In education circles, Jaime Escalante had his detractors. Probably one of America’s most famous teachers, he was not a team player, he was uncompromising, he didn’t follow the rules and he was a maverick. However, to his pupils, he was an inspiration.
Escalante became famous after the 1988 Hollywood film, Stand and Deliver, portrayed his success at teaching working-class pupils in inner-city Los Angeles to pass a rigorous national calculus exam. The film focussed on a scandal in 1982 when his students were accused of cheating in the Advanced Placement calculus exam. They were later exonerated.
Born in La Paz, Bolivia of Aymara heritage, Escalante was the son of school teachers who divorced when he was nine. He was brought up by his mother and after schooling at a Jesuit high school, he joined the army and then trained to be a teacher, during which time he began teaching at three of Bolivia’s best schools even before he had graduated.
In 1963, encouraged by his wife, whom he had met at college, the 33-year old Escalante set off for the United States with $3000 in his pocket and hardly any English.
As the Los Angeles Times obituary recalls after his death in 2010, while he mopped floors in a coffee shop eventually being promoted to cook, at night he studied for an associate’s degree in maths and physics.
He went on to work as a technician at a Pasadena electronics company, where he became a valued employee, but what he really wanted to do was to teach and so, after gaining a teaching credential, he took a pay cut to teach at Garfield High in Los Angeles.
Garfield High was a troubled school, its Hispanic students often disrespectful, violent and resistant to education. Undeterred, Escalante set about changing the way these youngsters perceived themselves, telling them that careers in computers, electronics and engineering could be theirs if they learnt maths and if they had the ganas – the desire. More than that, he told them that they could learn calculus.
School bosses disliked Escalante’s unconventional style and he was threatened with dismissal for working excessive hours, but when a new head took over, he was given the freedom to develop his own style.
His pupils respected him and called him Kemo Sabe (the man who knows) and many went on to build successful careers in engineering, as professors and in banking.
Sandra Munoz, now an attorney specialising in workers’ rights and immigration cases, was one of his students:
“Everything we are, we owe to him”, she says.
Educators came from around the country to observe him at Garfield, which built one of the largest and most successful Advanced Placement programs in the nation and, in 1999, he was awarded the Presidential Medal for Excellence and inducted into the National Teachers’ Hall of Fame.
“Jaime Escalante has left a deep and enduring legacy in the struggle for academic equity in American education,” said Gaston Caperton, former West Virginia governor and educationalist.
“His passionate belief [was] that all students, when properly prepared and motivated, can succeed at academically demanding course work, no matter what their racial, social or economic background. Because of him, educators everywhere have been forced to revise long-held notions of who can succeed,” said Caperton.
Escalante eventually moved back to Bolivia to continue teaching in his home country but he returned frequently to the United States as a speaker on education. He also considered becoming an education advisor to President George W. Bush, and in 2003 he became an education consultant for Arnold Schwarzenegger during his campaign for election as governor in California.
“Jaime didn’t just teach math. Like all great teachers, he changed lives,” said Edward James Olmos who played Escalante in Stand and Deliver.