Escalante, Jaime: 1930—: Educator

views updated Jun 08 2018

Jaime Escalante: 1930: Educator

A Bolivian immigrant who worked as a math teacher in East Los Angeles, Jaime Escalante gained national recognition for transforming the math department of a poor Hispanic high school. Escalante's unorthodox teaching style motivated hundreds of students to sacrifice their free time and other activities to study for the Advanced Placement math test. His high success rate led to national acclaim, as well as external funding for his educational programs. His story became the subject of a 1988 Hollywood film titled Stand and Deliver.

Jaime Alfonso Escalante Gutiérrez was born on December 31, 1930, in La Paz, Bolivia. He was the second child born to Zenobio and Sara Escalante, who both worked as poorly paid schoolteachers. The Escalantes worked in the remote Aymara and Quechua Indian villages, and Escalante grew up in a town on the high plain called Achacachi. The family of seven lived in three rooms rented from a doctor. As a child Escalante amused himself by playing soccer, basketball, and handball. He also spent a considerable amount of time with his grandfather, who was a retired teacher and an amateur philosopher.

Escalante's father was an abusive alcoholic, so his mother took the children and moved to La Paz. When Escalante was 14 years old his mother sent him to San Calixto, a prestigious Jesuit high school, where his favorite subjects were math and engineering. When Escalante was a teenager his father died, which meant that the family would not be able to afford to send him to engineering school as he had hoped. Instead, Escalante did odd jobs until he was 19 years old, when he briefly joined the army to fight against leftist rebellions. When his service was over, a friend convinced Escalante to go to college at Normal Superior in order to become a school teacher.

Early Teaching Experience

After only two years at Normal Superior, Escalante's remarkable abilities in physics and mathematics were apparent to his classmates and teachers alike. There was a shortage of physics teachers at the American Institute, and Escalante was offered the job, even though he had not yet been exposed to teacher training classes. At the age of 21, with no books and no experience, Escalante began teaching physics. He learned the skills of teaching by imitating other teachers whom he respected, and through trial and error.

At a Glance . . .

Born Jaime Alfonso Escalante Gutiérrez on December 31, 1930, in La Paz, Bolivia; son of Zenobio (a schoolteacher) and Sara (a schoolteacher) Escalante; married, Fabiola Tapia; children: Jaime Jr., Fernando. Education: Pasadena City College, A.A., 1969; California State University at Los Angeles, B.A., 1972; California State University at Los Angeles, teaching certificate, 1974. Religion: Roman Catholic. Military Service: Bolivian Army, 1950.

Career: High school math and physics teacher, La Paz, Bolivia, 1954-63; high school math teacher, Garfield High School, East Los Angeles, California, 1974-91; calculus teacher, East Los Angeles Community College, 1983-91; high school math teacher, Hiram Johnson High School, Sacramento, California, 1991-98; teacher, Universidad del Valle, Bolivia, 1998-; public speaker, 1998.

Awards: Hispanic Heritage Award, 1988; Free Spirit Award, Freedom Forum, 1998; Andres Bello Prize, Organization of American States, 1998; United States Presidential Medal for Excellence, 1998; National Teachers Hall of Fame, 1999.

When he graduated in 1954 he had three jobs lined up. In the mornings he taught at the prestigious San Calixto, in the afternoons he worked at National Bolívar High School, and in the evenings he taught at Commercial High School. It was through a lot of experience that Escalante developed his unique and effective teaching style. In the Bolivian educational system, students were tested by teachers from different schools, eliminating the subjectivity of a teacher testing his or her own students. In this way, "Escalante and his students became part of the same team, fighting a common foe, rather than adversaries in a war in which the teacher always had the upper hand and the students often contemplated revolt or desertion," according to Jay Mathews in Escalante: The Best Teacher in America.

While at Normal Superior, Escalante met Fabiola Tapia, and the couple married on November 25, 1954. A year later they had their first son, Jaime Jr. Fabiola's brothers went to college in California and she wanted her young family to join them there. She believed that America offered better economic opportunities and more stability for her family. As a devout Protestant she also did not approve of alcohol, and wanted to get Escalante away from the friends who frequently took him out drinking.

In 1961 Escalante spent a year in Puerto Rico as part of President John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress program, which offered training to industrial arts and science teachers from Latin America. As part of this program Escalante was able to tour several schools in the United States and was impressed with their facilities and equipment. This experience convinced him to grant Fabiola's wish to move to the United States.

