Interview with Alejo Padilla, GRIT
Vice Principal in North Tahoe, CA, and Watsonville Native.
How Aptos High alum helps migrant kids/first-gen get to college.
By Olga Rosales Salinas
I met Alejo Padilla one morning while waiting for a bus on a street corner of my neighborhood, Mesa Verde in Watsonville, CA. We attended grade school, middle school and high school together and always traveled on the same busses. While planning our fundraising for the Rosales Sisters' Scholarship I reached out to Padilla for his thoughts on being first-generation at Aptos High. What I learned was that he has become an Assistant Principle at North Tahoe High School. It is there where he has implemented a program called GRIT, helping students get to college. He has inspired my sisters' and I immensely, because he has shown exactly what can be possible when you are driven to change the narrative about the road to higher education. In this interview we discuss his experience in Watsonville, his own road to college and how GRIT has changed the lives of so many students in the North Tahoe area.
Alejo Padilla started his first teaching position at Harden Middle School as a social studies teacher. He moved to Galt High School and taught social studies, became athletic director and eventually assistant principal. He then moved to North Tahoe High School where he currently serves as assistant principal. It was at NTHS where he founded GRIT, a program that has awarded over $275,000 to NTHS Latino students in the previous year alone.
"There is no reason that a high achieving student should not attend a university because of missed deadlines!" - Alejo Padilla
We’d like to start by thanking you immensely for supporting the Rosales Sisters’ Scholarship. We are so excited to learn about your expertise as we start our non-profit. Since attending Aptos High in the class of 1998, you’ve become a teacher and administrator in the Sacramento area and now in North Tahoe, California. I can't wait to talk about your program GRIT with our readers. It is exactly the type of program that I hoped for as a student. But before we start let's talk about your experience growing up in Watsonville. What was it like?
I really enjoyed growing up in Watsonville. It wasn’t until I moved away that I really appreciated the agricultural community, eating fresh vegetables and fruits, and living so close to the ocean. Our neighborhood was a great place to grow up. I was able to ride my bike to my friends' houses, I bought bottle rockets from the ice cream man, and most evenings I would fall asleep listening to a cumbia or mariachi because someone was always having a party.
*Watsonville, CA Plaza
Tell us about your parents and what you know about their experience?
My mom was brought to the United States as an infant over the Rio Grande and her family were migrant farmworkers. They lived in Washington, Texas, Florida, and California chasing one harvest after another. My grandparents’ car broke down in Watsonville by the plaza and they never left the area. My mother worked hard in school, graduated from Watsonville High School, and went to nursing school. She is a great example of the immigrant story and what can be achieved.
My father immigrated to the United States in his mid-twenties and married my mom within a few years. He worked in agriculture for 40 years and he is happily retired.
How has your first-generation experience shaped you as an educator?
Being first-generation is a huge responsibility. We hold the hopes and dreams of our immigrant families. We are afraid to not fulfill those dreams. My parents always said that if I didn’t want to study, I could work full time, meaning I could go work in the strawberry fields—which I did the summer I graduated from high school. While loading strawberries onto a truck, I wondered how I had missed the college application and financial aid deadlines my senior year. I was a great student all my life and it was a profound disappointment that I was working full time and not studying. The G.R.I.T. program at North Tahoe High School is based on this experience. There is no reason that a high achieving student should not attend a university because of missed deadlines! I felt this was a system failure that happened to many Latino students, and I want to make sure that this doesn’t happen to students at the school that I help run.
When did you know you wanted to go to college and become a teacher?
I always wanted to go to college. School was always easy for me, and I enjoy learning. I didn’t really know I wanted to become a teacher until I met with my Cabrillo College counselor, who recommended a degree in Social Science—and the two occupations for that degree were law school or teaching.
Who were the angels who helped you along the way?
There were three teachers at Aptos High School that had an impact on my success in college. They were Mr. Smith, a physics teacher; Mr. Melville, an IMP teacher; and Mr. Tanimoto, a business teacher. Mr. Tanimoto wasn’t my teacher but was always supportive—he drove me to basketball practice and always gave me great life advice.
*The GRIT program supports NTHS Latino students from 9th grade through 12th grade.
Close to 20% of the entire student body (at NTHS) is in the GRIT program and committed to academic excellence.
Tell us about GRIT! How did it start?
The GRIT program at North Tahoe High School started as an idea my first year as Assistant Principal in 2014-2015. I immediately recognized that North Tahoe High School is a special place because of the teaching staff, office staff, counselors and administrators. Everyone was working together to support students and every decision was made with the best interest of students in mind. All of this work created the perfect academic culture for the GRIT program.
NTHS GRIT students (have been awarded) $275,000 in scholarships last year.
The GRIT program supports NTHS Latino students from 9th grade through 12th grade. Students commit to taking 3 AP classes in their high school career, participate in a school sanctioned sport or a school club, attend school at a 91% or higher rate, earn a 3.0 grade point average or above, and participate in the Adventure Risk Challenge program. Parents also commit to be a taxi for their student and attend meetings. I meet with all students in the G.R.I.T. program at every grading period and conduct an academic coaching session. This provides opportunities to review grades, GPAs, academic habits, potential attendance issues, class schedules for the next year, etc. Close to 20% of the entire student body is in the GRIT program and committed to academic excellence. The impact of the program has been an increase in Latino students enrolled in AP classes; a decrease in chronic absenteeism, disciplinary referrals, and suspensions for Latino students; and 75% of the NTHS student body participating in at least one sport. Teachers report the academic culture in courses has changed. Since the inception of the GRIT program, NTHS Latino students have been accepted and attend CSUs, UCs, and private universities—and now receive aid through the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation, which awarded NTHS GRIT students with $275,000 in scholarships last year.
What are the GRIT goals? Do you think the program would work in the same capacity at other high schools?
My goal is to weave the GRIT program into the academic fabric of the school and create systemic change. We have created classes specifically for GRIT students to receive academic support, college awareness support, and social emotional support.
I do see this model working at all high schools. It takes the belief that all students can achieve and provides the necessary resources to fulfill that belief.
"The GRIT program supports NTHS Latino students from 9th grade through 12th grade... (they) receive academic support, college awareness support, and social emotional support. " - Alejo Padilla
If you were to address first-generation or immigrant students from the central coast, what would you say?
There are teachers, administrators, counselors, and coaches who want to help. Seek them out, work hard, and follow through.
As I mentioned above, your experience is really inspiring. Since my sisters and I started the RS Scholarship we've been dreaming about a program that would be about more than just giving away money - although that's important too. With your program GRIT, you've provided a substantial change in students lives, and a roadmap for other communities like the one we grew up in. You've made real change for Latinx youth and we have to say thank you! Thank you Alejo - for this interview and for your commitment to Latinx students.
Now the big question for our readers is this, can we bring GRIT to the central coast? Can you help us? Email me directly at Olga@olgarosalessalinas.com.
If you would like to join us by donating to the Rosales Sisters' Scholarship in general, please donate do so here. We are a 501(c)3 organization. Tax ID #87-1608363