In the unincorporated southwest community of Westmont, you’ll find a wide-spreading campus that, just under a century ago, was home to a one-of-a-kind aviation program for high school students.
Today we’re looking at a brief history of Washington Preparatory High School, and we’ll also take a look at how this local high school jumpstarted development in Southwest Los Angeles.
Building George Washington High School
In February of 1927, Los Angeles City School district announced plans to build a new high school to keep up with its rapidly expanding student population. In this round of new schools, the school district planned George Washington High School near the Southwest corner of Normandie Avenue and One Hundred and Eighth Street.
The first half of the 1930s was an odd time for Los Angeles. While Los Angeles was mainly developed in its west and central regions, most of the south region, especially the southwest, including neighborhoods like Baldwin hills and Leimert Park were sprawling areas with few developments. However, this made the southwest one of the most promising places for returns in the late 20s, 30s, and 40s. As LA grew, the development of new schools, homes, and shopping centers attracted many to the city of angels. Anyways, I could go on about this, so let’s jump back to the school.
In the spring of 1928, Los Angeles City School district opened the $1 million campus as a junior high school, serving grad es seven through twelve. And within one year, the school had over 2,000 students, and demanded more growth to accommodate the fast-growing Southwest area of Los Angeles.
Here’s a fun fact for you all: While it doesn’t seem like a huge accomplishment now, Washington Prep is said to be the first Los Angeles school to hold a graduation ceremony outdoors. It held that ceremony in its quadrangle in the summer of 1929.
Aviation and growth
George Washington High School opened with a strong academic offering. Located near LA’s once open flying fields, Washington offered a grounded aviation course. Then-superintendent Susan M. Dorsey wasn’t a fan of teaching flight at school and limited the first flight program in the school district to George Washington High School, making it the first school in California to offer an at-school aviation study program. To participate, students had to be at least 16 years of age, physically fit, and have participated in motor, electricity, and physics courses. The school district even secured discarded motors and planes from the government, and funded the cost for equipment for the class.
Things were going well for the aviation program at Washington. I mean, one instructor did almost lose an eye in the first years of the program, but… I guess you can say the school turned a blind eye to this mishap…sorry.
The aviation program at Washington proved to be the school’s most popular offering, attracting droves of interested transfer students as early as 1931. In fact, that school year, the principal at Washington anticipated a 10 percent growth in student body, and began sourcing funds to expand the physical footprint of the campus.
As the program progressed, students studied plane construction, engines, and aeronautical navigation, and even gained access to an old US military biplane, which likely were used in World War I.
In 1939 the city of Los Angeles opened Southwest College, a new community college for Southwest Los Angeles, right on the Washington Prep. Because Washington prep established such a solid reputation in aviation, Southwest planned to continue the vocational program, and add several other areas of study.
The college immediately had a positive reception, and also offered courses in commercial art, vocational mathematics, blue-print reading, and mechanical drawing, but none of those courses saw the same demand as its aeronautics courses.
The cool thing is, Southwest College still exists today, just a few blocks down from Washington on Imperial Highway.
George Washington High School enjoyed a high enrollment for decades after its aviation boom. In fact, in 1960 the school had to implement two separate lunch periods to keep up with the growing population, and in that same year the school had a senior class of 683 students. Quietly, aviation at Washington Prep became less of a newspaper attraction for several LA publications, and Washington’s football, basketball, and baseball programs began to shine in the limelight.
By the mid 1960s, I saw the first integrated photo at George Washington High School, and by 1978, the LA Times reported on West Athens being a primarily black and poor neighborhood. It happened quickly, with little reporting in between.
By the early 1980s, George Washington High School’s reputation shifted from a new, hopeful school to a low-performing majority-black school that, however, still had a lot of charm, and a solid investment in the arts. The school’s once overwhelmingly white population was then 90 percent black and 10 percent Latino.
In the 80s, George McKenna took the helm of leadership at Washington, challenging its reputation as a low-performing inner-city school. Under McKenna’s leadership, the school invested more into academic programs, including the development of performing arts, math and science, and communication art magnets; He also invested into the school’s college preparation, effectively renaming George Washington High School, George Washington Preparatory High School. By the mid 80s, the once failing Washington High School was then sending more than 80 percent of its students to college.
McKenna’s story is effectively documented with a few embellishments in the biographical television film “Hard Lessons,” which features Denzel Washington.
Today, George Washington Preparatory High School continues to stand as an essential institution that has firmly shaped South Los Angeles into the region it is today.
Today the school has condensed its magnet offerings into a sole Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and mathematics magnet. It also shares a campus with LAUSD’s Duke Ellington High School, which can be found on the 110th Street side of the school.
As of 2019, George Washington Preparatory High School has 814 students. The once majority black school now has a population that is now 54 percent Latino, and 44 percent black. According to the California Department of Education, 42 percent of students graduate high school with a plan to pursue college or a vocation.
Notable alumni include for LA County DA Gil Garcetti, who is also the father of Eric Garcetti, the former mayor of Los Angeles; Actor-Rapper Ice Cube; and former American Football player and coach, James Lofton.