Chapter 5 of It Takes Ganas: Jaime Escalante’s Secret to Inspired Learning—Chapter 5
“‘Deliver‘ Receives High Marks,” declared Los Angeles Times film critic Sheila Benson, introducing her review of Stand and Deliver. “Talent like [Escalante’s] is a miracle,” she added. “Pride is contagious. It has infected Garfield High, where Escalante still holds his standards high and dares kids to follow.”
Already well-known in educational circles, Jaime Escalante became a national celebrity overnight. It was an unusual subject for a Hollywood hit. As director Ramón Menéndez explained to New York Times film critic Aljean Harmetz, it had been a tough sell to distributors. “Try to describe a film about kids taking a math test.”
But it worked. Harmetz wrote that “the heart-pounding excitement comes not from car chases, gang warfare or invented crises in the life of the teacher but from the Advanced Placement calculus exam …” The script took certain liberties with the truth, compressing the timeframe and combining the lives and experiences of many students into a few on-screen characters. Aili Gardena, a veteran of the 1982 test, commented that the movie made students look “so dumb” at the beginning. Those who took the ’82 AP test in real life had been preparing for years. They were seasoned Escalante veterans, hand-picked for their potential and drilled endlessly. Another fictitious addition was the hoodlum played by Lou Diamond Phillips. Escalante would never have allowed a student like that in his program. And if anyone had ever thrown a chair in class, Henry Gradillas would have transferred him to another school the same day.
For all its fictitious details, the core of the film – Escalante’s incredible energy, innovative classroom technique, and limitless dedication – captured the main points of his career and shared his triumph with the world. Stand and Deliver was also a financial success. Made for under $1.5 million, the film was acquired for distribution by Warner Bros. for $3.5 million and earned $14 million (or $28 million in 2015 dollars) at the box office.
“Jaime Must Stay!”
Considering Escalante’s fame and the film’s popularity, few would have guessed that within three years Jaime Escalante would be gone from Garfield, and soon afterward the math department that made them both famous would be undone by new leadership weary of the administrative trouble it caused. Still, the professional accolades kept coming: the Jaime Escalante Educational Fund to assist Bolivian and Latino students in 1989; the Jaime Escalante Mathematics Teacher Award also in 1989, presented by the Los Angeles Educational Partnership and sponsored by ARCO; Escalante receiving the American Education Award in 1990 from the American Association of School Administrators. His PBS television series, Futures, received a Peabody award in 1990. Yet as we have seen, that was also the year Escalante was replaced as chair of the math department. Finally, in 1991 he resigned from Garfield under pressure after seventeen years.
Jaime Escalante may be the only teacher ever to give the commencement address at his school the same year he was forced from his job. It is yet another indication of the ambivalence and divisiveness surrounding his legacy. Most of his students loved him; parents and community leaders held a rally in his support, hoisting signs that read, “Jaime Must Stay!” Members of the PTA and even the teachers union expressed disappointment that he would leave. Los Angeles newspapers bewailed that their school district would let this valuable resource, this celebrity teacher befriended by U.S. presidents, star of his own television show, and educational consultant in demand across the country, slip away.
Escalante considered going back into the computer or electronics fields, but his heart was in teaching. A representative of his generous benefactor, ARCO predicted that Escalante “will find another Garfield and do his thing all over again. He will never stop teaching. He will die in the saddle teaching.” Escalante accepted a new position at Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento beginning in the fall of 1991.
Hiram Johnson High School
While Los Angeles media couldn’t believe the district would let their star teacher go, Sacramento could scarcely believe its good fortune. The superintendent there praised Escalante lavishly, saying he was “elated” to welcome him, and prepared a showcase classroom to his specifications. It was a large former auto shop classroom, newly air-conditioned and furnished with new, oversized desks, both donated by Escalante supporters. There was an observation area with large one-way windows to accommodate the steady stream of visitors that had become the norm at Garfield in the years since the movie made Escalante a national figure.
Unfortunately, Escalante quickly encountered a taste of the same professional friction at the new school that had dogged him at Garfield. Some Hiram Johnson teachers said they learned about Escalante’s arrival on their way to work the first day of school. Others were jealous of the press coverage even before then. Certainly there were colleagues who envied his classroom.
As he had done at Garfield, Escalante began by teaching lower-level math courses – arithmetic and basic algebra to freshmen and sophomores. His third year he taught precalculus; and only with that course finally under students’ belts did he teach the full-fledged calculus class. Yet during seven years at Hiram Johnson, Escalante never approached the success he’d had at Garfield. Part of the reason was his health. When he moved to Sacramento in the fall of 1991 Jaime was sixty years old, the survivor of a heart attack and gall bladder surgery during his tenure at Garfield. He was sixty-five when he taught his first class of AP calculus at Hiram Johnson. It is an inopportune season of life to begin again from scratch so difficult a challenge.
But the main reason his program never gained the momentum it had before was that the administration and parents in Sacramento failed to back him up when it came to maintaining the standards necessary for results. Teachers and parents allowed students to drop his courses. They took exception to his heavy-handed classroom technique that included badgering and barking at students, giving them sometimes unflattering nicknames, and demanding long homework assignments.
