Angelo Villavicencio Interview

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Angelo VillavicencioINTRODUCTION

Angelo Villavicencio is a mathematics teacher who worked with Jaime Escalante in the famous AP Calculus program at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles during the late 1980s.

Escalante — together with colleagues Villavicencio and Ben Jimenez, as well as school principal, Henry Gradillas — created an AP Calculus program at Garfield High that enjoyed an unprecedented degree of success.

At the program’s height in 1987, a total of 85 Garfield students passed the two AP Calculus exams — the best result of any high school in the state of California. The accomplishments of the Escalante team came to the attention of an international audience through the 1988 film Stand and Deliver.

Villavicencio went on to establish a similarly successful AP Calculus program at Don Antonio Lugo High School in Chino, California. Villavicencio has also taught calculus to barrio students at East Los Angeles College (ELAC) for many years.

Born in Nicaragua as Angel, his name was changed to Angelo when a teacher at the English-language prep school he attended thought “Angel” was a girl’s name and insisted he go by “Angelo.”


Stand and DeliverWe are very interested in the story of your personal involvement with the famous AP Calculus program at Garfield High during the late 1980s that was so movingly depicted in the film Stand and Deliver (right). We are even more interested in hearing about how you were then able to repeat that success at a different high school a few years afterwards, because we believe it is essential that the educational approach that your team developed at Garfield and that you implemented at Don Lugo be more widely followed in America today.

However, before we ask you about those important matters, we would first like to hear a little bit about your own personal story. When and where were you born? What sort of family and wider social environment did you grow up in? How did you first become interested in mathematics? How did you become a teacher? Please share with us anything about your educational background and life story that you think our readers will find helpful.

Angelo Villavicencio:

ManaguaI was born in Managua (left), Nicaragua, in 1950. I grew up in a single-parent family of six. My father left us when I was nine years of age and my mother took care of us until she abruptly died in an automobile accident when I was 16 years of age. Her sisters took us into their homes and took care of us. My oldest brother and two of my sisters were already living in California when this event took place.

From pre-Kindergarten through 2nd grade I attended public schools, and from 3rd grade until graduation I attended a private school, the La Salle Institute for Men, in Managua. At least 25 percent of its students were from the upper class, 50 percent from middle class and the remainder had scholarships. I was one of the ones with a scholarship.

I grew up in a barrio which offered a great variety of street-wise learning and personal freedom since my mother was a single mom and had to work hard to support us. Her whole family was well-off — upper middle class — a fact that enable me and my other brothers to process and utilize the value of education very well.

In 1970, I came to California to live with my brother. I started working and attended California State University at Los Angeles. I have to admit that I have always loved learning and going to school. School was a playground for me. Even though, my physics and calculus teacher in high school completely disliked me, to the point of bombarding me with insults and humiliations, I always preserved this love for knowledge. Thus my attraction, first to teaching philosophy, and then mathematics.

My awakening as a teacher came during my first two years of teaching at Griffith Junior High School in East Los Angeles, beginning in 1979.

I was making a big impact in my students’ lives. My classes were scoring the highest at this school on the District test. I was enjoying the communion with these kids. I learned about the humanity involved in teaching poor and minority barrio youngsters. How much discrimination, apathy, and condemnation existed toward these adolescents! True, they had all sorts of problems and educational deficiencies, but they all had a beautiful mind and the right to an education — a proper education, the one that was demanded from the District, and more. I worked with them regardless of their backgrounds and deficiencies. They needed my dedication and support, as well as discipline, tough love, and a structured learning environment.

I have been married for 40 years to Kerube and we have two sons, Ali and Adyr. The fact that my commitment and dedication to my teaching profession have been exemplary is due in no small part to my wife’s patience, support, and love. As a side note, my sons were part of the Escalante Program, first as students and then as teacher’s assistants. They indeed experienced the thrill and enthusiasm of participating in this program.

How did you first become involved with Jaime Escalante and the AP Calculus program at Garfield High? How did you get to know Escalante and what gave you the confidence to come on board with him?

Angelo Villavicencio:

Jaime EscalanteAs I have already mentioned, I was teaching at Griffith Junior High, which fed all its students to Garfield High. One day, one of my ex-students — a Garfield student named Sara Sanchez — came to see me after school. Sara talked to me about Jaime Escalante (right), whom everyone called “Kemo.” Sara said she wished I could meet Kemo, since she claimed that he and I taught in a similar way. I accepted Sara’s invitation, and she arranged for a meeting between us. When I went to see Mr. Escalante, we chatted for half an hour and — right on the spot — he told me that I had to come to Garfield and be part of his program there. This was in 1983. My desire to be part of such a program was reinforced by the fact that I was developing my own at Griffith Junior High. At Griffith, we were about to start teaching Algebra II.

