Henry Gradillas Interview

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A veteran educator and author, Henry Gradillas is nationally admired as the principal of Garfield High School in East Los Angeles from 1981 to 1987. There he took a struggling inner-city school with few academic accomplishments and turned it into an intellectual powerhouse.

Among the teachers who helped Gradillas turn Garfield around was Jaime Escalante. Escalante set up the outstandingly successful AP Calculus program depicted in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver. Escalante was the best known teacher during Garfield High’s “Golden Age,” but Gradillas hired and provided an effective base for many other outstanding teachers.

Gradillas was born in Santa Barbara, California, in 1934. His father was a boxer in Southern Arizona and later worked as a finish carpenter in Southern California. His mother was a homemaker, originally from Chihuahua, Mexico. His family, in which only Spanish was spoken, moved to East L.A. when he was still a child, and he grew up in the same barrio where he later worked as an educational reformer.

Gradillas, who rose to the rank of captain during six years’ service in the United States Army, received his B.S. in Agronomy from the University of California Davis, and his Ed.D. from Brigham Young University. Recently, he authored (with Jerry Jesness) Standing and Delivering: What the Movie Didn’t Tell (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).

For more information, visit Dr. Gradillas’s website: HenryGradillas.com.



Thank you very much for agreeing to participate in TheBestSchools.org’s ongoing series of interviews with public intellectuals who are making a positive difference to our national life and culture today, particularly through education.

Standing and DeliveringAll Americans are (or should be) concerned about the state of public education in our country. In your long experience as an educator, you have developed a set of principles that have proven highly effective. You have set out these principles for the benefit of us all in your inspiring and entertaining book, Standing and Delivering. Therefore, the main focus of this interview will be on your approach to education and how it has played out in practice. But first, we would like to ask you to share with our readers a little bit about your personal history.

We have supplied some of the basic facts in our brief introductory notes above, but we are especially curious about several points. To begin with, what was your own early experience like growing up in East L.A.? You were born in 1934. What was your sense back then of how you and your family fit into the life of the larger country? What, if anything, did the “American dream” mean to you back then? What sort of schools did you yourself attend? And how did you discover the power of education to transform your own life?

Henry Gradillas:

As early as I can remember, plants and all types of animals interested me. I collected live specimens, planted various kinds of seeds, constructed a workable irrigation system for our huge garden, and played all sorts of games with my sister and neighborhood friends.

All this happened during my elementary school years. In junior high school I was exposed to agricultural techniques involving horticulture, landscape design, and some animal husbandry. At home, we raised chickens, ducks, rabbits, and sometimes a goat. We lived a block away from a big low-income housing project in a modest two-story house. Friends and relatives often lived with us or rented a small room. A great deal of violence and vandalism occurred in and around the housing project. Law enforcement activity was a part of life in the barrio. I never took part in any of the criminal activities that happened in the community.

I clearly remember an incident that occurred on my way home from school. Several gang boys attacked me and held a weapon to my head demanding that I join their gang. I refused. They knocked me to the ground and forced what I thought was weed into my mouth. I spat it out and fought back. Another boy appeared and ordered them to let me up. I recognized him as the son of the lady that my mother helped several times a week. He said that he was letting me go because his ailing mother needed my mother’s help. He shouted that if he ever caught me with a girl from another gang or if I made friends with the enemy, he would kill me. I made it a point to stay away from him and his friends and found another way home.

East Los AngelesWe did not know about the so-called “American Dream.” Our dreams were to keep our family healthy, safe, fed, and happy. For a child growing up in the barrio, that was our dream. No one had great aspirations to become or attain more than that.

I attended the local elementary school near my home. I flunked kindergarten because I did not know a word of English. Even then, I soon realized that the classes were geared to the slowest person in the class. It was not a very interesting or informative curriculum. Disciplinary problems of all sorts happened on a daily basis. I made it through grammar school and soon found myself in a school called Belvedere. This was another barrio school made up mostly of Hispanic students. The school was over three miles from my home. We had to be bussed because the closest junior high had no room for us. Oh well, new friends in a new community.

The teachers at Belvedere were more in tune with what the students needed. I joined several clubs and learned to play the violin. Now that I look back on my education at the school, I can honestly say that there wasn’t much rigor to the skimpy curriculum. All of the courses were quite easy and very few were challenging. I became good friends with the agriculture teacher. I spent every minute I could working with him in the green houses. I also signed up for every class and field trip possible. In spite of the poor curriculum, I learned a lot.

I entered Roosevelt High School in the tenth grade. Like most high schools in those days, it was a three-year school. Roosevelt had a varied demographic make-up. There was a large Jewish population in the community. Many of the Japanese returned to the community after the war (World War II). The majority of the student population was of Hispanic or Latino decent. The student population numbered around 3,000 students. My high school years were most productive. With the help of some educators I was able to acquire skills and attitudes about education in general that would help me in the years ahead.

Like most Hispanic students, I was placed in low-level academic classes and made to follow a vocational course of study. I received top grades in all of my subjects and was bored with the instruction given. Towards the end of my first year at Roosevelt I became a laboratory assistant for the science department. In this position I was able to work in the chemistry and physics labs, as well as in all of the life science and biology rooms. When I asked my counselor to sign me up for classes in chemistry and physics for the following semester, she laughed and said that those courses were college-level and that I did not have the prerequisites.

However, I would not give up, so I brought my mother to fight for me. I also used one of the ROTC instructors to vouch for me, as well as one of my favorite teachers. My dear mother just smiled at the counselor and said that whatever I wanted was all right with her. The two teachers made such a strong case for me that the counselor finally gave in and gave me the classes that I had requested. She made it quite clear that if I did not do well, I would be returned to my previous schedule. She also informed me that I had to finish my high school college requirements in two years instead of three, since I was behind a whole year. A full year of algebra, geometry, chemistry, and physics was required. Two years of college-level English composition and literature were also needed. I was told that I also needed additional classes in fine arts and in advanced social studies classes. I had to have a full program and would be required to take full academic classes in both summer school sessions. No Mickey Mouse courses for me.

