Lest we forget: Jaime Escalante


As I See It


September is National Hispanic Heritage Month, coinciding with the fifty-first anniversary of the Delano Grape Strike staged by 1,500 FilAm farm workers led by Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz together with Latino labor leaders Caesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

Last month, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump visited Mexico and had an audience with President Enrique Pena Nieto. They discussed immigration issues and other concerns although they have different views especially about illegal immigrants.

America was built by immigrants. Both Hispanics and Filipino-Americans contributed to the history and economy of America.

But we must also recognize Bolivian-born-educator Jaime Escalante, whose contributions to the education sector should not be overlooked.

At first, nobody believed in Escalante. He started teaching Algebra and Calculus at Garfield High School in Los Angeles and in East Los Angeles College. In fact, there was a time when he almost lost his job because he rejected traditional practices. Among others, he required students to answer a homework question first before being allowed into the classroom. Also, he rejected the common practice of ranking students from first to last and instead frequently told his students to apply themselves as hard as possible to their assignments.

Yes, Escalante thinks hard work for teacher and student alike are the keys to success. Many times, we tell our students to strive harder to succeed in the classroom. However, hard work should not only be expected from the students but also from the teachers, in order for the students to succeed.

Escalante’s character and convictions, not only in education, but also in real life, can be illustrated in this quotation: “One of the greatest things you have in life is that no one has the authority to tell you what you want to be. You’re the one who’ll decide what you want to be. Respect yourself and respect the integrity of others as well. The greatest thing you have is your self-image, a positive opinion of yourself. You must never let anyone take it from you.”

This quotation from Escalante means a lot of things to me and to all of us. It means freedom of choice; making personal decisions; self-respect and respect for others; and a positive outlook in life. It means believing in yourself and making positive moves in every activity you are confronted with.

Wikipedia says Escalante taught mathematics and physics for 12 years in his mother country before immigrating to the U.S. After migrating, “he had to work many odd jobs, teach himself English and earn another college degree before he could return to the classroom.”

In 1974, he began teaching at Garfield High School when its accreditation became threatened. Instead of gearing classes to poorly performing students, Escalante offered AP Calculus, changing the status quo. Determined to make innovative approaches, Escalante had to persuade the first few students who would listen to him that they could control their futures with the right education. He promised them that the jobs would be in engineering, electronics and computers but they would have to learn math to succeed. He said to his students, “I’ll teach you math and that’s your language. With that you’re going to make it. You’re going to college and sit in the first row, not the back, because you’re going to know more than anybody”.

The school administration opposed Escalante frequently during his first few years, Wikipedia continues. He was threatened with dismissal by an assistant principal because he was coming in too early, leaving too late, and failing to get administrative permission to raise funds to pay for his students’ Advanced Placement tests. This opposition changed with the arrival of a new principal, Henry Gradillas. Aside from allowing Escalante to stay as a math teacher, Gradillas overhauled the academic curriculum at Garfield, reducing the number of basic math classes and requiring those taking basic math to concurrently take Algebra.

Escalante continued to teach at Garfield and teaching calculus. He recruited fellow teacher Ben Jiménez and taught Calculus to five students, two of whom passed the AP Calculus test. The following year, the class size increased to nine students, seven of whom passed the AP calculus test. By 1981, the class had increased to 15 students, 14 of whom passed. Escalante placed a high priority on pressuring his students to pass their math classes, particularly Calculus.

Escalante is a colorful yet effective teacher. In 1982, Wikipedia said Escalante came into the national spotlight when 18 of his students passed the challenging AP Calculus Exam. The Educational Testing Service, however, found these scores to be suspicious. The reason being all of the students made exactly the same math error on problem number six, and they all used the same unusual variable names. So, 14 of those who passed were asked to take the exam again. Of the 14, 12 agreed to retake the test and all 12 did well enough to have their scores reinstated. In 1983, the number of students enrolling and passing the AP Calculus test more than doubled.

In 1988, a book Escalante: The Best Teacher in America by Jay Mathews and a movie, Stand and Deliver, were released detailing the events of 1982. During this time teachers and other interested observers asked to sit in on his classes. He shared with them: “The key to my success with youngsters is a very simple and time-honored tradition: hard work for teacher and student alike”. Escalante received visits from political leaders and celebrities, including then President Ronald Reagan and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Escalante has described the film (Stand and Deliver) as “90 percent truth, 10 percent drama.” He stated that several points were left out of the film: It took him several years to achieve the kind of success shown in the film; in no case was a student who didn’t know multiplication tables or fractions taught calculus in a single year; and Escalante suffered inflammation of the gall bladder, not a heart attack.

Over the next few years, Escalante’s calculus program continued to grow but he received threats and hate mail from various individuals. By 1990, he had lost the math department chairmanship, but his math enrichment program had grown to more than 400 students.

His class sizes had increased to over 50 students, which was far beyond the 35 student limit set by the teachers’ union. In 1991, the number of Garfield students taking advanced placement examinations in math and other subjects jumped to 570. That same year, citing faculty politics and petty jealousies, Escalante and Jiménez left Garfield.

Jaime Escalante moved to Sacramento, California, to live with his son in the city of Rancho Cordova. He was able to find a new teaching job at Hiram Johnson High School, a school very similar to Garfield High School. He died on March 30, 2010, aged 79, at his son’s home while undergoing treatment for bladder cancer.

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