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.”