Jaime’s Escalante’s Second Act

By David Hill — April 01, 1994 20 min read
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Jaime Escalante, arguably the most famous teacher in America, is standing just inside the entrance to his classroom at Hiram Johnson Senior High School in Sacramento, Calif. It’s 1:15 in the afternoon, and Escalante, wearing his trademark corduroy cap and cardigan sweater, is holding the door open for a trickle of incoming students. The hot sun beats down on the sidewalk that runs along the outside wall of the stucco building.

At 1:20 sharp, before the bell even stops ringing, Escalante will shut the door, and it will lock behind him. Students who are late will have to knock loudly; if they are lucky, Escalante will let them in, but he will berate them for their tardiness. “Why you late?’' he will ask in his still-thick Bolivian accent. The contrite student will mumble an excuse, and if Escalante is in a good mood, he will say--after what may seem like an eternity--"Take a seat.’'

But right now, the door is still open. A boy walks up to the doorway, peers in, and says, to no one in particular, “Escalante!’' Hearing this, the math teacher steps into the sunlight and asks the student if he’s in his 5th period class, which is about to begin. “No,’' he says. Escalante retreats to the classroom, and the kid says, “He doesn’t look like the guy in the movie.’' Walking away, the student ponders his brush with celebrity. “I wonder if he’s rich,’' he says to himself.

It has now been nearly three years since Escalante quit his job at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, where he taught for 16 years, and headed north to Sacramento. Fed up with what he called the “ingratitude’’ of some of his colleagues and frustrated by parents who didn’t value academic achievement, Escalante turned his back on the school that had benefited so much from his teaching wizardry.

When Escalante first began teaching at Garfield, in 1974, the school was at the bottom of the academic barrel; the Western Association of Schools and Colleges had threatened to revoke the school’s accreditation. By 1987, however, only three other public schools in the country were producing more Advanced Placement calculus students than Garfield. And by 1991, 570 students at the school took AP tests in 14 different subject areas. Escalante proved that poor Hispanic students were just as capable at excelling at a difficult subject like calculus as were the most privileged white students.

Stand and Deliver, the 1987 movie about Escalante, starring Edward James Olmos, made the math teacher that rarest of things: a celebrity teacher. A steady stream of visitors descended upon his classroom, eager to get a first-hand look at such an inspiring educator. Politicians and pundits praised his efforts, and foundations offered much-needed financial support. Sometimes the acclaim was embarrassing, such as the title of Jay Mathews’ 1988 book about the educator: Escalante: The Best Teacher in America.

Escalante now says he has found his “second home’’ at Johnson, and he insists he can repeat the success he had at Garfield. “The whole picture’s gonna change,’' he says. “It’s gonna be much better than Garfield High.’'

Already, there are signs of progress. In the spring of 1991, before Escalante began teaching at Johnson, six of the school’s approximately 2,400 students took the first-year AP calculus test, a relatively low number compared with other schools. All six “passed’’ the test by receiving a score of 3 or better out of a possible 5. (Many colleges and universities offer credit for such scores.) Last May, 25 students at the school took the first-year AP calculus test. Of those, 73 percent scored a 3 or better. No student took the more difficult second-year AP test.

Escalante won’t take all the credit for the improvement; he points out that he is one of two calculus teachers at Johnson. But clearly, something is going on.

Still, Escalante has his work cut out for him if he wants to achieve the same results as he did at Garfield. During his last year of teaching there, 106 of the school’s 3,800 students took the firstyear AP calculus test; 62, or 58 percent, passed. And of the 37 students who took the second-year test, 25, or 68 percent, passed.

Donald Giusti, Johnson High’s principal, says it’s misleading to focus solely on the AP test results in gauging Escalante’s impact on the school. “I think that’s doing an injustice to Jaime’s influence and Jaime’s program,’' he says. “I think it’s far more reaching. And I think the benefits down the line will be demonstrated not only by the AP kids but also by the overall success rate of students in the school. I know that sounds like some sort of educational B.S., but I honestly believe that.’'

