Gary Francisco Keller Ph.D.

What Escalante delivered

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In 1964, Jaime Escalante and family traveled from La Paz to La Turbulencia. Why? God only knows. At first, his life contradicted the American Dream. In the end, he became the santo patrón of Latin@ academic excellence.

Esteemed in Bolivia, for a decade Jaime had taught physics and math at a Catholic school and at a prestigious public school. Yet in L.A., none of it “counted,” not even his 1955 university degree. Did he go back home? He returned to college for nine years, emerging in 1973 with a gringo B.A. from California State University. Jaime worked as a busboy, a cook, and finally a computer corporation employee. In 1974, credentialed to bureaucratic satisfaction, he got a job at Garfield High School, a school so downtrodden its accreditation was threatened. Not gearing to poorly performing students, instead he convinced students to take algebra. Five years later in 1979, Jaime had prepared nine students to take college-level calculus through the Advanced Placement (AP) program. Students in his calculus classes increased annually and gradually.

In 1982, the nation changed for the good, though it took years for the moral calculus to be graphed. Jaime’s 18 students succeeded on the AP calculus exam. The largest test-score challenge on record resulted. ETS asked 14 students to retake the exam. Twelve agreed and succeeded otra vez.

This achievement was “heard ‘round the world.” Latinos successfully taking the calculus AP exam shot through the roof. In 1988, Jaime received the Presidential Medal for Excellence in Education from Ronald Reagan; Jay Mathews published his book, Jaime Escalante: The Best Teacher in America; praise for Escalante entered the 1988 presidential campaign, and Stand and Deliver (directed by Ramón Menéndez with Edward James Olmos, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Andy García) was released.

Jaime Escalante died last Holy Week at the age of 79. A torrent of positive mass media coverage resulted, often missing the point. Escalante was headlined equally with the film, but he was already nationally recognized. He inspired the film and its unforgettable interpretation of Escalante by Olmos. Some suggested that Escalante’s achievements were attributable to his charisma and a repertoire of educational stunts.

This minimizes his achievement. Escalante expressed his formula for success best. “The key to my success is a very simple and time-honored tradition: hard work for teacher and student alike.” One student remarked, “If he wants to teach us that bad, we can learn.”

Another injurious claim, sometimes made by groups who had an invidious interest in stopping him from the very beginning, was that when Jaime left, the Garfield calculus program withered. The AP phenomenon quickly caught on to Garfield’s football rival, Roosevelt High School, and by the mid 1980s it had gone national. In 2009, 798,629 students nationwide took the AP, and 114,204 Latino students earned successful scores compared to 52,694 in 2000 and a mere 29,689 in 1996.

Jaime Escalante Ortiz delivered a life-long lesson of active love that directly or by inspiration has motivated the world. Jaime’s living lesson demonstrates the ability of faith, hope and love to touch us, especially the neglected youth of the barrios. Solve the set for love, the eternal constant, and integrate faith and hope, the first and the second derivatives into the calculus. Eureka!

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