Arturo Ybarra said the appearance of George McKenna III in Watts was like manna from the headquarters of Los Angeles Unified School District, a place hardly known for dispensing providence to his neighborhood. For years, Ybarra and his group, Parents and Students Organized, had been toiling to get the district‘s attention about decrepit schools, low test scores and high dropout rates — not to mention principals and teachers who seemed unable or unwilling to turn things around. But when McKenna became superintendent last year of District I, among the toughest of the 11 minidistricts carved out within LAUSD, Ybarra felt a sea change. McKenna’s often controversial hands-on approach and penchant for close oversight was just what he was looking for. It also was what had already made McKenna equally famous and infamous in a storied career as a principal and administrator that began at an ailing Los Angeles high school in the late ‘70s.
From the community’s perspective, McKenna “was very receptive, he listened to us, to our complaints,” said Ybarra, who also heads the grassroots WattsCentury Latino Organization. “And then he shared with us his own plans for reform. We were amazed.”
But McKenna is out; he resigned this summer after his boss, L.A. Unified Superintendent Roy Romer, abruptly removed two of the five executive-level administrators, called directors, who served directly under McKenna in the chain of command. And while it is ostensibly encouraging that the district finally appears willing to replace administrators — the school system is notorious for offering permanent employment to middle management regardless of competence — critics complain that something other than overdue accountability is afoot. These observers say the move against McKenna‘s team has more to do with internal politics or, even worse, that McKenna was undone exactly because he pushed for the uncompromising standards to which district officials pay frequent lip service.
A prominent theory is that United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), long McKenna’s nemesis, pressured Romer to force McKenna out. In its newsletter, the teachers union heatedly criticized the District I superintendent for imposing teacher-unfriendly rules — regular, unannounced classroom visits by administrators, mandatory homework assignments and teacher dress codes, among other things.
In an interview, UTLA vice president Bev Cook said that the union put no overt pressure on the superintendent, but “Did we point out [McKenna‘s] faults to Romer? Yes.”
Citing employee confidentiality rights, Romer said only that McKenna’s deputies were bad for District I because of their “leadership styles” and that they “were barriers to progress.” At the same time, Romer praised McKenna personally and said he “preferred that he stay, and [I] value the work he has done.”
McKenna ran off a checklist of this work that has always been the core of his plan of action: a local teacher-recruitment fair — finding good teachers has always been a problem in high-poverty schools; unannounced “instructional audits” — to keep educators doing their best work at all times; release time to allow teachers to visit other classrooms. He defends the practices called into question by the teachers union; requiring lesson plans results in more effective teaching, he believes. As does making teachers assign homework every day. As for the dress code, McKenna said he merely insisted that teachers adhere to the same dress code that students must abide by, i.e., no earrings, no baggy pants, etc. “It‘s called modeling.”
He added, “I was on the verge of initiating standardized discipline codes, so that teachers would have a menu of things, responses to fall back on, so that principals would know to exhaust certain remedies before suspending a kid — actions like parent conferences. Misbehaving alone is not a good reason to send a student home.”
McKenna had issued these sorts of policy edicts in previous administrative stints, stressing exacting and uniform approaches to old problems. “Principals were accepting all of this by and large,” said McKenna of his brief tenure in District I. “The problem is that UTLA and [the administrators union] are resistant to leadership.”
The teachers union sees it differently. An article in the union newsletter last fall — just months into McKenna’s tenure — alleged routine contract violations involving academic freedom, lesson plans, dress codes and teacher evaluations. The union has filed grievances on behalf of several teachers in District I, though it is not clear how many relate to McKenna‘s deputies, according to the union. UTLA president Day Higuchi called McKenna’s strictures “a collection of impractical, unworkable and harmful ideas,” adding that while teachers stood ready to work with the superintendent to achieve reforms, “We‘re also ready to defend our [union] members from mindless top-down oppression. Which one it will be is up to him.”
While McKenna maintains that he never had any formal conversations with Superintendent Romer about his deputies, he does recall Romer asking in passing, more than once, if he could handle the teachers union. “My response to that was, a ’Yeah, I‘m fine,’” said McKenna frostily. “‘I can handle them. Can you?’”
But there are more levels of intrigue and irony in the departure of McKenna. The same day that Romer removed McKenna‘s deputies and McKenna resigned in protest, the board approved a motion to attack the long-standing problem of black underachievement in the district. The motion was championed by Genethia Hudley Hayes, the sole African-American on the board. Hayes had no direct authority over McKenna, but her views are unquestionably influential, especially because McKenna presided over some schools in her board district. McKenna was immediately replaced by Sylvia Rousseau, a friend of Hayes who worked with her on educational projects during Hayes’ time at the helm of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Rousseau has ties not only to Hayes but to McKenna as well: She was his assistant principal at Washington High for many years. Though Hayes says she was not privy to Romer‘s decision about the deputies, one state legislator confirms he got a heads-up call from Hayes, presumably to lessen the political fallout within the African-American community. “The basis of the call was, ’George might not like this,‘” recalled state Senator Kevin Murray.