I finally moved to Garfield in 1987. My involvement with Mr. Escalante and his program enabled me to see a world containing a wealth of educational possibilities which were accessible to all barrio kids and youngsters, given that they internalized and believed the concept of ganas (meaning, in English, a burning desire to succeed).

Most of these students were not challenged and motivated. Stereotyping them as Latinos (or, in general, as “minorities”) was the rule, not the exception. I truly and deeply believed, and still do, that everybody has a beautiful mind and that our moral responsibility as educators is to inspire students to develop their minds and not waste them. Furthermore, I believe that education is the answer to generate this development.

What was it like to be a part of Garfield’s AP calculus program? Did you realize at the time that you were involved in something historic — both highly unusual and potentially very important? Why do you think the program worked as well as it did?

Angelo Villavicencio:

The movie Stand and Deliver was being edited when I arrived at Garfield in 1987. My association with Mr. Escalante, witnessing how much success he and his programs had achieved, instilled a sense of pride in me and I felt I belonged to the program. The students’ achievements were tangible and their academic development reaffirmed in me, once and for all, what I had always believed: If the right educational environment is given to every child, his/her intelligence and world perception are going to blossom and the desire for learning will captivate their minds.

The students were motivated and inspired to believe in themselves and understand that success comes from hard work, discipline, and determination. I could sense the pride and joy the students had from being part of this program and from being part of Garfield High School. History was being made in the USA — the largest numbers of Hispanics barrio kids were enrolled in an AP Calculus Program and, best of all, many of them were going on to four-year universities, including Ivy League Schools.

The program worked well because:

Can you describe for our readers the difference between the calculus AB and the calculus BC advanced placement exam? Did you and the other AP calculus teachers at Garfield prepare the students who took the BC exam prepared differently those who took the AB exam? How did the students who took the two exams differ?

Angelo Villavicencio:

Calculus Calculus AB deals with limits, derivatives, and its applications, such as finding global extrema, instantaneous rates of change, and motion along a line. Furthermore, it also deals with the definite integral and its applications, such as areas bounded by curves in the xy-plane, in the polar plane, solids of revolution, length of curves, net changes, and differential equations and their applications to growth and decay.

Calculus BC, besides including all the AB Calculus topics, also deals with improper integrals, l’Hôpital’s Rule, infinite series, parametric equations, polar curves, and vectors. The students taking Calculus BC are subjected to a more rigid and faster pace than those in AB.

According to Henry Gradillas, Garfield’s principal during your time, not just AP calculus but also AP courses across the board were seeing increasing student interest and success. Could you please describe the synergistic effect of having a spate of AP courses at Garfield that students got excited about and in which they strove to excel?

Angelo Villavicencio:

You know the saying, “Success breeds success.” This was totally confirmed and reinforced by how the AP Calculus programs induced and motivated students to take other AP classes at Garfield High School. Furthermore, this led the instructional staff to create brand-new AP classes, such as AP Physics, AP Biology, and AP Economics.

In fact, one of my students (Daniel Castro) went to ELAC to finish the calculus series (multivariable calculus), and while he was there, he decided to take a differential equations class. From there, he moved on to MIT, where he got a B.S. and an M.S. in Electrical Engineering. Thereafter, he got a Law degree from UC Berkeley. Daniel now owns his own tech-patent firm.

How much of a difference did it make in students’ lives and career success that they took AP calculus with you and did well on the exam? Please give us some examples of success stories that you personally witnessed and speculate, if you would, about what might have happened to some of these students if they had not been given the opportunity to excel academically in your calculus program.

Angelo Villavicencio:

East Los AngelesThe Escalante program, as well as the entire AP program at Garfield, created a deep sense of pride and belonging to the school and in East Los Angeles (right). In fact, until this day, all those students speak and identify themselves with pride and joy when they are asked about their high school. In my 32 years as a mathematics teacher , I never saw the kind of excitement and pride among students that I experienced at Garfield. Those students discovered that they had a beautiful mind, that they were intelligent, and that a new world was outside waiting to be explored using their educational skills.

I believe that most of them, for the first time, understood and accepted the value of education. They discovered that they possessed the greatest gift in life — a beautiful mind. This fact alone gave the students the hope for a better life. It allowed them to recreate new perspectives and different life goals. I truly believe that a majority of these students are now professionals and doing much better than they would have otherwise.