Immigrated to the United States

In 1963 Escalante moved to Los Angeles. He was 33 years old and spoke no English. With the little money that he had, he bought a 1964 Volkswagen beetle, which would later become his trademark when he began to teach. Escalante worked as a dishwasher for a local restaurant and later became a cook. He learned English mainly through television, and eventually enrolled in some classes at Pasadena City College. In 1964 his wife and son joined him in the United States, and the family lived in a guesthouse owned by Fabiola's brother. Fabiola did not like the fact that her well-educated husband was wasting his talents as a chef and she encouraged him to find better work. His next job was as an electronics technician, but he was still not satisfied with the work.

Escalante finally realized that his true passion was teaching, and he decided to resume his calling. However, he was disappointed to learn that his teaching credentials were not valid in the United States, and he would have to earn another bachelor's degree plus an American teaching certificate if he wanted to teach in California. Escalante continued to work as an electronics technician and went to school part-time. In 1969 his second son, Fernando, was born, so his job and family were his first priorities. In 1973 Escalante earned a bachelor of arts degree from California State University. He also won a National Science Foundation scholarship, which allowed him to go to school full-time and complete his teaching certificate in just one year.

In 1974 Escalante interviewed for teaching jobs with the Los Angeles Unified School District. He accepted a job as a computer teacher at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. The student body at Garfield was 95% Latino and 80% poor. When Escalante arrived, he quickly learned that there were no computers and that he would be teaching math instead. That was not his only disappointment at Garfield. The students were unruly, poorly educated, disrespectful, and sometimes violent, which was not what Escalante was accustomed to. "They were using their fingers adding stuff at the board," Escalante told People Weekly in April of 1988. "They came in without supplies, with nothing. Total chaos." Escalante believed that his first year at Garfield would be his last.

Escalante returned to Garfield for a second year partly due to his passion for teaching and partly because of his commitment to his family. He knew that his sons had more opportunities in the United States than they had in Bolivia, and he was trying to make the best of his situation. When Escalante returned to Garfield in the fall of 1975, he found that all of the school's administrators had been fired. The school had been performing so poorly that the Western Association of Schools and Colleges threatened to revoke the school's accreditation. Escalante believed that teachers should challenge students rather than teach at the lowest level possible. With a new administration in place, Escalante was able to push for tougher classes. He began teaching algebra, and by 1979 he introduced the first calculus class at Garfield.

Challenged Students to Excel

Escalante had a very unorthodox way of teaching that both frightened and inspired his students. He was not afraid to yell at students for being late or lazy, but he also gave them encouragement and taught them to believe in themselves. He told them that they could succeed at everything if they had the ganas, the desire. He decorated his classroom with inspirational sayings and sports posters. He was imaginative in his techniques to get his points across. He once brought a meat cleaver and an apple to class to teach his students fractions. He would wear funny hats, make jokes about sex, and do whatever he could think of to get his students' attentionand he was successful. He soon gained the students' respect and they nicknamed him Kemo Sabe, the man who knows, which was Tonto's name for the famous Lone Ranger.

Garfield's students began to rise to the challenge set forth by Escalante. When he introduced calculus in 1979 he had five students in the class. All five took the Advanced Placement (AP) exam for calculus and four of them passed. This standardized test gave passing students college credits. It was so difficult that only two percent of American high school students even attempted it. Escalante was inspired by this success and worked even harder to recruit more students. He held special after-school sessions and Saturday classes to prepare students for the AP test. He also tutored those who were struggling during their lunch hour or before classes began. Most importantly, he got the parents involved and convinced them to make their children attend school and do their homework. As he told the Omaha World-Herald in April of 2001, "We need the help of parents. We alone cannot do anything."

In 1982 Escalante's AP calculus program grew to 18 students, his largest class yet. To his delight, all 18 students passed the test. However, two months later 14 of the students received letters from the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton, New Jersey, stating that their scores were invalid. The ETS believed the students had cheated because they had made similar mistakes on the test. The students were disheartened because they had sacrificed all of their free time to prepare for the test. Escalante was furious. He believed the scores had been challenged because they came from Hispanic students at a poor high school, and that it was difficult for the ETS to believe such students were capable of succeeding. The students were vindicated, however, when 12 of the 14 agreed to retake the test and they all passed a second time.