I agreed and thanked my supporting teachers. The curriculum was most challenging, but — with the help of my enthusiastic and strongly committed teachers — I was able to get through with outstanding marks. Upon graduation, I received a nice scholarship to attend the Davis campus of the University of California.

One incident that occurred during my junior year of high school gave me a wake-up call that students like me seldom get. I obtained a job working for my biology teacher on Saturdays and holidays at his home. He was remodeling his home and needed help with landscaping and outside painting. I would ride my bike, or sometimes take the trolley, to his home in the Hollywood area.

HollywoodOn one occasion, I was asked to wash up for lunch in the master restroom because the laundry room was fully occupied. As I traveled through the hallway into the master bedroom and on into the restroom, I was totally taken aback by the luxuriousness of the rooms. The bathroom was huge. There was an immense shower and a hot tub could be seen in one part of the room. I noticed a special out-of-the-way place for the toilet. There were double sinks with “his” and “hers” purple towels in the racks. Why, a whole family could be in there at one time and not get in each other’s way!

I quickly washed up and went down the hall. I passed a room and asked my teacher whose room it was. He said that the room belonged to his seven-year-old son. I asked if I could go in and he answered yes.

What a room! The closet had large, sliding, mirrored doors. Inside the closet, the kid had seven types of shoes. I only owned two: the work shoes I was wearing and my school shoes. I noticed that he had many types of athletic uniforms. This huge room was all for him, alone. I had to sleep in a room with others. In one corner of the room there was a model railroad set up on a raised platform. I looked at the massive set and was about to turn the power on when I was cautioned not to because his son did not allow anyone to touch his “toys.”

As I was leaving, I noticed a second room. My teacher said that it was his three-year-old daughter’s room. As I entered the room I noticed a full-sized crib by the beautiful poster canopy bed. I asked if they were expecting another child. He answered that they were not expecting. I then asked why the crib? He answered that the crib was for his daughter’s dolls. For dolls! I remembered that when my sister was born, she had to sleep in the bottom drawer of a dresser in my mother’s room. My parents had to use this drawer as a crib for her for many weeks, until they were able to find somewhere else for her to sleep.

When I returned home my father was waiting for me. He had outlined the work I had to do before the day was over. I asked my father why we had to live this way. I told him about the spacious rooms I had been in and the fact that each child had their own room. The restroom we had was so tiny that no more than one person could occupy it at any one time. The make-shift shower was made of cinder blocks and was never finished. My father responded by saying that he never approved of me working in Hollywood. He told me that he did not like me working for rich white people. He warned me that if I continued to complain, he would make sure that I would never work there again. I kept silent from then on.

Back in school I was ashamed to go to my teacher’s biology class. I cut his class until a few days later he summoned me out of another class. He asked me what was wrong. In as few words as possible, I told him what had happened. I asked him why there was such a difference between our ways of life. He responded by saying that education made all the difference. He pulled a piece of paper from his wallet and said that with this paper he could command many jobs in education.

He was authorized to teach, to be an athletic director, and even to work as an administrator. He said that his wife was a CPA and also had a real estate agent’s license. This meant that both of them could earn a good salary. I listened intently and then asked him: “Where can I get such a piece of paper?” He answered slowly that I was on the right track and that if I finished college and earned a degree, I too could have whatever I wanted.

At that time I made a promise to myself: If I married and had children, the kids would each have their own room. I would have a pool and all of the amenities available. This all came to pass.


Could you tell us something about your career in the US military? How did you come to join the armed forces and what were some of the highlights of your time there? How would you assess the impact of your military experience on your subsequent career as an educator?

Henry Gradillas:

This question highlights one of my main themes in the book. I was introduced to the Junior ROTC program upon entering high school. All male students were required to take military classes their first year in high school. Physical education credit was given for the course. What did I know about military science and tactics? My friends and I had no clue about the military, nor did we wish to become soldiers. World War II was over when I was only 11 years of age.

Junior ROTCWar movies were my only contact with soldiering. However, I soon became very interested in command. Little by little, I gained rank. I became a squad leader and joined the drill and rifle teams. We visited army military bases and I learned weaponry and what it takes to become an officer. In my senior year, I became a colonel, the top officer in my school’s military program. Before graduation I was able to compete with all the schools in the city and was awarded the title of “All City Colonel.” This gave me command of all ROTC units in the city of Los Angeles. I participated in the ROTC program during my four years at the University of California Davis campus. During my college years, I joined the California National Guard for a three-year period until graduation in 1957. I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the US Army. I accepted a regular army commission and was on my way to Fort Benning, Georgia, for intensive training.

I spent two years as a training officer and company commander and my men succeeded in achieving outstanding performances and were recognized for breaking gunnery and tactics records. I spent three years in Germany during the Berlin Wall and Cuban Missile Crises. It wasn’t just the military science and tactics classes that I studied and taught that made me a strong instructor/teacher, it was the discipline, commitment, rigor, and understanding of youth that enabled me to demand and expect the best from all kids.


You have had a long — and sometimes stormy — career as a classroom teacher and a principal in some our nation’s toughest schools, as well as an administrator at the state level. In which of these roles do you believe you were able to make the most difference? Which of them has given you the greatest personal satisfaction? Please elaborate.

Henry Gradillas:

I strongly believe that the role of principal gave me the opportunity to make the most significant difference in promoting student academic achievement, as well as promoting student belief in self-worth, a can-do-it attitude, and that there is no limit to what can be achieved.