When the film Stand and Deliver came out, how did that impact the program? How did it affect you personally? What did you like about the film? Is there anything in it that you would have changed?

Angelo Villavicencio:

When the movie Stand and Deliver came out, there was a euphoric explosion at Garfield. I believe it brought a new hope and excitement to barrio and ghetto schools. It lifted the spirit of education and reaffirmed those who believed in what the students could accomplish — that they were on the right path. Furthermore, to those teachers who were about to quit, it brought a new light, a new way to approach teaching, a new hope. All kinds of people — educators, politicians and civilians — came to Garfield to witness the miracle-worker, Jaime Escalante. They wanted to meet him, and talk about his story and the success of the program.

Some educators were serious about replicating the Escalante Program at their schoosl. Some were very successful, especially one school in Texas (though I do not recall its name). Our program grew sky high, kids were inspired, some teachers were astonished at how our AP Program grew and how much enthusiasm prevailed at Garfield. Yet, there was a certain amount of jealousy at Garfield about the program, too.

I had never, as an educator, been part of this type of phenomenon. I was possessed by this euphoria. I basically was elated to see the students who had enrolled in our summer program, coming to it and finishing it. I was naturally high on it — so high that I became the biggest cheerleader of the program. I was recruiting most of my students to our summer program and going around all other math classes in my building, given the students inspirational talks.

Edward James Olmos and Jaime Escalante
Edward James Olmos and
Jaime Escalante

The movie Stand and Deliver meant a whole lot to me and made me feel proud of its message: Care about your students, inspire and motivate them, assume nothing, and work with them, be creative, improvise, and above all recognize their humanity. They deserve better, they deserve to have a chance to go after what this world has to offer and education is the best way to allow them to have a taste of it.

If I had been a producer of the film, I would have included an interview with Mr. Escalante filled with relevant questions about his program. At the end of the movie, people needed to see the real “Kemo” and what it took to create a program like his.

When and why did you leave Garfield? Did you regret leaving? Could you describe what was happening at Garfield between the time Stand and Deliver came out and when you finally left Garfield? In particular, what was happening to AP calculus at Garfield during that time? What has happened to that program since?

Angelo Villavicencio:

I left Garfield High School in June of 1992. Maria Tostado, the principal, assured me that she did not want any Escalante legacy in Garfield. She had brought her own team of teachers and believed that they were better than any of Escalante’s team.

I had 110 calculus AP students in two classes. I requested the opening of a third class, so I could have smaller classes and so achieve better connections with my students. Mrs. Tostado denied my request. I was fortunate that I took over Mr. Escalante’s classroom, which had 65 desks. Hence, I was able to have 50+ students per class. In fact, since Garfield High School became a year-round school, Mrs. Tostado was going to take away my classroom and give it to the other Calculus teacher (the one she had hired). She tried her best to get rid of any Escalante’s legacy and she succeeded. >She had a new vision for the program. The years went by, the enrollment fell, and the euphoria vanished. The program became a shadow of what it once had been.

I went back in 1995, after much begging from Mr. Dallas Russell (a teacher who worked in our program), to see Mr. Diaz the new principal at Garfield at that time. We offered our help and stated our desire to come to work at Garfield so the program could be regenerated. We had the whole-hearted support of ELAC teachers Mr. George Madrid and Mr. Paul Powers, who were in charge of the Escalante Program in that institution. However, Mr. Diaz was quite clear to us. He stated that he did not want any part of Escalante’s legacy and that Garfield was doing well.

I closed the book on Garfield and decided to create my own program at Don Antonio Lugo High School, in Chino, California. The program at Don Lugo did great because the required pieces and elements were there: support from the principal and a teacher who believed in the program, plenty of communication among its members, and academic flexibility.

What were the circumstances that led to your being given the chance to repeat the success of the Garfield AP Calculus program at Don Lugo High School?

Angelo Villavicencio:

When I went to work at Don Lugo, a similar culture existed to the one that used to exist at Garfield. Fifty percent of the students at Lugo were Hispanic and most of them were in the lower math classes. In fact, the only calculus class that existed was a class of 24, with only two Latinos — the rest were Asian and whites.

My success at Don Lugo was due to many factors. First, when you are part of a successful program like the one at Garfield, you are either just a passive part of it or you internalize its success by learning the program components and what drives its success. I did that, and this enabled me to transfer my knowledge to the math program at Don Lugo.