Became a National Hero

This controversial event became the subject of a 1988 movie called Stand and Deliver, starring Edward James Olmos as Escalante, and a 1988 book by Jay Mathews called Escalante: The Best Teacher in America. This national attention to Escalante's math program led to external funding. In 1990 the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education provided money for computers, audiovisual equipment, tutors, and scholarships. The National Science Foundation funded the Escalante Math and Science Program at East Los Angeles College, which provided after-school and summer classes for Garfield's students. Additionally, Escalante's programs received corporate sponsorship from companies such as Ford, Coca-Cola, Xerox, and IBM. Escalante even developed a series of educational videos called Futures for PBS.

With these additional resources, Escalante continued to have success with his math students. By 1991 570 Garfield students had taken AP tests in 14 different subjects. However, the national attention that Escalante received caused jealousy and tension among his coworkers. Escalante was not shy about criticizing teachers when he felt they were not doing a good job. He also disliked faculty meetings and administrative responsibilities because he preferred to be in the classroom with his students. As he told the Los Angeles Times in June of 1991, "We are here to help students. That is my philosophy. And that is my weak point. I put too much time into students." In 1990 Escalante was dismissed by his peers as chair of the math department. By 1991 tensions among the faculty were so high that Escalante decided to leave Garfield.

From 1991 to 1998 Escalante taught at Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento, California. Unlike Garfield, this school was ethnically diverse. Escalante began teaching freshman and sophomore algebra, but eventually instituted an AP calculus course similar to the one at Garfield. Escalante had some success with his program at Johnson, but it was more limited than the success he had enjoyed at Garfield. He was unable to connect with all of the students and parents at Johnson, because not all shared common cultural and linguistic bonds. He also did not have the same administrative support at Johnson that he had at Garfield because of the high turnover of principals and vice principals. As Newsday explained in May of 1997, "By the time Escalante reached Johnson, he was 60, with a national reputation, a family worried about his health, and a reluctance to revive the faculty battles that had made his last years at Garfield so uncomfortable."

Joined English for Children Initiative

In 1997 Escalante was asked by his peers to run for the position of state superintendent of public schools, but he declined. That same year he joined the "English for Children" initiative, which was a campaign against bilingual education in California schools. Escalante believed that children suffered in bilingual programs because they were not being taught English at the early ages when it was easiest to learn the language. As he told the Los Angeles Times in November of 1997, "It's good to have bilingual teachers who speak two languages. But if you teach the kids in Spanish, you're not preparing them for life." When the controversial Proposition 227 passed in California dismantling bilingual education, Escalante received a lot of hate mail on the subject.

The controversy surrounding Proposition 227 and his less successful tenure at Johnson led Escalante to retire from teaching in 1998 at the age of 66. He planned to continue his work by evaluating testing procedures for the ETS and giving public lectures. As he told the Los Angeles Times in November of 1998, "I am still trying to do what I can, raising money for scholarships and motivating teachers and people." He also moved back to his native country, splitting his time between Bolivia and the United States. He has become a legend in both countries. In Bolivia he taught at the Universidad del Valle and has had several schools named after him. In the United States Escalante continued to spread his message about the power of encouragement and education. "I am not looking for recognition," he told the Los Angeles Times in May of 1995. "I'm trying to prove that potential is anywhere and we can teach any kid if we have the ganas (desire) to do it."



Mathews, Jay, Escalante: The Best Teacher in America, Henry Holt and Co., 1988.


American Enterprise, July 1999, p. 10.

Boston Globe, September 1, 1991, p. 2.

Insight on the News, December 22, 1997, p. 18.

Los Angeles Times, June 27, 1990, p. A19; June 19, 1991, p. B3; August 29, 1991, p. 1; October 23, 1992, p. B1; May 23, 1995; September 19, 1997, p. B10; November 13, 1997, p. A3; May 18, 1998, p. R4; November 15, 1998, p. B1; June 14, 1999, p. A1; July 18, 2001, p. 2.

Newsday, May 28, 1997, p. B3; June 11, 1998, p. A23.

Newsweek, March 14, 1988, p. 62; July 20, 1992, p. 58.

Omaha World-Herald, April 28, 2001, p. 15.

People Weekly, April 11, 1988, p. 57.

U.S. News and World Report, February 26, 1996, p. 62.

Washington Monthly, May 1989, p. 58; May 10, 1999.

Washington Post, August 9, 1990, p. B1; April 10, 1994; March 5, 2000, p. W9; January 31, 2002, p. T4.


Bolivia Web Hall of Fame,

The Futures Channel,

National Teachers Hall of Fame,

Pasadena City College,

The Visionaries: Creators of Worlds,

Janet P. Stamatel

Jaime Escalante

views updated May 21 2018

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

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

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