When Rudy Crew, the former superintendent of the Sacramento city schools, first heard that Escalante was planning on leaving Garfield, he jumped at the chance to hire the renowned teacher. “Jaime Escalante is going to add a breath of fresh air,’' Crew said at the time. “He will be a powerful force for change. He will create a vision for other teachers and administrators about what’s possible.’'

Johnson, one of the district’s lowestachieving high schools, seemed like the logical place for someone like Escalante. Its student body is truly multicultural: 28 percent Asian, 20 percent AfricanAmerican, 19 percent Hispanic, 32 percent white, 1 percent American Indian. Nearly half of the students come from families dependent on some form of welfare. The dropout rate for the 1991-92 school year was 41 percent, slightly more than the district average of 38 percent. Hispanic students at the school drop out at a staggering rate of 51 percent.

Set in a residential neighborhood southeast of downtown, Johnson--with its large football field and unattached stucco buildings--has the appearance of a typical suburban California high school. But looks are deceiving: Johnson is an innercity school, and, as at many urban public schools in America, gangs are part of the culture. Sometimes violence breaks out. In September 1992, a long-standing dispute among Hispanic and Asian-American gangs resulted in the on-campus shooting of two students. Both were seriously wounded. According to a district study, only 36 percent of the students at Johnson feel safe on the school grounds, compared with a rate of 54 percent for the entire school district.

Escalante’s arrival at Johnson was closely followed by the local media. The Sacramento Bee marked Escalante’s first day on the job with a story headlined “ ‘Stand And Deliver’ Opens Today at Johnson High: Maverick Math Teacher Brings Show To Capital.’' The article quoted several teachers who said they were excited about Escalante’s presence at the school. But it also quoted Richard Cisneros, then the school’s principal, who said: “You bring in a star, a heavy hitter, it’s just natural [that] there are going to be some jealousies, a certain amount of animosity.’'

It’s no wonder some teachers were initially wary of Escalante. At Garfield, he wasn’t exactly known for his diplomacy. “Escalante’s temper and distaste for compromise hurt feelings,’' wrote Jay Mathews in Escalante. “His influence...and the media stardom he achieved after 1982 brought resentment.’' When Escalante quit his job at Garfield, the Bee quoted John Perez, a vice president of United Teachers-Los Angeles, the teachers’ union, who said: “Jaime didn’t get along with some of the teachers at his school. He pretty much was a loner.’'

At Johnson High, some teachers thought Escalante was getting special treatment. When work crews began remodeling a large automotive shop room to become Escalante’s classroom, rumors began circulating around the school that he was getting his own private bathroom, too. He didn’t, but one teacher wanted to know if Escalante was going to get monogrammed towels.

Even without a bathroom, Escalante’s classroom is quite different from the others at Johnson, which was built in 1957 and shows its age. His room has carpeting; the others don’t. His has air conditioning; the others don’t. He has a telephone; most of the other teachers don’t. He has his own Xerox machine; the other teachers don’t. On top of that, the district created a special classification of “demonstration teacher’’ so that he could qualify for a starting salary of $42,983 a year, more than he would have earned under the regular pay schedule. (Principal Giusti says there are other teachers at Johnson who are “at the top of the scale.’')

“There was some animosity at first,’' says computer teacher David Bayne, “because he got a lot more than the rest of us. He got an air-conditioned room, which a lot of people don’t realize was paid for by a grant. He got a lot of resources, which most people didn’t realize were being given to him. They thought they were district resources.

“He did get some things from the district that the rest of us didn’t, like a new position on the salary scale. And he was exempt from layoffs one year. So there was some animosity. But most of us look at him as just another teacher who happened to be taking over a class that we desperately needed a teacher for.’'

Giusti also defends Escalante’s perks. “Everybody should have what he has,’' he says. “It would be nice. But that’s not the reality of this business.’' And for Giusti, the bottom line is that public education is a business, and bringing in a star like Escalante is a sound business decision.

“I would guess,’' he says, “that most people who are in the public schools don’t really understand marketing, they don’t understand public relations....We have to constantly be out there beating the bushes telling people about the positive things that we do.