Hard-edged nicknames were part of the Hispanic culture, but now for the first time in his career, Escalante taught mostly non-Hispanics. Only 19 percent of the student body at Hiram Johnson was Hispanic, while 61 percent were either white or Asian. As Don Mroscak, the veteran Garfield counselor, recalls, “The families in Sacramento were less pliable.” At Garfield, threatening to call a parent was often all Escalante had to do to make a student toe the line. He had a rapport with the Latino families there that he lost among the Asian, Anglo, Latino, and African-American mix at Hiram Johnson. Now the response from a student to his threat might well be, “Call anybody you want!” Without the family and community support he had counted on before, Escalante lost the leverage he previously had to keep students in class when they wanted to give up.
By 1995, Escalante was able to reestablish his early morning and lunchtime help sessions, and was prepping thirty or so students for the AP calculus exam. But two years later, the calculus program at Hiram Johnson was fading fast. Though he was able to improve the school’s math performance, he never repeated his historic results at Garfield. In 1997, only eleven students took the AP test. The next year only seven pupils signed up for advanced calculus and the class was deleted from the curriculum. Another teacher already had the beginning course, so that year Escalante taught no calculus at all. A third of his algebra students dropped during the school term, leaving twenty young teens rattling around in his giant showcase classroom by the spring of 1998.
Also that year Escalante weathered withering criticism for publicly backing a state referendum to phase out bilingual education in California classrooms. He believed the policy of keeping students in Spanish-speaking classes hampered their academic progress and reduced their job prospects. The threatening phone calls he received both at school and at home no doubt influenced his decision to retire in 1998 after twenty-four years in California public schools.
Home to Bolivia
Escalante moved back home to Bolivia in 2001, supposedly in retirement. But, unable to give up the teaching he loved, he was soon in front of a classroom again at Universidad del Valle in his wife’s hometown of Cochabamba. In addition to teaching part-time there, he returned frequently to the United States to speak. He was honored with membership in the National Teachers Hall of Fame in 1999 and became an education advisor to Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003 during his campaign for governor of California.
After he was diagnosed with bladder cancer, Escalante traveled regularly to the US for treatment. In March 2010 a seriously ill Jaime Escalante underwent an alternative cancer care program at a clinic in Reno, Nevada. Once word of his condition spread among his friends and admirers, former students reached out to him with messages of encouragement and thanks for the way he had shaped their lives. They were now lawyers, doctors, architects, engineers, and professors. Though many of them never used calculus after leaving Garfield High, they were convinced that the mental agility, study skills, self-confidence, and, of course, ganas that Escalante had instilled in them were decisive in their success.
One student, a mechanical engineer, remembered that Escalante pressured him to quit his job in a liquor store to be a math tutor. He now worked at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Cases like his were typical.
Escalante’s old friend and colleague Angelo Villavicencio came to visit. Actor Edward James Olmos did likewise. When he saw Escalante’s frail condition and learned that insurance would not pay the full cost of his treatment there, he persuaded the family to let him appeal for donations. Former students organized a weekend rally on the Garfield campus to raise money.
The stocky figure that had once been so vibrant and full of energy was now emaciated and confined to a wheelchair, though his eyes still sparkled behind his glasses. His rakish newsboy cap was replaced with a knit stocking cap to keep him warm. His voice was reduced to a raspy whisper. He ate slowly, and scheduled his day around doses of more than twenty medications. Though he could barely speak, he answered a question about his former students by writing, “They understood the significance of ganas, the giant step to success. I had many opportunities in this country, but the best I found in east L.A. I am proudest of my brilliant students.”
After three weeks of treatment he went to his son’s home in Roseville, California. Doctors had given him a few months at most to live. On March 30, 2010, Edward James Olmos announced to the press that Jaime Escalante had passed away.
In his Los Angeles Times obituary published the next day, Elaine Woo, who had written numerous times about Escalante over the years, noted, “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.”
She quoted College Board president Gaston Caperton who said, “Jaime Escalante has left a deep and enduring legacy in the struggle for academic equity in American education … Because of him, educators everywhere have been forced to revise long-held notions of who can succeed.”
Edward James Olmos called Escalante “the most stylized man I’ve ever come across. He had three basic personalities – teacher, father-friend, and street-gang equal …”
President Barack Obama released a statement that said in part, “While most of us got to know him through the movie that depicted his work teaching inner-city kids calculus, the students whose lives he changed remain the true testament to his life’s work. Throughout his career, Jaime … proved that where a person came from did not have to determine how far they could go. He instilled knowledge in his students, but more importantly he helped them find the passion and the will to fulfill their potential.”
At his death, the only remnant of Escalante’s seventeen historic years at Garfield High was his old classroom with a sign by the door reading, “Jaime A. Escalante Math Center GANAS.” It was scheduled for demolition that summer to build a new auditorium. The assistant principal said there were plans to put a plaque on the site honoring Escalante.
