 teachers at the school when McKenna took over were still there. The rest had either transferred or resigned.
McKenna said that it’s important to change the mindset of teachers who may blame the students, or the neighborhoods where they live. “There’s nothing wrong with the kids, we should go with that premise,” McKenna said.
“First you have to identify the problems,” McKenna explained. “If you don’t mind that the carpet is red, then there’s no problem. So if you don’t think it’s a problem that a lot of your students are truant and not coming to school, then there’s nothing to be solved there. That’s a problem.”
He added, “There’s nothing wrong with the kids. There is something wrong with the people who work in the school.”
QUESTIONING COMMON CORE
“A lot of training for teachers now involves Common Core, and that’s a methodology and shouldn’t be handicapping teaching,” McKenna said. “The outcome should have more flexibility.”
One of the problems McKenna sees with Common Core Standards is that the process eliminates some rote memorization. As a former math teacher, he said it is important to memorize the multiplication tables, for example, and that’s what gets you to algebra. “It’s a mystery to me why that is no longer driven into kids and they don’t know their multiplication tables anymore,” McKenna said. “And there are ways to make math fun.”
He doesn’t believe in the district’s policy of moving students from one level to the next when they aren’t sufficient in basic reading or math levels. “Maybe he’s a slow learner, maybe we are not effective teachers, but we shouldn’t be passing them up the line without doing a better job. We shouldn’t have ninth-graders with the skill sets of third- or fourth-graders. Can’t we keep them another year?”
TEACHING SOCIAL JUSTICE
Another important part of McKenna’s ideal school includes the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus. He started social justice programs at Washington and that led to a drop in absenteeism to less than 10 percent because students knew it had become safer to attend classes.
“Anything that leads to helplessness and hopelessness also leads to violent behavior,” McKenna said. “And we’re all in it together.”
He added, “Honor students have an obligation to help their friends, their home boys to do better in school. They think they’re supposed to break dance and spin on their heads, but that’s only because we don’t have anything else to offer them. They need to all get high school diplomas.”
McKenna disagrees with the principals who seem like tough guys and walk the school hallways with a bat. “I’m 145 pounds and will not kick anybody’s butt, I’m not a bully,” he said. “Why not give them confidence and embarrass them with recognition when they do something good and read off their names on the intercom when it’s their birthday?”
He also sees value in including police and probation officers on campus. He had a police officer teach a class and work as an assistant football coach at Washington.
“Encourage a positive police presence on campus, that stops negative thoughts about it,” McKenna said. “It shows they are real human beings who will come to their dances, teach in the classrooms and maybe play basketball on occasion.”
“You don’t need doctors till you’re sick, you don’t need lawyers until you are in trouble, but you need teachers all the time,” McKenna said. He is supportive of professional development training, but he adds, “I do not believe in staff development of rotten teachers, I have no use for that.”
McKenna created the Zero Drop-Out resolution last year to eliminate students leaving high school.
“There’s now a commitment to let no child escape,” McKenna said. “If we can get to the point where we get no drop-outs, then that’s a success, and that’s different than 100 percent graduation.”
He also said he wants students to have the idea of going to college instilled at an early age, from first grade. “It should not be if you go to college, but where you’re going to college,” McKenna said.
He doesn’t believe that teachers shouldn’t hug or give a child an encouraging pat when they’ve done something good or need a hug. “Sure, I understand that there are strange people, but we’ve developed a system where we can’t touch a child, even if they need a hug, and that’s wrong,” McKenna said.
A final word of advice to principals and teachers: “Never initiate anything you can’t monitor. You must be able to monitor everything you try to do.”
McKenna said there’s a long way to go. “Public schools are the most powerful institution in America, they’re more powerful than Wall Street, more powerful than banks, more powerful than politics. It’s because it is one institution that requires by law that our children participate in it for 12 years. Children can’t drive, can’t drink, can’t vote, can’t have sex, can’t be out too late on street at nights, but they have to go to school otherwise they break the law, and the parents break the law. Some still don’t attend, and that’s truancy, and we want to correct that.”
He added, “We should know why they’re not there — and figure out ways of making them want to come back.”