Jaime Escalante

Jaime Escalante (born 1930) a high school math teacher whose dedication to his students inspired Hollywood to make a movie of how he changed the lives of his students.

Jaime Escalante, a native of La Paz, Bolivia, and the son of two elementary-school teachers, inspired a movie in the 1980s by raising the aspirations of Hispanic students in one of Los Angeles's most decaying urban high schools. Shortly after Escalante came to Garfield High, its reputation had sunk so low that its accreditation was threatened. Instead of gearing classes to poorly performing students, Escalante offered AP (advanced placement) calculus. He had already earned the criticism of an administrator who disapproved of his requiring students to answer a homework question before being allowed into the classroom. "He told me to just get them inside," Escalante reported, "but I said, there is no teaching, no learning going on." Determined to change the status quo, 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 told his first five calculus students in 1978 that "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 student body at Garfield High, more than 90 percent Mexican American, had been told by teachers for years that to be Mexican American was to be unintelligent, but many of them rose to his challenge.

Public Acclaim

Within three years of instituting the calculus class, some of Escalante's students were scoring the highest possible grade, five, on the extremely difficult AP test, which entitles a student to credit at most colleges and universities. Almost all his students were receiving at least the passing grade on the test. In 1982, however, the College Board, which supervises the AP courses and testing, challenged the scores of eighteen of the Garfield students, citing irregularities in answers. The College Board accused the students of cheating. Escalante protested and convinced the students to redeem themselves by taking another test. They all passed. This event established the academic reputation of the program, and soon thereafter the 1987 film Stand and Deliver, starring Edward James Olmos, introduced the nation to the dramatic story of a teacher who, through igniting a love of learning in his barrio students, changed their lives.

Program Continues

In 1980 there were thirty-two calculus students in AP courses at Garfield; by 1988, 443 students took the AP exams and 266 passed. Because of state-granted waivers and a school-sponsored corporate fund raiser, only a few of the students had to pay the seventy-one-dollar fee to take the exams. Besides calculus, Garfield added sixteen AP courses in other fields, and many of the teachers in the program feel that the intellectual ability in their school could have remained untapped had Escalante not served as a catalyst. The changes at Garfield were not only among the elite students, however; the dropout rate, which was 55 percent in 1978, dropped to only 14 percent by 1988. Fully 75 percent of Garfield's 1987 graduating seniors planned to go on to some type of postsecondary instruction. Escalante emerged from the 1980s as a national figure—praised by President Reagan on a special visit to the White House, and singled out by Vice President Bush as a personal hero during one of his presidential campaign debates. During a decade with seemingly conflicting educational goals—excellence and inclusion—Escalante served as a model of a teacher who could achieve both.

In 1991 Escalante moved on to other challenges, including teaching basic math and algebra at Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento, California. In partnership with the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education (FASE), he is also involved in the Production of a Peabody-Award winning PBS series, "Futures," as well as other projects based on his classroom techniques.

Further Reading on Jaime Escalante

New York Times Biographical Service (January 1988): 75-78.

Technos Quarterly: For Education and Technology (Spring 1993):Vol. 2, No. 1.