Olmos helped organize a wake for Escalante, whose casket rested in a Garfield lecture hall decorated to resemble his classroom from the 1980’s, complete with sports posters on the walls and equations on the blackboard. A photo showed the teacher in his prime, complete with big glasses and the trademark newsboy cap he would be buried in.
The funeral service the next day was at the sports stadium of East Los Angeles Community College, where Escalante had started his summer program decades ago, and where thousands of middle- and high school students have gone in the years since to prepare for advanced studies in a range of subjects. The Jaime Escalante Math Program thrives today at ELAC, open as space permits to any student who has graduated from sixth grade. The only requirements are that they promise to come to class and do the homework. Escalante would have required no less.
Jaime’s legacy endures, though his teaching methods and standards have yet to be widely adopted, or even adapted. Explicit support among educators for his methods is spotty at best, in spite of his phenomenal track record. If he were an athlete, he would be Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, and Usain Bolt all rolled into one. Yet his astounding legacy is obscured by infighting in an educational community riven with competing political agendas and violent social forces (factors if not less evident in sports then at least less detrimental to athletes). During his life, Escalante was simultaneously celebrated and criticized – honored by students, presidents, and Hollywood filmmakers, yet impeded and condemned by administrators, union representatives, jealous colleagues, and disaffected parents. Those opposing viewpoints still define the debate today.
Reducing Escalante’s example down to its essence, two foundational lessons emerge from the life of this dedicated and visionary teacher: 1) The prime objective of a teacher is to set high goals and give students every tool possible to reach them; 2) Teachers must maintain a laser focus on this objective and do whatever is necessary to achieve and sustain it.
The only thing easy about these lessons is writing them on paper. Escalante’s story tells us they are very hard to implement and that the personal and professional cost of doing so will be high. Considered on a wider scale, these lessons unleash a torrent of questions. What should the goals be? Who sets them? How are they measured? How are the needs and abilities of various student populations taken into account? (Even during Escalante’s heyday at Garfield High, the school ranked overall near the bottom of Los Angeles high schools.)
What we do know is that Jaime Escalante achieved historic results. Yet in order to do so, he had to go outside the educational mainstream. The system was ultimately the opponent of this great educator, not his supporter. Today more than ever, parents, students, and taxpayers fed up with the poor performance of traditional American educational institutions are going outside the system to get results in the Escalante mold, and taking their money and support with them.
Is the chasm between traditional educational systems and educational excellence inevitable? Is there a way forward that brings them together? Can the system change or be changed to do the job it is supposed to do? Can and should stakeholders establish a separate system where the traditional bureaucracy has failed?
What does the story of Jaime Escalante teach about prospects for the future of American education? How do we go up against the conflicting agendas, turf wars, political and financial battles, entrenched positions, hype, half-truths, misinformation, and apathy surrounding American education?
Great teachers are also great students: they’re always eager to learn and improve. Escalante’s colleague and friend Henry Gradillas took a year off in mid-career to finish his doctorate in part, he said, to show students at Garfield High that you’re never too old to learn. Escalante agreed. Even after he became a celebrity, he often spoke of how important it was for him to keep learning how to teach. When he left Los Angeles for Sacramento at age 60, he worked to tailor his famous classroom style to a new student body and a new community.
Were he still with us, Jaime would likely insist that in order to set American education on the right track, it’s time for educators and everyone else involved to do some learning of their own. He would get the attention of the warring parties by throwing a sock monkey at them and exclaim, “You burros are giving me a heart attack! Break it down. Work it out. Don’t give up until you’ve got it.”
It’s time to break it down. Work it out. Don’t give up until we’ve got it. One place to begin is with a look at who’s driving the school bus – who is in charge of mainstream education in America and where they have taken us.
1. Review quotations from “‘Deliver‘ Receives High Marks” by Sheila Benson, Los Angeles Times March 10, 1988
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2. Film background and commentary from “Math Stars in a Movie” by Aljean Harmetz, The New York Times March 20, 1988
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3. Aili Gardena quotation from author interview (10/30/14)
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4. Box office figures from Internet Movie Database
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5. Comments from ARCO representative from “Celebrated Math Teacher Escalante Says He’ll Quit” by Elaine Woo and Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times, February 22, 1990
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6. Comment that Sacramento would be “elated” from “Math Teacher Escalante Quitting Garfield High” by Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times June 14, 1991
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7. Professional friction challenges and information about Escalante’s career in Sacramento from “Success Keeps Multiplying for Jaime Escalante” by Gary Libman, Los Angeles Times, May 23, 1995 and “Escalante’s Formula Not Always the Answer” by Amy Pyle, Los Angeles Times, May 18, 1998
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8. Information about Escalante’s final illness and death from “Jaime Escalante, Inspiration for a Movie, Dies at 79” by William Grimes The New York Times, March 31, 2010 (cause of death is incorrect); “Jaime Escalante Dies at 79” by Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times, March 31, 2010; and “Jaime Escalante dies, inspired 1988 film ‘Stand and Deliver‘” by Jay Mathews, The Washington Post, March 31, 2010
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