As a teacher, I was able to accomplish many of the goals I had set for myself, but I was doing this class by class. There were too many obstacles from those in charge, involving conflicting and outdated regulations and curricular objectives, for me to be able to progress at the speed I needed to go. As principal, I was able to overcome many of these obstacles, and I moved faster than the rate at which new obstacles were being drawn up by administrators.

It is hard for anyone to stop a fast-moving target. All of us — staff, students, parents, community leaders — were moving fast, and achieving at great strides, with little time to reflect.


Jaime EscalanteFor those who may not have seen Stand and Deliver, let us mention that it is centered on the immense achievement of one of your teachers at Garfield High in the early 1980s, Jaime Escalante (played by Edward James Olmos). In the film, as in real life, Escalante (right) takes a failing inner-city high school math program and turns it around, in only a few years, into one of the largest and most successful such programs in the entire country as measured by the number of students with top scores on the AP Calculus exam. What was Escalante like in real life (he passed away in 2010)? What was the nature of your relationship with him (personal or purely professional)? What sort of impact has knowing Jaime Escalante had on your life?

Henry Gradillas:

I met Escalante while I was a teacher of biological sciences and he was assigned to the mathematics department. We shared many interesting moments, always talking of the low expectations many had of our students mainly based on ethnic shortcomings, poverty, and little or no parental involvement with the school. We discussed the fact that in other countries low expectations were not prevalent to the same degree and that socioeconomic status or ethnic compositions were not important in educating students. Curricular rigor, hard work, positive school climate, and student encouragement were the main themes in the overall education of kids. Both Escalante and I strongly felt this way.

Within a few years I was promoted to administrative dean of discipline. The boys were assigned to me, and a female administrator worked with the girls. In this position I was able to work with the youth of the school, just as I had done in the military when I was in charge. Also, in this capacity I was able to work much more closely with Escalante, assisting him with disciplinary situations as well as working on curricular issues such as homework, attendance, tardiness, and after-school projects.

Escalante was beginning to expand his pre-calculus class and was working with a few students in AP Calculus. I was promoted to assistant principal and left Garfield. Three years later, I readily accepted the offer to return as principal of Garfield. Escalante met with me before the school year began. He gave me a big hug and said, “Congratulations sir, now we can do it.”

And we sure did!!!


Garfield High SchoolDuring the “Golden Age” of Garfield High School (left) in the 1980s, you helped set up a culture of learning in which outstanding teachers impacted students not just in math but in many other fields. As the most visible face of Garfield’s “Golden Age,” Jaime Escalante has received most of the attention from that time. But tell us about some of the other teachers and programs that also had great success back then.

Henry Gradillas:

The movie Stand and Deliver was an accurate portrayal of what was happening at Garfield at the time, with a few exceptions.

First, the garbage can was never thrown down from the bridge. We did not have a garbage can there. However, a garbage can incident did happen early in my tenure as principal. Several non-students jumped the fence during lunch and assaulted a Garfield student, dumping him into a large can.

Second, I do not recall a chair being thrown across Escalante’s room. Though some of the students were rough, there was a respect for Escalante and for all teachers and staff. Kids messed with each other over turf, drugs, boy-girl dating, and gang affiliation, but not with staff.

Third, all of the main characters portrayed were authentic. Who they were and how they acted was all on the up and up. However, to make the film flow, some of the class incidents that happened showed students from one or two previous classes. The incidents really took place; however, some students in AP classes may have been from the previous year.

The movie had a strong effect on the students as well as on the community as a whole. The fact that students from the barrio scored well across the nation should have stimulated others in power to publicize our success formula and work to achieve similar results. Escalante and I knew that it would work, just as I knew that my army recruits would do well in rifle marksmanship.

It was little surprise to me when it was announced that my training company had broken all records in their final firing sequences. I trained all my men to shoot well. All would be well qualified. Yes, some would be Snipers. Others would qualify as Experts. Yes, some would be Sharp Shooters. But all would qualify and learn to fire their rifles accurately. It might just save them and their buddies lives. I would have taken any one of my men to be my security guard. They were all well trained and they knew it.

Applying the same principles in the classroom paid off. Escalante was the proudest of all. I simply gave him the “Green Light.” This meant “Go for it!” — that I would support him all the way. And he did!

AP CalculusEscalante was the main catalyst in the initiation of a strong academic program with Advanced Placement courses leading the way. When I was assigned as principal of Garfield, a total of 56 advanced placements exams were given. The Spanish department was responsible for about 20 exams and Escalante had 18. The remainder of the AP exams were divided among the English and social studies departments.

During my six-year tenure as principal at Garfield, the total number of AP exams given at our school rose to 357. The chemistry classes grew from one class per year to 17 classes per year, including two AP classes. The teachers in every major academic department took part in increasing the overall AP program, as well as teaching more honors and academically enriched classes.

Here is the list of our AP courses at Garfield at the end of my time as principal there:


Please tell us a little bit about the real-life teachers at Garfield — especially how the teachers who were not a part of the mathematics department reacted to what you and Escalante were doing, and to all the publicity the AP Calculus program and the film generated for the school as a whole.

Henry Gradillas:

Garfield High School could not have gone from one chemistry class per year to 17 full chemistry sections had we not had the qualified staff available to meet the growing demands, and the academically prepared students. As the mathematics department grew in size and in curricular offerings, so did Escalante’s fame and success. Since I had given the “green light” to Escalante — which meant to go all the way with the student — many of the department chairs felt left out. The mathematics department received up-to-date text books, new furnishings, an increased number of student field trips, and strong recognition among the Fortune 500 companies and community organizations.

The majority of the department chairs expressed strong concerns about not sharing in some of the recognition that Escalante and the mathematics department were receiving. Their concerns were well-grounded and my intentions were to fully involve all of the teaching staff in the school’s academic growth. I arranged for an important meeting with department chairpersons and key non-teaching staff personnel. The purpose of the meeting was to give those in attendance the opportunity to voice their concerns regarding the expansion and administrative treatment of the mathematics department. A heated discussion ensued and everyone was able to contribute and make recommendations on how best to proceed.

