by Melissa Pamer Staff Writer | Daily Breeze
Tuesday, 10/13/2009 -- Just two weeks after Gardena High School found itself on a list of 12 troubled Los Angeles Unified campuses that could be taken over by outside operators, its principal has quit, citing a lack of unity on campus.
Kevin Kennedy, who has been at the school less than two years, announced Friday he was taking an administrative position with Local District 8, which oversees schools from Gardena to San Pedro.
District officials said the change was motivated by the need for help in the local district office, which saw half of its staff cut under budget reductions earlier this year.
Kennedy wrote in a memo sent to staff Friday that he made the announcement with a "heavy heart."
"The school faces tremendous challenges in the coming months," wrote Kennedy, 61. "To succeed in meeting those challenges, a united Gardena is essential. The division among us is a distraction and collaborative team work is the first element for a united Gardena."
Kennedy's replacement is Rudy Mendoza, 46, a Carson resident and an alumnus and former assistant principal of Banning High in Wilmington.
Local District 8 Superintendent Linda Del Cueto cited Mendoza's "collaborative style" in a letter announcing the selection.
The change comes to Gardena High as the sprawling, nearly 3,200-student campus - among the lowest achieving secondary schools in the South Bay - enters a process that could see it turned over to operation by a charter organization, the teachers union or other nonprofit.
Gardena, along with San Pedro High and 10 other LAUSD campuses, was placed last month on a list of "focus schools" that are the first batch to be subject to the Public School Choice plan approved by the Board of Education in August.
Under the plan, underperforming and newly constructed campuses will be up for bids from operators both inside and outside the school district.
Students at Gardena High were expected to stage a silent protest today demonstrating their opposition to being turned into a charter, district officials said.
The timing of the leadership change has some teachers worried about bringing in a new principal, even though Kennedy was reportedly unpopular among some staff.
"(Mendoza) has never been a principal before. This isn't to say he can't do the job, but we have a school that has literally been thrown to the dogs by district administration," said teacher Saul Lankster, referring to the school's inclusion on the "focus schools" list.
Lankster is a history teacher and chair of the Gardena High chapter of United Teachers Los Angeles, which he said is drafting a plan that would recreate the campus as a district-affiliated charter school.
Mendoza, who started Monday, could not be reached for comment.
Local district officials said Mendoza's experience at "tough schools" made him well-prepared to guide Gardena through the Public School Choice process.
The campus this year also faces a high-stakes visit by a regional academic accreditation group and the implementation of "small learning communities," a districtwide program that divides high school students into themed groups.
Those challenges come after Kennedy's tenure marked a change for Gardena High, which has a predominately Latino and African-American student body.
After serving as an assistant principal at Narbonne High, Kennedy was appointed to the top job at Gardena in January 2008. Because of health issues, he was unable to take his position until September 2008. His tenure coincided with an edict from LAUSD headquarters to reduce the number of suspensions of students, district officials said.
When Kennedy took the job, Gardena had the highest number of suspensions in the district, said local district high school Director Juan Flecha. That had been the legacy of Gardena's previous principal, Russ Thompson, who "ran a tight, tight ship" as a way to address race-based violence on campus, Flecha said.
Thompson was promoted to an administrative position at a local district office, a fact that irritated Lankster, who said he would "follow Thompson into battle."
Under Kennedy, the number of suspensions dropped significantly, Flecha said.
"That's been interpreted as, `Oh wow, the discipline has gone south under his reign,"' he said.
Kennedy also emphasized addressing behavioral problems in the classroom, rather than kicking kids out for acting up, Flecha said, adding that the policy could have caused tension with teachers.
Lankster characterized the changes this way: "All hell broke loose. There was no order on this campus. There hasn't been any discipline since Mr. Kennedy came."
At Local District 8, Kennedy will oversee the regional accreditation process at several local high schools, including Gardena, and the implementation of an International Baccalaureate program at Carson High School.
He did not respond to a request for comment.