But best of all, I had the benefit of working with one of the best partners I’ve ever had, Mr. Blair Bradfor, the chair of the math department at Don Lugo. During my teaching years at Ayala High School in the City of Chino Hills, Mr. Bradfor kept challenging me to come to Don Lugo and create a program like Mr. Escalante’s at Garfield. He believed in the Escalante program’s success and identified me as the necessary ingredient to generate a successful math program at Don Lugo. Mr. Bradfor’s frankness, honesty, willingness to cooperate, and care for the students were unbelievable.

Mr. Bradfor and I also had the approval and full support of Don Lugo’s principal, Mr. Cisneros, and his team. Mr. Cisneros promised me all the support required to put this program in motion.

His word and Mr. Bradfor’s sincerity prevailed. I transferred to Don Lugo in 1995.

Please tell us some more details about the program you put together at Don Lugo and its achievements. In what ways did you alter and improve on the approach that you and your colleagues had previously used at Garfield?

Angelo Villavicencio:

Don Antonio Lugo High School Marching BandDon Lugo was considered the worst high school in Chino. To make matters worse, there were some bureaucrats in the District office who did not believe or approve of what we were doing. However, Mr. Rossi, the Interim Superintendent, was totally excited about our program and gave us his support.

I took over the ESL classes and the Calculus class. Mr. Bradfor taught Algebra II, both the regular and the honors course, as well as Trig/Pre-Calculus. We had the components, and a pipeline was created. Our students were inspired and the right teachers were there to make sure they were taught properly and were offered any after-school assistance. Then, ELAC began to make a summer school program available to us: Algebra I, Algebra II, Trigonometry, and Trig/Pre-Calculus. Calculus AB was added later on.

The first summer, in the year 1996, I decided to teach a Trig/Pre-Calculus class (without pay) during the afternoons at Don Lugo High. I had about 18 students willing to do it and 12 of them were ESL. I had to do it so I could have a second calculus class the following academic year. Mr. Cisneros spoke to the District Superintendent, Mr. Mike Rossi, so I could use the facilities for six weeks, Monday through Friday, from 1:00 pm to 6:30 pm. I strongly believed that a second calculus class was going to persuade and inspire other students to study harder and be able to enroll in a Calculus class later on.

They came. By the year 2000, we had four Calculus AB classes and one Calculus BC. Almost 60 percent of the students were Hispanics and 60 percent of the students in the program were females. This achievement was obtained with the coordination of the Administration and my colleagues in the Math Department, especially Mr. Bradfor, who was the biggest cheerleader of the program.

Mr. Bradfor and I talked every day. We evaluated our needs and came up with solutions. The students’ weaknesses were addressed — academic improvement was on the way. We were fused together and there was a great respect and admiration for each other. Mr. Bradfor was the best colleague I have ever worked with!

I involved every member of the Math Department and I asked them for their opinions and praised their work. I asked Mr. Cisneros to come to our Department meeting from time to time and praised the teachers for their good work. Mr. Bradfor had been at Don Lugo for 20-plus years. He knew the District policies, structure, and politics we needed to work with. But best of all, we had Mr. Cisneros’s full support. He went to bat for us all the time. We generated success year after year. The enthusiasm was there and, just like Garfield, the whole AP Program at Don Lugo grew and new classes were created.

The program at Don Lugo grew so fast that by 2000 we had 140 students enrolled. Yet, I left Don Lugo because the District refused to accredit me six extra years of experience which I brought from Los Angeles. I acknowledge this was the biggest mistake I made as a teacher; however, I was proud of the fact that 60 percent of the calculus program at Don Lugo was made up of females and that 40 percent of the students in the program overall were Hispanic.

In the year 2000, the College Board acknowledged the success of the program and honored me, through the Siemens Foundation, as an Outstanding Calculus Teacher in the Nation.

I left Don Lugo High School the following year due to the fact that Chino Valley District did not want to recognize the extra seven years of experience I had when I transferred from Los Angeles Unified School District. The program took a nosedive and when I returned, Mr. Cisneros and Mr. Bradfor had left the school. Hence, the program never went over 100 students, even though it had three Calculus AB and one BC. My team was gone, my academic flexibility was repressed with new testing (STAR), and there were forces in the District office which kept fighting the program.

It is widely believed that Escalante’s time at Garfield was a “golden age” that has never been, and perhaps never could be, repeated. Please speak to the possibility of not just repeating but extending the successes seen at Garfield in the 1980s. What would it take for Garfield’s success to be not just an outlier event but something common? Indeed, for the benefit of high school students everywhere in the U.S., would that it were common.

