Wis. tutor writes book on educational methodology

ASHLAND, Wis. (AP) -- In the fiber optics room just off the Ashland High School library, nine high school students bend over their work, brows knit as they puzzle out algebra equations, work on literature projects and use a school computer to do ...

ASHLAND, Wis. (AP) -- In the fiber optics room just off the Ashland High School library, nine high school students bend over their work, brows knit as they puzzle out algebra equations, work on literature projects and use a school computer to do research.

There is a bit of teenage chatter, some laughter, some music -- and one silver-haired man wearing a gray cardigan, thick black-framed glasses and a big grin enthusiastically coaching a young woman through a math problem.

A tutor at Ashland High School for the past three years, Dr. Henry Gradillas -- or "Doctor G" as the students call him -- has played a part in the lives of hundreds of AHS students. What those students may not know is that Dr. G has also left his mark on the national education scene, as the principal who supported the efforts of the late East Los Angeles calculus teacher Jaime Escalante, whose true life story inspired the 1988 movie "Stand and Deliver."

Gradillas, 76, who now lives in northern Wisconsin, recently authored a new book on educational methodology, appropriately titled, "Standing and Delivering."

On one level, Gradillas's educational philosophy is simple: "If a kid is having a problem, you help him. That's your job."


But providing that help means a multi-level approach that engages students, teachers, administrators, parents and community to create a learning environment that settles for nothing short of excellence.

It's a philosophy Gradillas lives as he works with the AHS students.

AHS junior Caitlin Powless, who was working on a project for an Ojibwe literature class, said she would have "failed many classes if not for Dr. G. He doesn't press us, but he's there when we need help," she said. "He understands us."

Gradillas himself was an unlikely candidate for winding up with a doctorate in education.

He grew up in an East Los Angeles barrio, where he flunked kindergarten because he didn't speak English. But, he was a natural learner and mastered English -- soon to find he was a natural teacher as well.

"I always enjoyed knowledge and books," he said, and grinned. "When I was in grammar school there was a group of six or seven boys who wanted to play cops and robbers. I insisted we did math problems before we played."

Although bright, when he reached high school, Gradillas was tracked into vocational courses, with the expectation he would become a tradesman like his father, a carpenter.

But then he had the good fortune to get a job as a lab assistant for a high school science teacher.


"I love physics, I love the experiments," he told the teacher.

"Well, you should take the course, then," the teacher responded.

It sounded like good advice.

Gradillas went to a guidance counselor who told him after a year of vocational courses he would be hopelessly behind if he switched to a college course track including chemistry, physics, algebra and geometry.

"But, I was not turned on by the idea of following in my father's footsteps," Gradillas said.

His science teacher, his ROTC supervisor and others intervened, and promised to help him -- and Gradillas switched to a college course track.

For the next two years, Henry Gradillas labored on fulfilling all the requirements, though it meant attending summer school and forgoing all electives. In the end, he had no grades lower than a B -- and more importantly, had the required classes needed to enroll in the University of California-Davis, where he was an ROTC student.

After his graduation, he spent six years in the U.S. Army, ending his career as a 26-year-old captain.


He attended college one more year to obtain his teaching credentials, and started teaching agriculture at a junior high school.

He briefly quit teaching to manage a ranch for several years, but when the ranch was sold he ended up back in education -- for good.

He taught, then received a master's in education, and went on to become a dean and principal at Garfield High School of "Stand and Deliver" fame.

When Gradillas started at Garfield the expectations were low, gang activity and drug use were prevalent, test scores were abysmal and few students went on to post-secondary education.

"And how are schools judged?" he asked, and answered: "By how many students go on to post-secondary education. By how much violence and police involvement there is in schools, and by students' academic standing in school and how they perform in extracurricular activities."

As principal he cracked down on students dealing drugs, required they come in on weekends to catch up on school work, had a no-tolerance approach to graffiti and dealt out strict but fair punishments.

Some of his tough methods made him unpopular with the greater Los Angeles School District administration, but soon the word was getting out that police interventions and expulsions were down at Garfield. And test scores were up -- from averaging in the 19th percentile to the 70th in a matter of a few years.

Gradillas said he was always willing to work with teachers so they could be more effective. "I'm not saying their job was easier, but they could be effective," he said. If that meant making sure students had enough food so they weren't coming to class hungry and grouchy, he found a way to feed them. If it meant making sure students didn't skip classes, he found ways to convince them to stay in school.

He expanded the number of advanced placement classes offered in the district and grabbed the attention of area businesses who suddenly wanted to donate money to the school to keep successful programs going.

Gradillas's tough but fair recipe for success is the meat of "Standing and Delivering," a book aimed primarily at educators and persons in the social services who deal with young people. Its chapters deal with high expectations, effective schools, delivering instruction, curriculum, and how to select, supervise and support teachers, among other topics.

After his retirement from school administration, Gradillas and his wife, Gayle, moved first to Minnesota then to northern Wisconsin to be closer to family.

Which has been to the Ashland School District's benefit.

Gradillas, who has never lost his infectious excitement about student achievement, drove by the Ashland School District "and dropped in. I told them about myself and they said they could always use substitutes." After getting his Wisconsin substitute credentials, he found himself subbing "almost every day. The teachers liked me because I could control the classes and the kids got their work done."

The school received a grant to bring its dormant tutoring program back to life, and for the past three years, Gradillas has worked with between 25-30 students every day he is in the district.

Director of Pupil Services John Eyerly says the district is lucky to have a tutor of Gradillas's caliber on staff, noting the program is helping address the disproportionality issues the district had between test scores of Native American and non-native students.

But for the students touched by Gradillas, it's about the man and his enthusiasm -- and their success.

"He's an amazing guy," said junior Isabel Gallegos. "I love him."

Information from: The Daily Press,

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