In The Press

Surprising truths from superstar principal

By Jay Mathews, The Washington Post
Originally published 5:30 AM ET, 12/ 3/2010.
View the article on The Washington Post website.

Henry Gradillas was the principal of Garfield High School in the 1980s when the chairman of its math department, a Bolivian immigrant named Jaime Escalante, became the most famous teacher in the United States.Escalante, about whom I wrote a book, was an amazing educator, but he would never have gained such renown and become the subject of the film "Stand and Deliver" if it had not been for Gradillas.

I have never seen in action an urban high school principal as good as Gradillas [pronounced gra-DEE-us] was. His example influences everything I (and a lot of other people) think about how to make schools better.

So when Gradillas told me he was going to write his own book of advice for school leaders, I encouraged him, although I feared that 25 years after the peak of his career many of his views would be out of date. He is still a vigorous man, with a handsome crop of white hair. He still works as a tutor and substitute teacher in Wisconsin. But much of the jargon and many of the issues have changed since his time in Los Angeles. I feared that at age 76 he would sound like an old coot rather than the vibrant and clever administrator I remembered.


Boy, was I wrong. His book just came out. It is "Standing and Delivering: What the Movie Didn't Tell," co-authored with teacher and writer Jerry Jesness. The publisher is Rowman & Littlefield. I read it on the plane coming back from Thanksgiving in California. I disturbed my wife and son with my frantic underlining and frequent exclamations of wonder and surprise.

It is a terrific book filled with great stories. More importantly, it is painfully relevant to what we are arguing about in city schools these days. I say painful because Gradillas in some cases persuasively contradicts policies that many education leaders I admire have been pursuing.

A popular approach to improving schools is to weed out the weak teachers right away. Gradillas says that is a bad idea. Many good-hearted reformers assume that the best teachers in their schools are going to support their efforts most strongly. Gradillas found that was not so, for very important reasons.

Keep in mind that Gradillas became principal at Garfield not long after the school had narrowly escaped losing its accreditation because it was a sinkhole of low expectations and gang tension. The student body was about 85 percent low-income and 95 percent Hispanic.

In Gradillas' first year, the Advanced Placement calculus program that would make Garfield famous almost collapsed when the College Board accused several students of cheating. That crisis was resolved when they retook the exam, at Escalante's urging, and did well again. But that did not cure Garfield's many ills. Reading levels were still low. The dropout rate was 51 percent. Garfield seniors scored at the 19th percentile on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. Suspensions and campus violence were common.

Yet the book reveals that in 1986, after four years of Gradillas, the Los Angeles Unified School District recognized Garfield as the school with the lowest number of expulsions, suspensions and incidences of police intervention in the district. The dropout rate declined. The CTBS scores soared. And in 1987 the school produced 26 percent of all the Mexican-Americans in the United States who passed an Advanced Placement Calculus exam.

In this relatively short 121-page book, Gradillas describes how he began the Garfield turnabout in an unconventional way:

"Teachers take a lot of the blame for problems in schools. A number of parents and fellow administrators suggested that I start by eliminating the poorer teachers. Again, trying to first correct instruction before establishing a positive school climate kills any chance of creating an effective school. An otherwise competent administrator I know failed to survive at his high school because his approach was to hit the teachers first.

"No administrator can raise test scores by first attacking the delivery of instruction. In the first place, this approach gives the kids the impression that they are off the hook, that they are not responsible for anything that goes on in their school. In the second place, this tactic will cause the teachers to buck the administration from day one. Everybody loses when that happens."

What he did instead was take seriously, in a way few principals do, the powers given to principals under state, county and district guidelines. As he put it, he had "the authority to insure that instruction goes on uninterrupted and mandate that all efforts be made to insure graduation." He removed distractions of every sort---former students gathering across the street, current students wandering the halls during class (a common situation in some D.C. high schools today), and poor classroom discipline inspired, Gradillas says, by the widespread belief that Hispanic students' "hot Latin blood is going to keep them from sitting quietly through their classes."

When he asked police to remove local youth parking their cars and playing their radios at top volume across the street, the officers said "they could not order cars to leave as long as they were legally parked in a public place," Gradillas says. "I had to show a police lieutenant in writing that any deliberate act that interfered with the educational process is a violation of the law. The police then told the offenders that they must leave or be arrested. That was the end of the problem."

He instilled in all of his staff their responsibility for calling out students misbehaving. This extended to janitors, who were told to intervene when students littered, and to cooks, who stopped students trying to take an extra taco. Any student who resorted to violence "was suspended, transferred and gone the same day," he says. He did not think this was so harsh because it gave them a chance "to make a fresh start at another LAUSD campus if they so chose."

Students who missed two weeks of class or more had to sit in special rooms doing makeup work before they could return to class with their friends. Gradillas ordered his clerks to stop rubber-stamping the welfare department forms asking if students were in school. If they had been absent, the welfare people were told that. That meant their families would not get their benefits, and take school attendance more seriously.

Teachers were instructed to lock their doors so that tardy students could not get in. The latecomers were herded into the auditorium and lectured on punctuality. A second violation meant a visit to a counselor. A third meant after-school or Saturday detention. Tardiness declined significantly. Gradillas organized regular sweeps of the halls so that stragglers would learn roaming around was no longer allowed.

Gradillas, as he said, first focused on fixing procedures, not teachers, but some of his teachers did not like the new procedures. Some refused to lock out tardy students. Some even hid hallway wanderers in their classrooms so they could avoid the roundup. "These Latino kids have had enough doors slammed in their faces," one teacher told him. "I don't want to slam my door on them."

The principal's response was that he was opening doors for their future. As he says in the book, "19-year-old high school graduates should not lose jobs because they have not figured out that they have to show up for work on time."

Some of his best teachers, well-acquainted with urban school inertia, told Gradillas they loved his intentions and his values, but thought it all would quickly fall apart. They said if they followed his lead they too would be punished when he offended too many people and got fired. They said if he did well, he would be promoted in a couple of years and they would get the usual replacement who squashed everyone loyal to the old principal. "Everyone who did things your way will be on the s--- list," one said. 

Eventually many came around, as Gradillas raised the level of the curriculum, with AP expanding to departments other than math. He and his staff worked with weak teachers to make them better. "About half of the teachers we targeted for improvement came through for us," he said.

There is much more to the story by an educator who never lost his sense of humor. That was the case even when he took a leave to get his doctorate, returned to Los Angeles and found his reward was a job as the district's liaison for asbestos inspections. In a way, his teachers had been right. Good deeds in urban education often do not go unpunished.

But Gradillas bounced back. The asbestos assignment for Jaime Escalante's principal put him on the front page of the Post, as well as other newspapers. The state superintendent of public instruction made him a statewide trouble shooter. He became principal of another big school, Birmingham High in the San Fernando Valley, and a frequent speaker around the country.

Age has not slowed him down. He is as up to date with the factions and arguments about fixing inner city schools as anyone I know. And he actually fixed one school, at least for awhile, in a big way. That is worth reading about. It is a short book. I am discovering that reading it three or four times is even better, so I make sure the lessons sink in