Jaime Escalante, teacher who was subject of ‘Stand and Deliver,’ dies at 79

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

LOS ANGELESJaime Escalante, the charismatic former East Los Angeles
high school teacher who taught the nation that inner-city students
could master subjects as demanding as calculus, died Tuesday. He was 79.

The subject of the 1988 box-office hit “Stand and Deliver,” Escalante died at his son’s home in Roseville, in northern California, said actor Edward James Olmos, who portrayed the teacher in the film. Escalante had bladder cancer.

“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

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

Jaime Escalante has left a deep and enduring legacy in the struggle for academic equity in American education,” said Gaston Caperton, former West Virginia governor and president of the College Board, which sponsors the Scholastic Assessment Test and the AP exam.

“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 California, was a factor in his decision to retire in 1998 after leaving Garfield and teaching at Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento for seven years.

He moved back to Bolivia,
where he propelled himself into a classroom again, apparently intent on
fulfilling a vow to die doing what he knew best — teach. But he
returned frequently to the United States
to speak to education groups and continued to ally himself with
conservative politics. He considered becoming an education adviser to
President George W. Bush and in 2003 signed on as an education consultant for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California gubernatorial campaign.

Escalante was born Dec. 31, 1930, in La Paz, Bolivia,
and was raised by his mother after his parents, both schoolteachers,
broke up when he was about 9. He attended a well-regarded Jesuit high
school, San Calixto, where his quick mind and penchant for mischief
often got him into trouble.

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 Argentina,
he wound up enrolling at the state teachers college, Normal Superior.
Before he graduated he was teaching at three top-rated Bolivian
schools. He also married Fabiola Tapia, a fellow student at the college.

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 $3,000 in his pocket and little more than “yes” and “no” in his English vocabulary, Escalante flew alone to Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, 1963.

His first job was mopping floors in a coffee shop across the street from Pasadena City College,
where he enrolled in English classes. Within a few months he was
promoted to cook, slinging burgers by day and studying for an
associate’s degree in math and physics by night. That led to a
better-paying job as a technician at a Pasadena
electronics company, where he became a prized employee. But the
classroom still beckoned to the teacher inside him. He earned a
scholarship to California State University, Los Angeles. to
pursue a teaching credential. In the fall of 1974, when he was 43, he
took a pay cut to begin teaching at Garfield High for $13,000 a year.

“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 Bolivia. Faced with unruly students, he began to wish for his old job back.

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, Kemo Sabe.

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 Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews recounted in his 1988 book, “Escalante: The Best Teacher in America,”
the hard-driving teacher turned the health problem into another weapon
in his bag of tricks. “You burros give me a heart attack,” he
repeatedly told his students when he returned. “But I come back! I’m
still the champ.”

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

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

“He’s the most stylized man I’ve ever come across,” Olmos, who received an Oscar nomination for his performance, told The New York Times
in 1988. “He had three basic personalities — teacher, father-friend and
street-gang equal — and he would juggle them, shift in an instant. …
He’s one of the greatest calculated entertainers.”

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 Bolivia
for his journey into teaching fame, Escalante went home. He settled
with his wife in her hometown of Cochabamba and became a part-time
mathematics professor at the Universidad del Valle, and was still teaching calculus in Bolivia in 2008. He returned to the U.S. frequently to visit his son and give motivational speeches.

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 Reno, Nev., clinic’s regimen of pills, teas and ointments, many of his former students gathered at Garfield to raise money.

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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