Foreword, by Henry Gradillas, from It Takes Ganas: Jaime Escalante’s Secret to Inspired Learning
There comes a time in most everyone’s life when we would like to go full throttle and give it the best possible shot we can, no matter what stands in the way or what obstacles others might throw in our path. As a U.S. Ranger, airborne-qualified, military officer, I felt that I had given all I could—my best—in the training I gave to young army recruits. All of the rigorous tasks that my trainees had to successfully accomplish were geared to one main goal: survival on the battlefield.
I faced my challenge, and found that my determination and strong desire to produce the best-trained soldiers brought about enormous positive results. At one time, my trainees received a commendation for being the most aggressive soldiers and for receiving the highest rifle marksmanship scores ever attained at the recruiting camp.
After completing six years of active military service, I decided to terminate my military duties and return to civilian life. The urge to work with youth prompted me to return to college and obtain a teaching credential. My first teaching assignment was in East Los Angeles at Belvedere Junior High. This was the same school that I had attended, and one of the schools that sent students to Garfield High School.
Afterwards, for a while I managed a thousand-acre produce ranch. However, my hunger and yearning to reach that level of pride—and get that wonderful rush of being responsible for the phenomenal achievement levels that my young soldiers had attained—continued to consume me from time to time. The years had taken a moderate toll on my life since those heady days in the military. I felt as though time was running short. So, I returned to teaching in South Central Los Angeles. Ever since, I have dedicated my life to training young minds to achieve success in their chosen fields.
Next, I was sent to Garfield High in East Los Angeles to teach biology. There I met a highly gifted and unusual teacher—an immigrant from Bolivia. I would end up partnering with him in an extraordinary educational project that would go on to become celebrated around the world.
Who was this teacher who hurried students into classrooms, and at times held his students in a line outside his room, asking each student a question before allowing them to enter? His name was Jaime Escalante, and he taught mathematics. We soon became good friends, working together to keep the halls free of lingering students and at times intervening to prevent altercations between potential troublemakers.
Escalante had arrived at Garfield shortly before me to begin his first teaching assignment in America. His first day on the job led to a big disappointment. The computer science classes he was scheduled to teach had been cancelled. What transpired in the days that followed was the start of his many challenges and disappointments.
Escalante cracked down on any behavior he considered to be a barrier to learning. He strongly believed that students need to be challenged and inspired in an environment that promotes learning. He managed to convince the then-principal to allow him to teach mathematics since the computer program was on hold. This is how one very small class of advanced placement calculus was started. Escalante had a powerful message for his students: He told them that it could be done, no matter where or who you were.
To return to my part in the story: After obtaining an administrative credential, I was soon promoted as Dean of Boys. This new assignment allowed me to give Escalante greater support. I was subsequently reassigned to several administrative positions within the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Then, in the summer of 1981—with no hint of what lay ahead—I enthusiastically accepted the position of principal of Garfield High School. What an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with young minds again within a school community with which I was well familiar! I knew most of the staff and many of the students knew me from my work in their junior high schools. Escalante was more than thrilled. He came to my office and loudly explained, “We can do it, sir. Now we can do it!”
Unfortunately, I began my exciting new assignment with one gigantic, troublesome, and quite serious situation. The Educational Testing Service had accused the Garfield AP Calculus students of what amounted to improperly sharing answers with other students. It appeared that there was evidence of a similarity of wrong answers. The testing service disqualified 14 of the 18 scores and suggested that the students retake the test if they wished to get college credit for the course. All of this was happening as I accepted the position as principal of Garfield High.
Escalante was extremely upset over the accusations leveled against the AP Calculus students—as were the entire school and the community. As their teacher, Escalante was opposed to the students’ being required to retake the examination. He felt that if they took the test a second time, it would be an admission of guilt. Working closely with Escalante and discussing options with him, I was able to help him to rationally think it through. He reluctantly agreed to have the students retake the exam. Twelve students successfully completed the examination a second time, some with even higher scores.
Soon after all of the turmoil had subsided, Escalante and I had a long and serious discussion. He most emphatically voiced his strong concern that now he could count on me, as principal, to help him with his advanced placement program. He explained how he had this burning desire—what he called ganas, in Spanish—to teach calculus to dozens of kids. He said that with my backing and support, he would put Garfield on the map.
I soon began to get that fantastic urge to do all I could to help this amazingly dedicated teacher succeed in attaining his goal. I knew that as principal I would not have direct hands-on contact with the students. However, I could certainly do all that was in my power to support Escalante. With my backing, he enthusiastically transformed his classroom into a wacky wonderland that intensified student interest and increased a strong desire among all students to master advanced mathematics.
Over the next several years, Escalante continued to increase the number of AP Calculus students, as well as achieving an impressive increase in the number of students passing the college entrance examination. A high-water mark was reached in 1987 as the AP Calculus program attained impressive and exceptional positive results. One statistical survey documented that 27 percent of the Mexican-American students in the entire country who passed the AP Calculus college exam that year were from Garfield High!
Unfortunately, after I left and a new administration took over, this spirit of innovation and commitment was lost. As the authors of this book clearly and accurately describe, the spirited, innovative, and successful advanced placement course Escalante had created with my support began to decline, and ultimately returned to a mediocre program. The unbelievable events and the devastating results which occurred as a consequence of the disappearance of the support that Escalante had previously enjoyed are all well documented.
Escalante’s successes stemmed in large part from the rapport he established with his students and the attention he gave to them. In return, his students showed great respect and admiration for him and for his teaching methodology. Today, decision-making and control have been transferred out of the classroom—out of the teacher’s hands and into those of administrators occupying the higher rungs of the national educational bureaucracy. Attempts to improve our educational system have led to questionable programs such as “No Child Left Behind” and “Common Core.” Testing has become a runaway train nationwide.
In 2011, Claremont Graduate University education professor Mary Poplin led a team that studied 31 highly effective teachers in the most economically depressed neighborhoods in Los Angeles County. The study defined six common elements these teachers all shared. This book clearly discusses each of these critically important elements. The book also goes into fine detail as the authors present views and opinions on the need for a shift in the focus of education, as well as discussing the objectives of education in America.
Professor Poplin states that education is common sense: “We should observe what works and what does not; then we should build on the one, discarding the other.” She also notes that it takes desire for excellence—ganas, again—on the part of educators to buck the system, or go around it, in order to create an environment where students can excel.
I strongly and enthusiastically endorse this inspiring book. The authors, commissioned by TheBestSchools organization, convey well the impressive heights attained by Escalante and the program he built.
Escalante’s most valuable gift to his students was not a knowledge of calculus. It was the proof that they were capable of so much more than the world expected of them.
By Henry Gradillas