Beating Long Odds, Jaime Escalante Stands and Delivers, Helping to Save a Faltering High School

From his very first day teaching math at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, Jaime Escalante knew his students were in trouble. “They were using their fingers adding stuff at the board,” he says. “They came in without supplies, with nothing. Total chaos.” A no-nonsense kind of guy, Escalante skipped the lecturing and brought in his meat cleaver. He set an apple on his desk, donned an apron and a chef’s hat and brandishing his weapon like some fiendish butcher chopped the apple swiftly in two. “Let’s talk about percentages,” he said. No one in the room said a word.

That was in 1974. Since then Escalante, 57, has startled hundreds of students, most of them poor Hispanics, into learning not just simple math but calculus too. Though only about 2 percent of U.S. high school seniors even attempt the grueling math test for advanced college placement, all of Escalante’s kids take it—and roughly 80 percent pass. Thanks to his inspirational efforts and a team of tough school administrators, Garfield, for years a disaster area plagued by heavy drug use, gang violence and bottom-of-the-barrel academic standards, has turned respectable. The gangs and drugs are gone, the grounds well kept. The changes have been so dramatic that an acclaimed new movie, Stand and Deliver, has been made about Escalante, the man who helped start Garfield High’s revolution.

The way Escalante tells it, the wonders he has wrought are hardly miraculous. “You just have to know how to motivate these kids,” he says. Unwavering discipline leavened with humor is his credo; if a student’s attention wavers, he gets pelted with a little red pillow. If someone is tardy, he is relegated to a chair built for a kindergartener. “It embarrasses them,” says Escalante. “They also don’t come to class late anymore.” Escalante doles out encouragement too. “I tell them, ‘You are the best, you are our hope for the future; remember that,’ ” he says.

For years that was what he had to tell himself. A native of Bolivia, Escalante fled his country’s political strife in 1964 with his wife, Fabiola, and their son Jaime Jr., 8 (they also have a son Fernando, now 18). Though Escalante had taught calculus in La Paz, he spoke no English and his credentials meant nothing in Pasadena, where he and his family settled. Working in a coffee shop, he taught himself the language and got a job in the parts department at Burroughs Corporation. But teaching was his passion. For seven years Escalante spent nights earning a math degree from Cal State and in 1974 he landed at Garfield.

At first, he admits, things were rough. “But then I started to get feedback from the kids,” he says. “They started to call me Kemo, short for Kemo Sabe [Tonto’s nickname for the Lone Ranger], the man who knows. I knew I was going to stay.”

Escalante’s first calculus class, in 1979, had only five students. Four passed the advanced placement test, “and I felt great,” he says. The next two years were equally gratifying, but in 1982 Escalante’s world was shaken: He suffered a minor heart attack, and 14 of his 18 calculus students were accused of cheating on the AP exam. Because their errors appeared suspiciously alike, the students would have to take a new, harder test or have their scores invalidated. Escalante was indignant, his pupils determined. All 14 took the retest, and all 14 passed.

That incident, much publicized locally, brought Escalante to the attention of film producer Tom Musca and director Ramon Menendez. “There was an enormous probability that the students’ scores would never have been questioned had they not all come from Garfield High—with predominantly Spanish surnames,” said Musca. Interested, he and Menendez approached Escalante. “Go ahead and write it, but I really don’t have much time to deal with you,” the teacher told them. Later he was more cooperative, allowing actor Edward James Olmos, who plays him in Stand and Deliver, to spend 18 hours a day with him for a month. It was apparently the right decision. “I always thought he was just going to be Eddie Olmos playing the part,” Escalante said after a visit to the set, “but the man I saw was 100 percent Escalante.”

Not surprisingly, Escalante’s status as celebrity superteacher has engendered some resentment among his peers. “There are many of us at this school who are knocking ourselves out and don’t get the attention,” says literature teacher Carlos Jimenez. But even those envious of Escalante’s publicity admire his abilities, and there are other, more vital rewards. Garfield grads often drop by to see him, knowing he will be there into the night. “Many teachers merely instruct you,” reports Maria Torres, 18, a UCLA freshman who recently made the pilgrimage. “Mr. Escalante’s secret is he really cares. He made us feel powerful, that we could do anything. I came back because I missed him.”

—By Kim Hubbard, with David Lustig in Los Angeles

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