Angelo Villavicencio:

As long as the fate of education is dictated by bureaucrats and politicians, the success of Stand and Deliver will be hard to repeat. The purity, the tenacity, the caring, the commitment, the expertise, and hard work of those teachers who thrive and dream for the success of students, were based on the character of the teachers, students, and administrators. There was room to improvise, to be creative, and to follow a logical path with the curriculum in place; but also to exchange ideas and make adjustments, to promote education, and make the students true believers.

Teachers Need to Be PreachersTeachers need to be preachers. Their message should be illustrated with examples of the successes of students from the barrio and the ghetto. The AP Program undoubtedly measures students’ knowledge and intelligence. All throughout the nation, it is a common denominator. Speaking for myself, this program alone and its implementation justify the amount of freedom and creativity that are required to establish the fact that anybody can be part of it and succeed.

Barrio and ghetto schools need this program. But it has to be legitimated with the right teachers: true believers and hard-core missionaries.

Henry Gradillas, then-principal of Garfield High, played a crucial role in the success of Esalante’s program. Indeed, the extraordinary thing that happened at Garfield was at least partly the result of a synergy between an remarkable group of teachers and a school administration that was willing to go out on a limb to give them institutional support. If that is so, then we imagine the administration at Don Lugo supported your efforts in a similar way.

Is that right? If it is, please tell us how the Don Lugo administration enabled you to be effective. More generally, what do you want to see from a school administration to help its teachers be as effective as possible?

Angelo Villavicencio:

The administration needs to support new teachers, assist them in any way possible, and place them with a veteran partner to make sure they evolve into good teachers. The principal has to visit the new teacher’s classroom unannounced many times to see the teacher’s true character.

The principal should send master teachers, within the same field of study, to observe, assist, and coach the new teacher, and make sure he or she follows through on the master teacher’s recommendations.

StudentWhen there is good chemistry between students and a new teacher, the administration should do their very best to support these teachers and help them to develop their skills. Special teachers do not come in bundles!

We would now like to give you the opportunity to summarize your educational philosophy for the benefit of our readers.

We all know that something is very wrong with public education in this country, but there is little agreement about what needs to be done about it. What, in your opinion, are the most important factors in your success at Garfield and at Don Lugo?

Do you believe that these factors, if implemented on a large scale, could make a real difference in the real lives of disadvantaged people in this country?

Angelo Villavicencio:

I taught in the barrios of East Los Angeles for 13 years, and in the suburbs of Chino, CA — which has a little barrio (Chino Center, the oldest part of the city) — for 17-1/2 years. I also taught at Ayala High School in Chino Hills, where most of the students where white and Asian.

I was successful everywhere because I was, and still am, a true preacher of education. I believe that education invites the mind to explore, to discover, to understand, and to translate new knowledge into undiscovered and unimaginable frontiers. Through education, we discover a new self and a new world perspectives.

I believe that the greatest personal gift we possess is our minds — the greatest asset in our lives. I believe that it is our moral obligation as educators to deliver this message to our students, and to make sure they internalize it.

I challenged them to believe in a better life by educating themselves. I believe that the ingredients to achieve such success are based on determination, discipline, and hard work. I called it ganas, which to me means “THE DESIRE TO SUCCEED.”

The most important factors that contributed to my success at Garfield and Don Lugo were:

  1. Academic flexibility with the curriculum;
  2. Complete support from the administrators and staff;
  3. A summer program in place to bring academic advancement;
  4. And, most essential of all, educators who have the passion to teach, the required knowledge of the subject, and the caring and the commitment necessary to elevate their students to another level

It takes a team a long time to build up such a program, yet one administrator can demolish it in no time.

With the proper administrative support, this kind of program could function well in any of the barrio or ghetto schools in this country.

Any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers? What is your biggest hope for American education?

Angelo Villavicencio:

Our students are the future of our country.

There are students who know they have the talent, and could eventually develop them if they wanted to. Yet, they need to be motivated, to be given the best educational tools, and to be exposed to role models — that is, to successful individuals — so they can appreciate the beauty of their own minds and their potential. Teachers need to persuade students to believe in themselves.

Blue PlanetStudents need to be made aware of the unimaginable essence that the mind has.

I do hope that through education our professionals, technicians, and all the people in our country learn to appreciate our planet and our human condition a bit more. We all need to think as human beings living together on one planet.

The blue planet is all we have.

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