After listening to all of the group’s concerns, I assured them that I would take everything into account and have a workable plan ready for our next meeting. My plan was not complicated. I would give all of my support to the department chairs and their departments to the extent that the following conditions were met:

Had all of the departments taken advantage of my proposal at one time, I would have had a problem delivering what I had promised. However, in the first year, only the science and English departments began to work on my proposal. The following year the social studies and the foreign language departments came on board. The computer science and art departments soon followed.

Overall, the growth of the AP program at Garfield was overwhelming. All of the departments began to take pride in their accomplishments. The entire school was recognized as one of the top schools in the District. Now we were all a strong, functioning team. Nothing was going to stop us from going all the way to the top.

Escalante led the way and the rest quickly followed, adding their expertise towards achieving academic excellence among all their students.


Tell us also about some of the outstanding students that you had at Garfield in the 1980s. How many are you still in touch with? How many lives were turned around? How many were on track to a minimum wage job or a life of crime, but now are professionals with good careers, happy families, and children that are themselves thriving? What difference did Garfield’s Golden Age make to these students? Might any of them be willing to share their stories with us at TheBestSchools.org?

Henry Gradillas:

Some of the outstanding students from some of Escalante’s classes are mentioned in the Preface to Standing and Delivering under the title “Finding Great Minds to Lead America into a Bright Future.” I have the names of many other students and will have to research to get them up to date. If an individual wishes to hear from your organization, I will pass on his name and address. I am in contact with many of the students who took AP courses at Garfield.


Your book, Standing and Delivering, published in 2010 and thus two decades removed from your time at Garfield, is a unique document. It develops a comprehensive approach to education. It does this through explicit precept and through numerous telling examples. And it is written throughout in an engaging and personal style. We believe your book is an important document with great potential to sway the debate over public education policy in this country for the good. So, we would like to review some of the main points with you.

To begin, you lay great stress on school “climate.” The school climate, as you describe it, is more than just discipline. To have a productive school climate, discipline is a necessary condition. But the school climate that you developed at Garfield was not just about keeping students in line but about giving them a vision of what they could do academically, and the pride they could take in such accomplishments.

Here’s our question, in two parts. First, why, in your view, is school climate so important? And, second, what does it take to turn a bad school climate into a good one? What is the key ingredient?

Henry Gradillas:

School climate is one of the most important factors in fostering outstanding schools. After all, the conditions under which you work and take recreation must be conducive to strong job performances in whatever field of endeavor. Your day-to-day surroundings, the attitude of your co-workers, the leadership and respect of your superiors — all are a part of the conditions under which you function on a daily basis.

We all know the feelings we get when we walk into a messy and disorganized room. If schools are to continue to maintain a professional attitude in what they do, then the conditions under which students and staff work must be conducive to good teaching and learning practices. School climate not only revolves around a clean and safe environment, but also includes a cohesive staff working together to achieve a common educational goal.

All students must feel that they are important and should function as a united student body. Regular grade level assemblies were conducted by me four to five times a school year, followed by short weekly homeroom visitations. The entire school was kept up to date on all positive programs, student and staff achievements, and overall standings in academics, sports and the arts. No one was in the dark concerning Garfield’s important role in the community and in the District.

James A. GarfieldLittle by little, students were able to identify themselves as Garfieldians — this is what we were by the fact that we were named for James A Garfield (left), the 20th president of the United States.

We took pride in President Garfield’s message when he said:

There is no American boy, however poor, however humble, orphan though he may be, that, if he have a clear head, a true heart, and a strong arm, he may not rise through all the grades of society, and become the crown, the glory, the pillar of the State.

A positive school climate is the starting point when one wishes to turn a poor school into a good one. All the things I have mentioned so far were steps taken to improve Garfield’s school climate. However, several other very important steps had to be undertaken, as well, in order for us to continue enjoying a positive school climate — namely, delivery of instruction, the curriculum, and support groups and organizations.


Another factor you emphasize in your book is curriculum. You firmly believe in challenging students, trusting that they will rise to the occasion, regardless of whatever socioeconomic disadvantages they may be laboring under. In several places in your book (for example, on p. 11) you go even further and discuss the harm done by a certain kind of “compassion,” in which it is regarded as wrong to hold disadvantaged or minority kids to the same intellectual standards as kids from the mainstream or elite culture. This phenomenon is sometimes known as the “racism of low expectations” (our term, not yours).

Could you tell us a bit about the specifically ideological challenges you faced in implementing your ideas at Garfield High? In other words, we know you had to fight against vested interests and institutional inertia — that goes without saying. But we suspect you also had to fight against an entrenched and destructive mindset (stemming from John Dewey and ultimately from Jean-Jacques Rousseau), which views giving children unconstrained freedom as more important than teaching them virtue. In the final analysis, it is a deep disagreement about what constitutes a good life for a human being. Would you care to comment?

Henry Gradillas:

Delivery of instruction, in my opinion, is a greater factor than the actual curriculum one is to deliver. Any teacher who delivers instruction in an uninspiring manner and fails to use all of the teaching modalities at hand, is ineffective. Students will not learn to their maximum capacities. If the curriculum is weak to begin with, then poor delivery of such curriculum will be disastrous. If the curriculum is strong, challenging, up-to-date, and rigorous, then poor delivery of instruction negates the power of an outstanding curriculum. Not much is gained if the instructional message is not presented properly. Only if the delivery of a strong outstanding curriculum is done in an outstanding manner will the students benefit from such instruction.

