Charles E. Cohen
September 16, 1991 12:00 PM

JAIME ESCALANTE ALWAYS KNEW THAT life at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles wouldn’t be a picnic. When he arrived 17 years ago to teach computer science, the financially strapped school had no computers, and he ended up teaching math instead. Undaunted by bare-cupboard budgets, a neighborhood beset by drugs and violence, and students who did addition on their fingers, the feisty Escalante went on to make Garfield—and himself—a national symbol of academic-achievement. He reintroduced calculus classes and led his students to preeminence on the challenging Advanced Placement test. The success of Stand and Deliver, the 1988 movie about his classroom triumphs, helped attract $750,000 a year in corporate contributions to his school, led the teacher to TV appearances on PBS (including the special Math…Who Needs It?! that aired earlier this month) and seemed to assure that Escalante would remain a permanent Garfield fixture.

But Escalante, 60, is no longer at Garfield. This summer, the Bolivian-born educator left the school and his San Gabriel Valley home for a new job teaching math at Sacramento’s Hiram Johnson High School, where he began Sept. 3. The decision to quit, he says, resulted from an intolerable combination of jealousy and harassment at Garfield. “I just got fed up with all the mediocrity, the politics, the nonsense,” he says, “and the lack of appreciation for what other good teachers and I do.”

Escalante’s long-simmering problems began to boil over shortly after the release of Stand and Deliver. He says that some teachers at Garfield became envious of his fame, and he began receiving death threats and ugly anonymous phone calls telling him that his services were no longer needed. Then, two years ago, the school’s 22-member math faculty voted to remove him from the department chairmanship he had held for more than a decade.

Although Escalante points to the teachers’ union as one of the villains and claims his efforts to win more “control over the caliber of math teachers” raised hackles, others see things differently. Helen Bernstein, president of the United Teachers Los Angeles, insists that the union did not oppose Escalante in the election. “There was no concerted effort to remove Mr. Escalante from his chair,” she says. And some of Escalante’s colleagues suggest that the heralded teacher was guilty of professional hubris. Says Stu Adler, Garfield’s current math department chairman: “It’s the way he acts toward certain people—like he is the master.”

Even some of Escalante’s backers acknowledge that he was no diplomat. “Escalante spoke his mind, and sometimes insecure people interpreted that as being too blunt,” says Angelo Villavicencio, a Garfield math teacher trained by Escalante. “He was blunt with me, too, but he was right, and I knew I was being taught by a master artist.”

Escalante is no stranger to adversity. A calculus teacher in La Paz before emigrating to the U.S. in 1964 with his wife, Fabiola, now 59, he worked as a restaurant cook, a computer-parts tester and at other odd jobs for 10 years while taking night courses to earn his California teaching certification. In 1982, eight years after arriving at Garfield, he suffered a mild heart attack. That same year 14 of his students were accused of cheating on an AP exam because their mistakes seemed suspiciously similar. But when the students were required to take a harder version of the test, all of them passed.

Now at Hiram Johnson, where only six students passed the AP calculus exam last year. Escalante faces new tests himself. Sacramento School District Superintendent Rudy Crew, who hired him, is delighted to give him the chance. “It’s difficult for me to understand how L.A. would let him go,” says Crew. “Believe me, I’m not going to let the bureaucracy interfere with this man’s artistry.”

For his part, Escalante says he’s determined to continue the work of teaching despite the obstacles. After all, “it’s the only thing I can do,” he says with a grin. This time, though, he’s hoping the job will involve more calculus—and a lot less division.


DAN KNAPP in Los Angeles

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