The subject of the 1988 box-office hit "Stand and Deliver," Escalante died at his son's home in
"Jaime didn't just teach math. Like all great teachers, he changed lives," Olmos said earlier this month when he organized an appeal for funds to help pay Escalante's mounting medical bills.
Escalante gained national prominence in the aftermath of a 1982 scandal surrounding 14 of his Garfield High School students who passed the strenuous Advanced Placement calculus exam only to be accused later of cheating.
The story of their eventual triumph — and of Escalante's battle to raise standards at a struggling campus of working-class, largely Mexican American students — became the subject of the movie, which turned the balding, middle-aged Bolivian immigrant into the most famous teacher in America.
Escalante was a maverick who did not get along with many of his public school colleagues, but he mesmerized students with his entertaining style and deep understanding of math. Educators came from around the country to observe him at Garfield, which built one of the largest and most successful Advanced Placement programs in the nation.
"His passionate belief (was) that all students, when properly prepared and motivated, can succeed at academically demanding coursework, no matter what their racial, social or economic background. Because of him, educators everywhere have been forced to revise long-held notions of who can succeed."
Escalante's rise came during an era decried by experts as one of alarming mediocrity in the nation's schools. He pushed for tougher standards and accountability for students and educators, often nettling colleagues and parents along the way with his brusque manner and uncompromising stands.
He was called a traitor for his opposition to
bilingual education. He said the hate mail he received for championing
Proposition 227, the successful 1997 ballot measure to dismantle
bilingual programs in
He moved back to
Escalante was born
After high school he served in the army during a
short-lived Bolivian rebellion. Although he had toyed with the idea of
engineering school in
At his wife's urging, Escalante gave up his teaching
posts for the promise of a brighter future in America for their
firstborn, Jaime Jr. (A second son, Fernando, would follow.) With
His first job was mopping floors in a coffee shop across the street from
"My friends said, 'Jaime, you're crazy.' But I wanted to work with young people," he told the Los Angeles Times. "That's more rewarding for me than the money."
When he arrived at the school, he was dismayed to
learn he had been assigned to teach the lowest level of math. He grew
unhappier still when he discovered how watered-down the math textbooks
were — on a par with fifth-grade work in
But Escalante stayed, soon developing a reputation for turning around hard-to-motivate students. By 1978, he had 14 students enrolled in his first AP calculus class. Of the five who survived his stiff homework and attendance demands, only two earned passing scores on the exam.
But in 1980, seven of nine students passed the exam; in 1981, 14 of 15 passed.
In 1982, he had 18 students to prepare for the academic challenge of their young lives.
At his insistence, they studied before school, after
school and on Saturdays, with Escalante as coach and cheerleader. Some
of them lacked supportive parents, who needed their teenagers to work
to help pay bills. Other students had to be persuaded to spend less
time on the school band or in athletics. Yet all gradually formed an
attachment to calculus and to "Kimo," their nickname for Escalante,
inspired by Tonto's nickname for the Lone Ranger,
Escalante was hospitalized twice in the months leading up to the AP exam. He had a heart attack while teaching night school but ignored doctors' orders to rest and was back at Garfield the next day.
Then he disappeared one weekend to have his gallbladder removed. As
The guilt-making mantra was effective. One student said, "If Kimo can do it, we can do it. If he wants to teach us that bad, we can learn."
The Advanced Placement program qualifies students for college credit if they pass the exam with a score of 3 or higher. For many years it was a tool of the elite; the calculus exam, for example, was taken by only about 3 percent of American high school math students when Escalante revived the program at Garfield in the late 1970s.
In 1982, a record 69 Garfield students were taking AP exams in various subjects, including Spanish and history. Escalante's calculus students took their exam in May under the watchful eye of the school's head counselor.
The results, released over the summer, were stunning: All 18 of his students passed, with seven earning the highest score of 5.
But the good news quickly turned bad.
The Educational Testing Service, which administers the exam, said it had found suspicious similarities in the solutions given on 14 exams. It invalidated those scores.
The action angered the students, who thought ETS would not have questioned their scores if they were white. But this was Garfield, a school made up primarily of lower-income Mexican Americans that only a few years earlier had nearly lost its accreditation.
Escalante, like many in the Garfield community, feared the students were victims of a racist attack, a charge that ETS strongly denied. Two of the students told Mathews of the Post that some cheating had occurred, but they later recanted their confessions.
Vindication came in a retest. Of the 14 accused of wrongdoing, 12 took the exam again and passed.
After that, the numbers of Garfield students taking calculus and other Advanced Placement classes soared. By 1987, only four high schools in the country had more students taking and passing the AP calculus exam than Garfield.
Escalante's dramatic success raised public consciousness of what it took to be not just a good teacher but a great one. One of the most astute analyses of his classroom style came from the actor who shadowed him for days before portraying him in "Stand and Deliver."
"He's the most stylized man I've ever come across," Olmos, who received an Oscar nomination for his performance, told
Escalante was the ultimate performer in class, cracking jokes, rendering impressions and using all sorts of props — from basketballs and wind-up toys to meat cleavers and space-alien dolls — to explain complex mathematical concepts.
In 1991, Escalante packed up his bag of tricks and quit Garfield, saying he was fed up with faculty politics and petty jealousies. He headed to Hiram Johnson High with the intention of testing his methods in a new environment.
But in seven years there, he never had more than about 14 calculus students a year and a 75 percent pass rate, a record he blamed on administrative turnover and cultural differences.
Thirty-five years after leaving
He made his last trip here to seek treatment for the
cancer that had left him unable to walk or speak above a whisper. In
March, as he gave himself over to a
Unpopular with fellow teachers, he won few major teaching awards in the U.S. He liked to be judged by his results, a concept still resisted by the majority of his profession.
As he faced death, it was still the results that mattered to him — the young minds he held captive three decades ago who today are engineers, lawyers, doctors, teachers and administrators.
"I had many opportunities in this country, but the best I found in East L.A.," he said in one of his last interviews. "I am proudest of my brilliant students."
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