The curriculum that is to be presented to students at each grade level is determined by the Board of Education of each state. In addition, local, county, and city governing bodies, including school districts, adjust and add to curricular offerings. The master curricular plan lists the basic skills that students in each grade level are to be taught and required to learn. The problem begins when the curriculum is not followed. In many cases, administrators and teachers feel that the students are not ready for that level of instruction. As the students progress through the grade levels, the curriculum continues to be modified to fit what educators feel is an appropriate substitute.

Many reasons are given for watering down the curriculum. The cry that the students are not ready for the mandated level of instruction is heard throughout thousands of school districts in this country. In attempts to reinforce these negative beliefs, educators cite that the students do not have the basic skills to absorb the prescribed curriculum. Many use socioeconomic status, uneducated or uncaring parents, the language barrier, and other minority issues as reasons for failing to follow the prescribed curriculum.

Early Childhood Education“Racism of low expectations” is most damaging in the lower grades. Early childhood education — preschool through second grade — must include a rigorous and challenging curriculum. At ages four through seven, young students are extremely receptive to a strong and motivating curriculum. Students of all nationalities, socioeconomic groups, and cultural backgrounds have not, as yet, acquired the basic skills that will be needed in future grades. Most of the students in this age group should generally be in the same boat, as far as education goes. If students are singled out and placed in a watered-down, meaningless curriculum because of who they are, we are then promoting a terrible wrong that will forever make under-educated, second-class citizens of our youth.

However, when we look at high school students who were cheated out of obtaining a top-notch education in their formative years because of low expectations, then we see a different picture. Educators at the high school level definitely have a huge problem. There, we do not see the problem of low expectations as we see in the primary grades. Rather, the problem lies in the real fact that the level of student preparation is far below that which the mandated curriculum demands. Students with such poor academic skills make it impossible for teachers to adequately educate a student in algebra/geometry, chemistry/physics, or creative writing, let alone Advanced Placements subjects.

The challenge that my staff and I faced was simple: Educate the students in those basic skills that they should have mastered long before reaching high school. We accomplished this in various ways:

  1. Remedial math, Garfield style — Remedial math became pre-algebra in conjunction with algebra I.
  2. Remedial reading and English — We instituted remedial instruction in English, concentrating on reading comprehension, basic grammar, and writing, while a second class was added in 10th grade English.
  3. Low-level science classes were eliminated and standard required classes were established in the physical and biological sciences.
  4. Non-vocational shop and basic home economics classes were cut from the program, and 100 computers were added to our economics and computer departments.
  5. “Language across the curriculum” was instituted, and all teachers were required to participate.

The measures mentioned above, as well as others implemented later on in the school year, began to produce positive academic gains. However, objections to what we were doing hit the school from every direction. Students and parents were angry because it was hard work to follow the new rules. The biggest complaint was the loss of an elective course or a class in physical education. But these sacrifices on the part of the students had to be accepted if we were going to double their math and English classes.

The incentive for students was to pass the remedial classes as soon as possible, so they could return to a more normal academic program. The heat was on. There were a lot of rumblings from District administrators and community organizations about our new policies. However, we were in the right.

Since one of the main California and District goals was to graduate as many students as possible, the only way this could be done was to follow the mandated curriculum and obtain the proper amount of credits needed for graduation.

That we were doing. That we accomplished.


You have said that teaching children academic subjects should be viewed in the same light as preparing young athletes who will someday participate in the Olympics. In other words, intellectual mastery is a matter of rigorous training, acquiring both factual knowledge and cognitive skills. Instead of the current mad scramble to “teach to the test,” the focus needs to be on giving students the knowledge and expertise they need to succeed later in life. How do you get students to value intellectual mastery and make it part of their lives?

Henry Gradillas:

Students have always had difficulty in appreciating the value of education. The more help students receive in their formative years, the better educated they will become. The confidence students get from successful early training will give them a true appreciation of the learning process and will lead them to a more productive future. This, in turn, will create a more positive attitude towards further education and lead to a greater level of intellectual mastery.

One strategy used by me at Garfield, and especially as principal of Birmingham High School in the Los Angeles District, was to require every student to be a member of a school-sponsored group, club, or organization. My insisting that students work and function together in groups gave them the opportunity to share experiences, contribute to the clubs’ overall goals, and learn valuable traits. The students became very interested in their clubs and were more involved in the overall learning process. Students, to varying degrees, soon learned to appreciate their contributions to their organizations and began to have a better outlook toward the education they were getting.

This strategy allowed students to bond together for a common goal. They began to take pride in their organizations of choice. A canned-food drive pitted all clubs against each other and all worked very hard to be one of the top three winners.

Maria KomissarovaThis year’s Winter Olympics clearly point out the critical importance of early training. Almost without exception, top medal contenders began their first experience on the ice or on the slopes at a very early age. When some of the top contenders were interviewed, all stated that their parents had introduced them to the sport when they were very young. Many athletes said that they began to skate when they were 4--6 years of age.

Can we not learn from this and be truly serious when it comes to educating our very young by providing a vigorous and challenging curriculum? Successes in educating children in their formative years will surely bring success in the education of young adults.


In your book, you speak about the need for a principal to work with the teachers unions. In the eyes of many observers today, the public employees unions are the main obstacle to reform in many different areas of our public life. This also raises the issue of charter schools, school vouchers, and the like.

What role do you see the unions playing in higher education in America today? How has that changed since your time at Garfield? What do you think of the charter school movement? How do you see the future of education in this country, and what would like to see as a blueprint for educating our population as a whole?

Henry Gradillas:

Unions, as I understand them, were established to help the working classes. Unions negotiated, on behalf of the workers, with employers in regards to employee benefits, wages, and working conditions. The head of the teacher’s union for the Los Angeles Unified School District was responsible for negotiations with the school board. The teacher’s union at the local school level was primarily concerned with teacher working conditions and certain grievances. I informed the union members that one of my main priorities was to promote a healthy and positive school climate and to work closely with the teachers on having optimum working conditions. I had to insure that the school had a strong, happy, and committed teaching staff. This also held true for the non-teaching employees.

