Gary Francisco Keller Ph.D.

Escalante and the ASU connection

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In May, I wrote about the santo patrón of Latin@ academic excellence, Jaime Escalante, who died during semana santa. Here is the ASU connection to Jaime.

In July 1986, I left Binghamton University, SUNY, where I was provost for graduate studies and research, and became a professor at ASU. Eventually, I directed the Hispanic Research Center (HRC). Michael J. Sullivan, my assistant at Binghamton, soon came to the HRC and has been our bastion as chief operational officer of our Escalante-inspired projects for over 20 years.

I spent the summer of 1987 in residence at the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton, developing a program to help Latino and other students. Greg Anrig had recently transferred from commissioner of education in Massachusetts to the head of ETS. Greg made known to me the huge files on the 1982 case where students from Garfield High School in East Los Angeles were suspected of cheating and then vindicated themselves by retaking the SAT. As a result, Escalante’s success had become a social phenomenon of which ASU was soon to become a part. From Princeton, I spoke repeatedly with Jaime and his admirable Garfield principal, Henry Gradillas. Working as an intermediary, reconciliation was achieved between the East L.A. community and the new senior ETS team. Both groups worked cooperatively to support the Advanced Placement (AP) program and other aspects of minority student achievement. It has been a good relationship since 1987.

Beginning in 1987, I was drawn to conceiving and piloting a project in Arizona that is now known as the Western Alliance for Expanding Student Opportunities (WAESO). The project includes students working together in peer-study groups, summer bridge programs between high school and college, faculty-directed student research projects, and the pièce de résistance, a vast expansion of the AP program with strong emphasis on parental involvement so students could get college credit for their high school courses. The Escalante philosophy and method still infuse much of WAESO. We teach our curriculum at a more advanced level than normal. We establish high expectations for student academic careers. We aspire to collectively insure that no student is left behind. As a result, for many years, Phoenix had the largest program west of the Mississippi to prepare high school teachers to teach the AP, primarily in minority-intensive schools where it did not previously exist.

WAESO is still going strong. We now cover every transition point: high school to college; college and graduation with a bachelor’s; graduate school and earning a master’s or doctorate; and faculty status up to tenure. Henry Gradillas graced us with keynote speeches at our academic events for a number of years. Over the years, we have served over 20,000 students, measurably increased the talent pool and number of jobs in Arizona, and brought in approximately $50 million to ASU and the state of Arizona from the federal government and many foundations. In 1993, we were awarded a $50,000 prize for “Pioneering Achievements in Education” from the Charles A. Dana Foundation for Project 1000. This was the largest annual prize in education in the United States, and we donated every penny to our minority projects.

The Escalante-inspired projects have been the most spiritually and professionally rewarding of my life. Thank you and bless you, Jaime Escalante. Your life is a model of commitment and effectiveness that inspires all of your admirers here in Arizona.

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