When teacher and mentor Grant Phillips retires Thursday from Cambria’s continuation high school, he’ll leave behind 23 years of shaping students' lives.
Phillips has taught at Leffingwell High School since it began in Cambria in 1995.
Many consider Phillips, 56, to be the heart of Leffingwell — including about 20 of his former students, who planned to surprise him Wednesday by attending what will be their teacher’s final Leffingwell graduation ceremony.
Every great teacher impacts many lives, but in Phillips’ case, his influence often has been extraordinary.
Just ask his former students, who talked about his even-handedness and the respect he shows each student — "even the ones who show him utter disrespect," Leffingwell grad Tara Covell said.
“You will never find a man who cares more for his students," said Covell, who attended Cuesta College and established a successful horseback trail-ride company on her family’s Covell’s California Clydesdale Ranch. "If you’re succeeding, you won’t find a greater cheerleader than him.”
Innovation, too, has been a Phillips hallmark.
How do you teach students science, math, drafting, geometry, carpentry and many other skills, all at once? Wrap them in a yearlong project to plan, design and build a greenhouse, as his students did in 2005.
Phillips taught Erin Aiello for two years, “but his impact on my life has lasted much longer,” she said. “Philly inspired me to be a better person, believe in myself and work hard … We respected him like a father, I think, and he accepted us for who we were.
“For some of us,” Aiello said, Leffingwell is “the only place where we’re treated with respect.”
Aiello will receive her masters of science degree from Cal Poly this summer and go to UC Santa Cruz to pursue a doctorate in ecology and evolution.
Renee (Jennie) Chaffin, a 2006 Leffingwell grad who owns Local Sitting Services in San Luis Obispo, said Phillips “is the reason I went back to school. ... He was patient, sympathetic, caring.”
Blair Menard, a 2004 Leffingwell graduate, said Phillips “treated us like family. There was always respect in the classroom” in a “less rigid environment to learn in.” Menard recalled the little black organizer that Phillips always carried — a book filled with “random facts, like the orbital velocity of Uranus.”
“(Phillips) was without a doubt the most influential teacher I had in high school. His method of teaching embraces the students, not as teenagers, but as young adults," said Tyler Botzon, a 2007 Leffingwell grad. "I feel honored and very grateful to have been influenced and guided by his ability to not only be a mentor but also a good listener.”
After spending years working as a commercial fisherman in Alaska, Botzon, a Seattle resident, now is working toward his master’s degree in business.
Ramona De Alba Fabela said Phillips continued mentoring her after she left Leffingwell — even helping her get a school grant of more than $3,000 so she could attend Central California Schools and get her medical assistant certification.
“I hope there’ll be more teachers like him,” Fabela said. “Leffingwell will miss him.”
A Cambria connection
Phillips was born in 1961 in Fresno. His parents were both educators in Tulare and the Fresno Unified School District, said Mary Phillips, the teacher’s wife.
She and Grant Phillips grew up in the same neighborhood and became friends in junior high, she said.
Phillips graduated in 1985 from Fresno State University with a degree in industrial technology, then returned to get a multiple-subject teaching credential in 1986. He taught in Fresno for eight years, then moved to Cambria in 1995. The couple married in 1996.
How Grant Phillips got to Leffingwell is a true Cambria story, according to Carrol Adams, Coast Union High School’s secretary-registrar.
“Grant was teaching in Fresno," Adams recalled. "He came to Cambria on his motorcycle, with his long blond hair. He used to work out at the community gym. I did, too, and we got to talking. He was a teacher, and we needed a teacher at our brand-new continuation school.”
Through the years at Leffingwell, Phillips earned tremendous respect from his students, community members, administrators and coworkers, who have threatened to call him “St. Phillips” because of his scholastic miracles.
“Over the years, Grant helped redefine for people what a continuation school is,” school counselor Cheryl Seay said. “These kids aren’t over there because they’re ‘trouble.’ Some are there because they wanted an alternative way of instruction.”
"Some are from upper-strata families, some from parents who have to work three jobs just to get by," retired Leffingwell teacher Sandi Gross-Pound said. "All have overcome bumps in their roads” to become “active citizens in their communities.”
Gross-Pound said Phillips “spent his whole career at Leffingwell helping his students to be seen for who they really are and make them believe in themselves.”
“He’s been the driving force for Leffingwell," Seay said. "Even when they tried to shut down the program, Grant got involved, got the community involved and made sure that didn’t happen.”
So when new full-time teacher Justin Gish starts at Leffingwell on Aug. 20, he’ll have really big shoes to fill.