Jaime Escalante dies at 79
[This is my obit of the man who, as many readers of this blog know, changed my life. When I saw what he was doing at Garfield in 1982, I decided I wanted to write about schools forever. I have found great joy in celebrating the work of great teachers, and I have Jaime to thank for that. ---Jay]
Jaime A. Escalante, the most famous and influential American public-school teacher of his generation, died March 30 of cancer at his son's home near Sacramento. He was 79.
A lively, wisecracking Bolivian who did not begin teaching in the United States until he was 44, Mr. Escalante transformed one of the lowest-performing high schools in the country into a model for raising the achievement of disadvantaged children. A 1988 film about his success, "Stand and Deliver," with Edward James Olmos playing the East Los Angeles math teacher, spread his story around the world and inspired teachers in hundreds of inner-city schools to copy his methods.
Mr. Escalante pioneered the use of Advanced Placement, a program of college-level courses and tests designed for high-achieving private schools, to raise standards in average and below-average public schools. His success at Garfield High School, where 85 percent of the students were low-income and few parents had more than a sixth-grade education, suggested that more time and encouragement for learning could trump educational disadvantages.
Calculus was one of the most difficult of the AP subjects. The three-hour final exam, written and scored by outside experts, was considered an impossible goal by many Garfield teachers, familiar with the academic weaknesses of their mostly Hispanic students. Mr. Escalante's first calculus class in 1978 did poorly. Five of the original 14 students lasted the entire course. Only two passed the exam.
But each year's calculus class did better than the previous one. When in 1982 all 18 students passed the exam, Mr. Escalante hoped he had a thriving program that would only get bigger.
Then the Educational Testing Service, which administered AP exams for the College Board, accused 14 of the students of cheating on the exam. Outraged Hispanic community leaders suspected ethnic bias and called for protests. But Mr. Escalante urged his students to retake the exam, an option allowed under AP rules.
Twelve accepted his advice. The exam this time was heavily proctored. The results gave the film its dramatic high point and guaranteed Mr. Escalante's celebrity: All 12 passed the exam, including five who earned top scores.
A Washington Post investigation of the cheating charges unearthed copies of the original exams of 10 students, and they showed that nine of them had been involved in copying one another's work on one free-response question during the first exam. Mr. Escalante never accepted that account and noted that the second exam results were clearly valid.
The Garfield AP program continued to grow, with courses in history, government and biology, and spectacular results in calculus.
In 1987, Garfield students took 129 AP calculus exams, more than all but four high schools, public or private, in the country. That year more than a quarter of all Mexican American students in the United States who passed the Calculus AB exam attended Garfield.
Jaime Alfonso Escalante Gutierrez was born Dec. 31, 1930, in La Paz, Bolivia. He was a fun-loving, athletic teenager who developed into a natural teacher.
His first job was teaching physics, without a textbook, to a class at the American Institute, a school established by Methodist missionaries, when he was 21. He became a popular science teacher in La Paz, often working at one school in the morning, another in the afternoon and tutoring at night.
His wife, Fabiola, arranged for the family to move to California, to which two of her brothers had already immigrated. Mr. Escalante went along with his wife's plan, but he was frustrated to discover upon arriving that his Bolivian credentials would not get him a job in any U.S. school.
He spent 10 years learning English and repeating his undergraduate education and teacher training, mostly at night and during the summers, before he was accepted as a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Shortly after Mr. Escalante arrived at Garfield in 1974, its administrators were fired because the chaotic campus -- riven by gang disputes -- was on the verge of losing its accreditation. Few people noticed the balding teacher with the thick accent teaching basic math to the school's lowest-achieving students. But the new principal saw how well-decorated his classroom was, with sports posters and motivating slogans. Mr. Escalante was given more challenging classes, leading to his experiment in AP Calculus for barrio children.
Once Mr. Escalante became a national celebrity, rubbing shoulders with Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron on his own PBS series on careers for students who applied themselves in school, he faced resentment from other Garfield teachers. He was quick to tell Principal Henry Gradillas about colleagues selling real estate in the teachers lounge or calling in sick to get a head start on their weekend. He was painfully blunt about the flaws in the teaching methods of other teachers in the math department, which he chaired.
Much of Mr. Escalante's success with students stemmed from his ability to persuade them to work on lessons in his classroom after school each day, and to attend Saturday and summer classes to prepare for calculus. He rejected the usual markers of academic excellence and insisted that regardless of a student's GPA, he would let her take the AP course if she promised to work hard.
On one occasion, a student he did not know wandered into his after-school classroom, crowded with people doing their homework. She said she was in the gifted class and needed help with a problem. His voice full of delight, Mr. Escalante motioned to a boy in the room and said, "Let me have a student who is not gifted show you how to do that."
Lured to a Sacramento school by an ambitious superintendent in 1991, Mr. Escalante ended his career quietly, making sure that his students passed the AP test without trying to revolutionize the school. In retirement, he divided his time between California and Bolivia, where he joked that several schools were named after him but had given him no money for the rights.
He is survived by his wife, two sons and six grandchildren.
Mathews, an education columnist who writes the Class Struggle blog for washingtonpost.com, covered Mr. Escalante as Los Angeles bureau chief for The Post and wrote the 1988 book "Escalante: The Best Teacher in America."
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
| March 31, 2010; 1:17 PM ET
Categories: Jay on the Web | Tags: Jaime Escalante dies at 79, secrets of Escalante's success
Save & Share: Previous: KIPP visitor's critique, KIPP leader's response
Next: Are you part of a great teacher's student family?
Posted by: highquality4kids | March 31, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: 1voraciousreader | March 31, 2010 5:51 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Cal_Lanier | March 31, 2010 6:33 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: williamhorkan | March 31, 2010 6:42 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | March 31, 2010 9:06 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Brooklander | April 1, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 1, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Nikki1231 | April 1, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 1, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 1, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: maganacuellar | April 1, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | April 1, 2010 7:09 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: allenm1 | April 2, 2010 5:03 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 2, 2010 7:52 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Nikki1231 | April 2, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 2, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Cal_Lanier | April 2, 2010 8:55 PM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.