Many of my staff became troubled as I required more of them. The union was concerned that I was asking too much of the teaching staff. After all, most of the teachers were not used to the new policy of curricular rigor. I met with the teaching staff and asked what I could do for them in order to make their teaching job more effective. The most important assistance that I could give the teachers, if I was going to continue with the current policy, boiled down to three main requests:

  1. Lower the size of the classes.
  2. Improve classroom attendance.
  3. Enforce consequences resulting from student poor behavior, unfinished or late homework assignments, and failure to finish classroom work or non-participation in curricular tasks.

As one teacher put it: “If you are requiring me to go the extra mile with our students, you will have to help us get there.”

In the end, I had a tremendous positive response to my rigorous educational policies. Of course, teachers needed some assistance if they were to get the job done following my lead. This is what I proposed for the following school year, which was not too far away:

  1. I will lower your class size by four to six students.
  2. Attendance will be of top priority; if students continue to absent themselves from school, drastic measures will be taken.
  3. Students misbehaving in class or not responding to classroom assignments, including homework, will be removed from the class after all efforts with counselors and parents have been exhausted.

Since all English teachers were required to give weekly assignments in composition writing, I obtained funds to hire college students as readers. This was another way that teachers were helped. The sheer exhaustion stemming from the time-consuming reading and grading of hundreds of papers every week prevented many English teachers from performing what I requested. The college readers were a great help in insuring that compositions and written assignments were done on a weekly basis.

Teachers StrikeToday, the unions and management are adversaries. Not much is accomplished because they refuse to sit down and find workable solutions to existing situations. Compromise seems to be a bad word because each side feels that it implies weakness. My vision and sort of blueprint for the future in education can be found on page 117 of my book, Standing and Delivering.


A dominant theme in your book is that as a principal or school administrator, one does not need to make up a lot of new rules, but rather apply existing rules that guarantee a student’s right to a safe and productive education. Could you please elaborate on this concept for our readers and give some examples of how your applied it?

Henry Gradillas:

Rules, regulations, laws, mandates, and compliance issues can be found in every state in the USA and in every school district. We do not need to invent new rules.

I will attempt to show how we used existing regulations to promote a positive school climate. The delivery of instruction, important as it is, can be regulated and improved using existing rules. Curricular issues have sufficient mandates and regulations that there is no need to create new ones.

In every school district that I have visited, as well as in those districts that have sent me their standing operating procedures, the following goals have been recognized for their schools:

  1. A safe, clean, and orderly environment where learning is a priority.
  2. Nothing should be allowed to occur that will hinder, reduce, or stop the instructional process. Instruction is to be carried out by the teachers in an atmosphere conducive to learning. Administrators are bound to make sure that nothing interferes with the process of educating students. All equipment, facilities, materials, and books will be made available to the teaching staff.
  3. All efforts will be made to move students from grade to grade with the ultimate goal of graduation. In other words, nothing must interfere with the process leading to graduating a student.

These three major goals, which are acknowledged by every school district, give administrators all the mandate they need, as well as the obligation to get the job done. Generally speaking, those are the only regulations I needed to turn Garfield into an academically well-rounded and recognized school.

The following are but a few examples of how the three goals played a part in achieving a top-rated school:

If students are involved in breaking rules, appropriate action should be taken. Who or what agency should be involved in adjudicating the infraction is of great importance. If the infraction is a penal code violation, then the proper authorities must be involved. Police involvement should be mandatory, not just an option. The following infractions are considered to be penal code violations:

All Garfield students, their parents, and the community knew and understood the offences that required police intervention.

One situation that faces many school administrators revolves around their attempts to deal with penal code violations. Administrators spend a lot of time working with the student and his parents, trying to find a suitable solution to the infraction. All too often, civic organizations, school-based union representatives, district supervisors, teachers, and school management teams all get into the act in an attempt to influence the decision of the administrator in charge of the case.

Student under ArrestNone of this happened at Garfield because law enforcement was in charge. When parents of the perpetrator, along with Hispanic organizations, came to the school to discuss the violation, guess what? They were referred to the law enforcement agency that was handling the case. The student was charged with a penal code violation and was held in custody for a period of time or released to the parents pending a court appearance. The student did not return to his home school but, was transferred to another school for the remainder of the school year pending further review of the case.

The message to all was very clear and simple: Anyone committing a penal code violation will be referred to the proper authorities and will lose the privilege of attending Garfield.

Non--penal code violations were handled in school and were of two main types:

1. Some of the following violations were classified as school-wide violations:

2. The following were classified as classroom violations and the teachers, counselors, and sometimes the parents were involved in solving the situation:

For today’s youth, I should add cell phone use.

Any of the above violations can be properly handled with current state, local and District regulations. Let us use loitering in hallways, restrooms, athletic areas, and in other places on campus as an example of a violation of existing rules.

All schools districts have a policy that students must be under the direct supervision of an adult with proper certification. When students roam the halls and congregate in restrooms, they are not under any supervision. Consequently, the students and the administration are both in violation of a district rule. Therefore, it is only proper to insist that students be where they are supposed to be — in order to be under supervision. At Garfield, we instituted tardy sweeps to move students into their classrooms as quickly as possible in an effort to avoid students from being tardy to classes. Excessive absences, truancy, and tardiness were handled in the following way, which proved to be most unpopular:

The Aid to Families with Dependent Children Act requires that school-aged children be enrolled and actively attending school in order for the family to receive welfare benefits. Since excessive absences and truancies violated the AFDC requirement, a note to the organization from the principal initiated a check of school records. A few students were removed from the welfare rolls. This resulted in severe criticism of my administration.

