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A Superior Principal Is Lost : Weight of Academic Bureaucracy Cancels Out an Achiever

<i> Jay Mathews, Los Angeles bureau chief of the Washington Post, is the author of "Escalante: The Best Teacher in America " (Henry Holt & Co., 1988). </i>

My friend Henry Gradillas, probably the best high-school principal in the city, is about to leave his job with the Los Angeles Unified School District. The state Department of Education has hired him to help improve school decision-making. The children in the schools that he visits will surely benefit from the influence of the man who helped transform Garfield High School.

Still, several of Gradillas’ admirers, including me, wonder why his own school district, the second-largest in the country, could not put his unusual talents to work when he returned last summer from his doctoral sabbatical. Why did this district, so in need of Gradillas’ skill in motivating disadvantaged teen-agers, choose instead to assign him to scheduling asbestos inspections--a kind of academic Siberia?

The problem extends far beyond Gradillas. His story is only one small measure of the deadening weight of academic bureaucracy on public education. The school district not only misused him but also has seemed to shrug at the surprising, and important, success of Garfield High, Gradillas’ now famous East Los Angeles school. This record of clumsiness and inattention reveals the risks that an assertive individual like Gradillas takes when trying to change a system that has worked tolerably well for everybody but the students whom it is supposed to serve.

I was drawn to Garfield initially by one of Gradillas’ teachers, Jaime Escalante, hero of the film “Stand and Deliver.” Escalante has achieved remarkable success in turning ill-prepared Latino students into skillful mathematicians.

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Twelve of his students won national attention in 1982 when they successfully passed a difficult Advanced Placement calculus retest after the Educational Testing Service accused them of cheating.

After that episode, I became a Garfield habitue. I watched its unprecedented metamorphosis and came to accept what Escalante had been telling me: Much of the change would not have occurred without the principal’s rare mix of sensitivity and pugnacity.

Gradillas sharply reduced gang activity at the school. He cut back shop classes in favor of more algebra. He expanded the Advanced Placement program far beyond Escalante’s calculus. In 1981, the year he became principal, 53 Garfield students took 54 AP examinations for college credit in four subjects. In 1987, shortly before he left, 234 Garfield students took 329 AP tests in 13 subjects.

District officials have recently said that they always wanted to find a good job for Gradillas and were stymied by unavoidable delays. But that is not what Gradillas’ colleagues at Garfield and some downtown admirers believe. One well-placed administrator told me that he personally heard the head of the district’s new school-based management project rule out Gradillas as “too confrontational.”

Garfield teachers had concluded long ago that Gradillas was on someone’s blacklist for making too many demands in support of Advanced Placement and other programs. Garfield AP coordinator John Bennett noticed that other principals with much feebler records were regularly promoted ahead of Gradillas.

Garfield’s achievements are unprecedented. No public high school with predominantly poor, minority students has ever produced so many successful Advanced Placement candidates, and only four high schools in the entire country produced more AP calculus students in 1987. Yet district officials, with a few exceptions, have done little to examine this phenomenon or spread the secrets of its success to other schools.

Garfield’s message suffers in part because no one high enough at district headquarters can honestly take credit for it. Many educators have also soured on trying to make one school’s success work elsewhere. The Ford Foundation suffered embarrassing failures in pushing pilot-project reforms in the 1960s, and many veteran teachers and principals are understandably reluctant to try what looks like another media-touted cure-all.

But there are signs that much of what Garfield did could work in other schools, when given more support. Sheila Smith, coordinator of the district’s gifted/talented program and one of a few outspoken Garfield advocates downtown, noted that a program to encourage AP courses in disadvantaged schools had increased the number of AP exams in the district from 4,853 in 1984 to 7,619 in 1988.

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Following Garfield’s example requires a difficult suspension of disbelief. Escalante, Gradillas and other Garfield educators showed that young people with few books at home and poor academic records could still tackle college-level material. School board member Rita Walters noted with chagrin that “people I know, good people, simply cannot believe that.”

That explains why people like Henry Gradillas who preach the gospel of tough courses for poor kids are both so valuable and so vulnerable to the bureaucrat’s distaste for anyone who speaks out of turn.


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