“So Jaime markets Jaime’s program, Jaime markets the school, Jaime markets the positive things that we’re trying to accomplish. And people piggyback on that. And, if we’re smart at all, we will take that and ride with it for whatever we can get out of it. And the kids benefit.’'

Now that Escalante has been in place for nearly three years, what do the other teachers think of him? “It depends,’' Bayne says. “Some don’t like him, some really like him, and, for the most part, he’s just a regular teacher. He happens to bring a lot of publicity to the school, which is definitely a positive. It filters into all of our programs. Other people seem to be more willing to give us resources because he is here. It’s nice for name-dropping when you’re asking someone to give you something.’'

Escalante’s classroom is a marvel to behold. Nearly every inch of wall space is covered with posters and banners: “STAND AND DELIVER,’' “THE TIME TO STUDY FOR FINAL EXAMS IS NOW,’' “KEEP YOUR HIGH SCHOOL CLEAN, IT’S YOUR SECOND HOME,’' “STUDENT WHO SAYS, ‘IT CANNOT BE DONE’ SHOULD NOT INTERRUPT STUDENT WHO IS DOING IT,’' “CALCULUS NEED NOT BE MADE EASY, IT IS EASY ALREADY.’' On the front wall, above one of four blackboards, is perhaps Escalante’s most famous slogan: “GANAS...that’s all you need!’' Translated from the Spanish, ganas means urge, desire, inclination. The concept is at the heart of Escalante’s teaching style. To him, any student can learn--as long as he or she has the ganas.

Escalante teaches five classes at Johnson: basic math, algebra I, algebra II, trigonometry, and calculus. He usually spends about 10 minutes at the beginning of each class intro- ducing a math concept before letting the students work on problems on their own. While they work, Escalante moves among the students, paying special attention to the ones who need the most help. Every now and then, he returns to the blackboard to explain an especially troublesome problem.

But he is clearly more than just a math teacher; his real subject is the philosophy of Jaime Escalante. His lessons are punctuated with a sort of running commentary meant to motivate and edify his students. “I do not teach only math,’' he says. “I also teach discipline and responsibility and morality.’'

He’ll tell his students, “Don’t smoke, don’t drink.’' Or, “School is the site of your dreams and opportunities. In order to achieve in this country, you have to have an education.’' If he thinks they are drifting off, he’ll put Queen’s 1977 hit “We Will Rock You’’ on his CD player and crank up the volume. Then he’ll grab a boxing puppet with curly brown hair, with which he’ll playfully punch his amused students. Eventually, he’ll get back to teaching mathematics.

Escalante isn’t above using bluster to get what he wants. “I don’t have stupid kids,’' he yells to one class. “I have lazy kids. You sit at home and watch TV!’' To a student who was absent because of the Chinese New Year, he says, “The problem in this school is that there are too many holidays! I don’t take off Cinco de Mayo!’' To a boy in the front row, he says, “Look at me when I look at you. How come you don’t show up on Friday?’' To a troublemaker in his basic math class, he says, “Hey macho man! I’m watching you.’'

Escalante’s trump card is the phone call home, and he constantly threatens to use it. “I’m gonna call your dad,’ he tells one girl. “I have to call your mother,’' he says to another. “Hey macho man! Are you gonna come next week? Otherwise, I’m gonna have to call somebody.’' If he has trouble reaching a parent, he might call when he’s certain someone will be at home--like 4:30 in the morning.

Escalante’s students seem alternately scared, amused, and captivated by their larger-than-life teacher. Many--but not all--have seen Stand and Deliver, so they know he’s someone famous. They’re used to the visitors who come and sit in the observation booth in the back of the classroom, scribbling notes behind the oneway glass. Most of them call him “Mr. Escalante,’' but a few prefer to use “Kimo,’' Escalante’s nickname at Garfield High.

He insists that his students sign a contract, which outlines exactly what is expected of them. (“Every student will bring ganas to class,’' states one requirement, “which is essential if he or she is to be successful in this class.’') Most of the students sign on the dotted line, but, for some reason, his calculus students have rebelled. “The whole class,’' Escalante says, shaking his head. “They don’t agree with my philosophy. They want the freedom to drop the class anytime they want to. So they won’t sign the contract.’' Of the 12 or so students in this class, Escalante says, “Only two or three kids have the ganas to work. The other ones...’' His voice trails off.