However, within weeks the students were returned to their normal welfare status. Absences and truancy dropped significantly soon after, and continued to drop until we reached 97.6% average daily attendance.


You discuss the role of race and poverty in the poor educational outcomes we see in so many of our nation’s public schools. People on the political left would attribute these outcomes to persistent racism — the existence of which it would be foolish to dismiss out of hand — and especially to disparities of spending between rich and poor schools districts, and even between rich and poor neighborhoods within a single school district.

You do not confront these issues head-on in your book, but instead emphasize throughout that educational outcomes can be improved even in spite of these types of problems. Indeed, one of the most moving passages in your book comes when you say (p. 43):

…our students had come to understand that Algebra I is not that hard, and that it certainly was not beyond their grasp. It was not a “white” class anymore. It was a Garfield class.

che-guevaraLeftist critics might respond that this is too idealistic and lets the system — which in their mind is purposely skewed towards preserving the power and privilege of the rich — off the hook too easily. We would like to give you the opportunity of commenting further on this important issue, which it is not always easy for Americans to discuss frankly with one another. What role, if any, do you feel that racism continues to play in the problems plaguing our public education system and our society at large? How about power politics? In short, how would you respond to a leftist critique of this sort?

Henry Gradillas:

You are asking me about racism, leftist critics, rich and poor school districts and the role that they play in education. To be quite frank, I haven’t the time to get too serious on any of these areas. When I do, nothing gets done and things bog down. Items of huge curricular importance and student achievement issues are referred to committee and a “we will let you know” attitude prevails. Had I asked permission to institute algebra as a mandatory course, I would still be waiting for approval.

One thing I learned in the military: If you are in command, command. If, in the minds of leftists, educational systems are purposely skewed towards preserving the power and privilege of the rich, then I say “So be it.” This gives me and my followers a great incentive to dramatically and drastically educate students so that the system will skew their successful future performances as they become rich and famous.

As previously mentioned, racism in any form — including the “racism of low expectations” — that is perpetrated on a student for whatever reason is hurtful because it denies the student his or her equal rights. If this action takes place in a child’s formative years, it imposes severe learning disabilities that most kids will never overcome.


You have stated that you were often viewed as a troublemaker by your administrative superiors during your time at Garfield High. Could you tell us a little more about that? Looking back, why do you think it was so hard for your superiors to accept what you were trying to do?

Henry Gradillas:

The usage of the word “troublemaker” stems from the fact that Garfield was beginning a growth spurt. The need for a variety of curricular materials, extended hours, summer school classes, field trips, professional speakers, etc. put a strain on the district as a whole. Take library books, for instance. The greatest pride that our library could claim was an extremely low rate of book loss or book damage.

When I asked for circulation numbers, I was amazed that the numbers were dismally low. No wonder little or no losses were reported — books were not being checked out! So, I began a campaign to order the latest books in print for high school students. Teachers were encouraged to start reading lists and make systematic use of the library with their students. More book orders, more student involvement, more money, etc.

Textbooks were a major concern. Since we only had a few algebra I classes, and fewer still in geometry, the number of books we had in these areas was not a problem. But those we had were outdated and in poor condition. As we grew in the number of students taking algebra and geometry, the need for more up-to-date books became apparent. As the physical and biological science classes grew in numbers and in advanced course offerings, so did the need for more up-to-date books increase.

Calculus TextbookIn the beginning, 18 books for the AP Calculus class that Escalante fielded was an acceptable number. However, when his classes grew to over 80 students and he needed the books to be of the same caliber that the calculus students at MIT and Caltech were using, then money became a problem and I was a “troublemaker.” Imagine the horror when the number of chemistry classes rose from 1 to 17! Not only did I expect the latest chemistry books, but I also demanded up-to-date laboratory books and special laboratory equipment.

A main irritation to the district administrators was the crackdown on gang activity and severe student disciplinary problems. These actions by my school administrators caused a lot of unhappy students, parents, community activists, Latino organizations, even law enforcement officials. District officials were swamped with concerns about the methods I used in attempting to combat negative student behavior. One district administrator told me that my school was causing him more problems than any 15 other high schools combined out of the district’s 49 regular high schools!

This feeling among many administrators stemmed from the fact that in their minds this was simply our students’ “way of life.” Poor minority kids living in the barrio must belong to gangs in order to survive. I should understand this and let up.

I didn’t — and in 1986 both the district officials and law enforcement officers recognized Garfield High School as the school with the lowest number of expulsions, suspensions, and incidents of police intervention in the district.

Garfield had been in a coma for many years, and now it was waking up — becoming ready to learn and deliver.


Today, Garfield High is certainly stronger academically than when you took over — thanks largely to the foundation you and Escalante laid 30 years ago. Moreover, student participation in AP programs is generally quite high, especially in comparison with other public high schools with a similar demographic profile. However, Garfield’s AP Calculus program today is only a shadow of what it used to be under your and Escalante’s tenure. The sheer number of students currently taking AP calculus is about half of what it was at the height of Escalante’s tenure, and the pass rate is much lower.

Specifically, in 1987, when Escalante’s AP calculus courses were operating at full throttle, 73 Garfield students passed the AB calculus advanced placement test and 12 passed the more rigorous BC advanced placement test. Yet in 2013, even though 72 took the AB test, only 20 passed, and of the 7 who took the BC test, only 2 passed. These numbers speak for themselves, suggesting that a once thriving program is now languishing. We regard this as a tragedy, and it is very hard to accept how it could happen. How did it happen?

Henry Gradillas:

After six years as principal of Garfield, I found that I had accomplished most of what I wanted to do. I felt that 6--8 years at the helm is a sufficient amount of time to get the job done. I moved on because I needed to finish my doctorate, and also because the powers-that-be felt they would be better served if I were to troubleshoot somewhere else . . . or maybe not.