Yet according to Hayes, Romer “doesn’t have to consult with me, or with anybody. He doesn‘t have to ask my permission.” While she called McKenna “one of those people who have been most articulate about problems facing inner-city schools,” she also critiqued his confrontational style, saying, “There was a certain amount of inflexibility about George.” She asserts that UTLA’s antagonism had nothing to do with his exit, instead placing responsibility for that on McKenna himself. “George didn‘t take the time and care he could have taken with this issue,” said Hayes. “He’s the best guy for the job. In the end, this is a loss to those kids in South-Central.”
In other words, McKenna had no business jumping ship over the loss of the deputies. (One of them was offered a transfer. The other‘s contract was simply not renewed.) Hayes said the district had gotten complaints that these administrators were heavy-handed and imperious, but to McKenna, the removal of his aides was nothing less than an attack on him, one small step removed. These administrators, in particular, were the most forward extension of McKenna’s policies in the classroom; one of their chief duties was to conduct the surprise “educational audits.” These audits included visits to classrooms to see how closely teachers were following McKenna‘s dictates, so it is hardly surprising that these administrators would merit the particular displeasure of the teachers union. It’s no wonder that McKenna would see his deputies‘ removal as a personal repudiation that called into question whether he would ever receive the autonomy that was promised the new regional superintendents.
McKenna himself said he is “shocked and stunned” by what he essentially feels was a forced resignation, a trap in which he all too willingly took the bait. “But I’m not surprised,” he added. “I didn‘t think I’d be satisfactory to everybody. Now I‘m being removed from any effort to emancipate these kids.”
Such clipped but dramatic analyses are typical of the 60-year-old McKenna. For years, he was one of the few personalities in the dronish world of L.A. inner-city public schools, an outspoken educator who gained national recognition and even brief Hollywood fame as a high school principal in a television movie, starring Denzel Washington, made about his life, his reformist passion and the hardball tactics that jump-started troubled Washington High, a South Los Angeles campus, in the early ’70s. McKenna‘s intellectual rigor and commitment, as well as his abrasiveness and occasional extremism, prompted an exodus of Washington High teachers and earned the wrath of the teachers union. Some of the departed, many of whom were white, called it a purge, but McKenna characterized it differently: “The teachers all left voluntarily from Washington . . . I established standards; they refused to respond to them.”
McKenna later served as superintendent of the Inglewood Unified School District, from 1988 to 1994, departing with mixed reviews after local elections replaced the school-board majority that had hired him. He then served as deputy superintendent of the Compton schools, working as part of the state-appointed administration that stepped in as part of an academic and financial bailout.
McKenna reached a career pinnacle when he was named by interim Los Angeles Superintendent Ramon Cortines to head District I; its 62 schools spanned South-Central, South Los Angeles and Watts, and promised to be one of the most difficult of the 11 LAUSD regions to overhaul. Tim Watkins, CEO and president of the Watts Community Labor Action Committee, believes McKenna’s untimely departure will make things that much more difficult. “I‘ve been a resident here for 48 years. I’ve been subject to so much neglect that I looked forward to this new alliance and meaningful solutions,” he said. “George actually joined community groups. We were seeing the results of a new literacy. We were getting new supplies. Now it‘s all gone.”
A group of about 10 concerned citizens met with Romer last week. The group included Ybarra, civil rights activist and businessman Danny Bakewell, and the Rev. Cecil Murray of the First AME Church. Both sides say that the superintendent, while willing to listen to community concerns, remains adamant about his decision. McKenna is technically on paid administrative leave from his $150,000-a-year job through next June, when his two-year contract expires.
New Superintendent Rousseau, like McKenna, came back to L.A. Unified after an extended absence to join the “reform” team. In her initial role, as an assistant superintendent of secondary instruction, she was an architect of the incipient black-student achievement initiative. McKenna supporters worry about Rousseau’s appointment for rather opposing reasons: Some worry that she lacks McKenna‘s considerable experience as superintendent; others that Rousseau will be leaving the districtwide black-student initiative in uncertain hands at a very critical juncture. “Neither move is good for black students and low-achieving students generally,” remarked Owen Knox, a retired member of the school district’s Council of Black Administrators.
At this point, McKenna supporters are not calling for his return, only a clarification on why and under what terms he left. However the matter ends up, it has forged some compelling new alliances. Bakewell and other African-Americans are standing with Ybarra in an area of the city where black-Latino tensions have run particularly high. At least for a moment, there is black-and-brown unity over a common concern of schools — something that actually matters. The rabble-rousing Bakewell is exercising uncharacteristic restraint in stressing the importance of due process and education, not race, in his latest fight-the-power campaign. Ybarra articulated best the broad bottom line for everyone. “The issue here,” he said, “is that unless we change educational trends, our kids are going to be service workers or slaves.”