Timothy McKenna, who won praise for reducing violence at Furness High School in South Philadelphia, has been named president of Central High, the city's oldest public school and one of its most prestigious.
The selection is a coup for Central, which sought a replacement for Sheldon S. Pavel, who in his 28 years of leading the school embodied its ethic of hard work and high expectations.
"I think [McKenna] has done an absolutely wonderful job at Furness. I think he has worked with his staff and his students to improve his school significantly," said Pavel, who will retire in July.
McKenna arrived at Furness in 2008, when Asian students there and at Fels and South Philadelphia High Schools were subjected to frequent attacks and harassment by other students.
McKenna implemented a strategy of making school a place where students wanted to be by establishing clubs, sports, and Advanced Placement classes. He added a weight room, for example. Twice a day, he got on the school loudspeakers to remind students that if they had a problem with another student, they should tell an adult.
"I think believing in the children of the city is the key factor. When you raise expectations for students, they will rise to those expectations," McKenna said Sunday.
About one-third of Furness students are English-language learners. McKenna, 41, kept them in English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, classes until they were ready to handle regular classes.
Helen Gym, a parent in the Philadelphia School District who has advocated on behalf of Asian students, said she worried McKenna's departure could cause problems to recur at Furness. The district had targeted Furness for closure, but it remained open in part because of McKenna's progress there.
"Before his arrival, we had a lot of complaints about anti-immigrant, anti-Asian violence, and it seems like he calmed the atmosphere down a bit and stabilized the school," Gym said. "I think Tim McKenna's great, and Central is obviously lucky to have him, but when you talk about the need for a strong principal, you really have to look at our neighborhood high schools."
Central is a special-admissions school. Students must apply to attend, and only those with high test scores and grades are accepted.
McKenna grew up in Frankford and graduated from St. Joseph's Preparatory School. He has an undergraduate degree from Fordham University and a master's in education from Lehigh.
He is the father of a 4-year-old daughter and enjoys golf, tennis, and travel.
The Central selection committee, which included faculty, students, parents, and alumni, considered 13 candidates. McKenna was one of three brought back for a second interview, said Charles Steinberg, who headed the committee and who graduated from Central in 1964, or in the 221st class, which is how alumni describe when they attended. Instead of a principal, the school has a president.
Shai Gluskin, parent of a Central student who also was on the selection committee, said McKenna brought a depth of knowledge about Central and ideas that helped him win the job.
"After he left the room, we were just, like, wow, this is an impressive character who can really uphold the tradition at Central while bringing new ideas to the job," Gluskin said.