Part of my reason for starting a doctoral program at that age was to show my students that education is ongoing. One should never stop learning and should continue to be a contributing individual. The following year after I had received my doctorate, I was afforded the privilege of addressing the graduating class at Garfield. I attended the ceremonies with much pride. Just prior to my opening remarks, I made the following statement to the graduating students: “It is never too late to learn. The education learned through the doctoral program will help me in the years ahead.” Pointing to the stripes on the sleeves of my doctoral gown, I told them: “These stripes are for you. They should encourage you to continue your education, no matter what.” A tremendous ovation ensued.

After I left, Escalante lost a lot of his support, which made it very difficult for him to remain at Garfield. He finally moved to another school district. To keep the ball of academic success rolling and even gathering speed, outstanding programs that are working well must be nurtured continually. The push for academic excellence will always create new challenges and be subject to certain criticisms. Successful programs are expensive to maintain and they can interfere with the daily operations of a school, no matter how hard one tries.

The word “elitism” has been used many times to point out that the special few are being treated in ways that offend or take away from the rest of the student body. Teachers who teach honors and AP programs are sometimes criticized for having it easy because of the high quality of the students in their classes. That is why I initially spread the gifted, high and low achievers, as well as other students, among all teachers. That way, teachers could teach classes that ranged in academic levels.

If the push for academic excellence is not forthcoming, or maintained by administrators, then strong academic programs will fail to materialize or progress.


After you and Escalante left Garfield, did you ever have an opportunity to recreate the success you had there? Or was everything you did after that a distant second? As you look at the last 30 years in America public education, is there any example that you can point to of disadvantaged kids at poorly performing schools seeing as dramatic a turn-around as the kids at Garfield saw in the 1980s? Is the “Golden Age” at Garfield a unique event? Does it need to be a unique event?

Henry Gradillas:

After leaving Garfield, I had the opportunity of working with the State Superintendent of Schools in Sacramento. In this position I was able to assist those schools that were having problems in the very same areas as were found in Garfield. However, poor school climate, a mediocre method used for the delivery of instruction, and a curriculum that was ineffective made it difficult for me to be understood by school administrators and teachers. I did all I could to help the schools improve. In my two years as trouble-shooter for the state of California, I visited many schools, K--12, and managed to set up programs that became effective.

Two years later, I was offered the position as principal of Birmingham High School, part of the Los Angeles District. Birmingham was a school in transition. I did not waste any time in making an evaluation of the educational program at the school. Problems were present that had to be addressed. Meetings were held with administrators, department heads, and teacher union representatives. Major concerns were addressed, priorities were established, and job responsibilities were assessed and altered when appropriate.

The school climate was in poor shape: Gangs had claimed territory and fights between gangs were prevalent. Students who were not in class roamed the campus. I made a statement in one of my meetings that if the bells signaling the start and end of classes were not being used for their intended purpose, we should stop ringing them and go on the clock.

What took me three years to accomplish at Garfield I did it in half the time at Birmingham. The school was located in an affluent, middle-class community. Most of the students were white with local Black and Hispanic students attending. However, as part of the District’s integration program and because South Central schools in the District were at capacity, Birmingham and other Valley schools began accepting minority students in a large busing program.

The student population at Birmingham grew very rapidly and so did the problems brought about by such an increase in the number of low-socioeconomic, minority students — nothing new to me! Algebra became a standard course. Campus violence decreased dramatically, giving way to a safe and orderly school climate.

Now, about the AP program. At one point, I asked the counselor in charge of the school’s curriculum and AP programs to give me the total number of students taking AP classes and those planning on taking the AP college exams. I was surprised to learn that a school like Birmingham only had 256 students taking AP classes. When I asked how many students were taking AP Spanish language or AP Spanish literature, I was shocked to learn that only a handful of students were taking the class and that of those, only 10 were signed up to take the exam.

I then informed the counselor that she should immediately sign up 100 students to take the AP Spanish language exam. She became very defensive, letting me know that it would be difficult for her to find the students. I told her that it would not be that difficult, all she had to do was to interview the students with dark complexions and she would easily get the 100 students. All of the students she signed up took and passed the AP test with a maximum score of 5. During my tenure at Birmingham, the number of students taking AP exams increased from 256 to 550.

The formula that had worked so well at Garfield worked just as well at Birmingham in even less time.


Finally, what is your parting advice for how concerned citizens can help you in your work? How can we help to persuade our fellow citizens stuck in old ways of thinking that your approach to education is the last best hope for this country? In short, what will it take to recreate your success at Garfield High in every public school system across this great land? Can the Gradillas-Escalante-Garfield Golden Age happen again?

Henry Gradillas:

You ask: “What will it take to recreate your success at Garfield High in every public school system across this great land?”

USMath ScoresIn order to recreate previous successes in education, one must realize that the status quo is not acceptable and recognize that problems and shortcomings exist. I believe that America’s relatively low standing in numerous global assessments is beginning to bring it home to many people that this country is falling behind in many academic subject areas. Recent published reports state that US high school students test far below the minimum standards of most industrialized nations. Even students in a few underdeveloped countries score higher in mathematics than US students.

Government officials, educators, and the public in general must recognize the severe problems our country faces in its failure to adequately educate its youth. Strong measures must be taken to insure that all kids get the best possible education. We all must demand and push for academic excellence if our country is going to compete in global markets.

It is ironic that during the past 60 years this country has seen tremendous progress in the fields of medicine, electronics, communication and transportation, science and technology, and in space exploration, but has failed to adequately educate its youth. The so-called “Gradillas-Escalante-Garfield Golden Age” can and must happen again — if we have the ganas to do it, and do it right.*


Thank you very much for sharing your valuable time and extraordinary insights with us.

*Editor’s note: In Spanish, ganas means “burning desire” or “fire in the belly.”

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