One of Escalante’s calculus students, a senior named Phong Ung, says of her teacher: “I don’t like his teaching technique because he skips a lot. He’ll teach us one thing, then he’ll kind of forget about it, then he’ll teach us a new thing and test us on that.’' She’s not sure whether she’ll take the AP test. “I’m thinking about it. It depends on how things go this semester.’'

Escalante’s students may not all be devoted to him, but it’s obvious that he is totally devoted to them. He takes it personally if someone tries to drop a class, and, in fact, he’ll do everything in his power to prevent a student from dropping one of his classes.

He pulls out a note from a girl who decided she’d had enough:

Mr. Escalante, I know that you tried your hardest to teach me and to help me learn math, but we both know I didn’t want to learn it.

I guess I’m scared to learn it. What’s weird about math is that when you sat down and showed me how to do the problem, I understood it, but the minute you got up and I have to do the problem myself, I’d forget how to do it. That’s why I never did any work, because I felt dumb. I do fairly good in all my other classes, but when it comes to math I just get scared and forget everything you said. I’m really sorry for all the stress I caused you.

Also, thank you for making me realize that I really do need to try to at least learn math before I say, ‘I can’t do it.’

The girl doesn’t know it, but Escalante has no intention of letting her get away without a fight. “I’m gonna work on her,’' he says, folding up the letter and slipping it into his shirt pocket. “I’m gonna call her parents.’' There’s a twinkle in his eyes.

Escalante’s domain is his classroom; he seems oddly detached from the rest of the school. Asked how many other math teachers there are at Johnson, he thinks for a minute, then says, “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t know.’' Does he fraternize with other faculty members? “I do not have time,’' he answers. “I get really tired at the end of the day. My concentration is more toward the kids than anything else. Some of the teachers understand that, some of them don’t. But I really don’t care.’'

“There are some people who resent him for being aloof,’' says math teacher Rick Marcroft. “But all teachers are like that. They teach alone in a classroom. So there’s a double standard being applied to Jaime.’'

“If anyone wants to go in and watch him,’' Donald Giusti says, “they’re always welcome to do that. You have to be careful not to take away too much of his time. Jaime doesn’t really like it if you interrupt his teaching. That’s his first task.’'

At Garfield, Escalante did not hesitate to criticize teachers who did not meet his high standards, and that resulted in more than a few clashes over the years. Escalante says he’s learned his lesson. “Now I keep my mouth shut,’' he says. “I’m not gonna be the one to create a problem.’'

Despite the passage of time, it’s clear that Escalante is still bitter over his 1990 ouster as chairman of the math department at Garfield High. His one-time protege, Benjamin Jimenez, was elected to the position. “It became a struggle between Ben and Jaime,’' says Tom Woessner, who teaches AP history at Garfield.

“I helped him out all the way,’' Escalante says of Jimenez. “I spent many years to prepare him.’' To hear him tell it, it’s as if Escalante sees Jimenez as his Brutus. “It’s like your henchman--you never expect to get shot in the back.’'

Some teachers at Garfield are still upset over an article that appeared in The Los Angeles Times a year and a half after Escalante left the school. The headline told the story: “Math, Minus Escalante, Suffers: Fewer Students Are Passing AP Calculus Placement Test Since The Acclaimed Teacher Left Garfield.’' The article pointed out that, in 1992, the proportion of students who passed the first-year calculus test dropped to 44 percent from 58 percent. The story also reported that Jimenez and another Escalante protege, Angelo Villavicencio, had left the school, “citing an unsupportive administration and faculty dissension.’' (Villavicencio went on to create a highly successful AP calculus program at Ruben Ayala High School in Chino, Calif. Jimenez, who did not return several phone calls, now teaches at Santa Monica College.)

But what really angered some faculty members were the comments from Escalante: “I still [get] at least one phone call a day from Garfield students or parents because they say nobody is looking out for them,’' he told the Times.

“He really kicked the math department after he left,’' says Woessner. “That really struck a nerve. I found it to be upsetting and disappointing. But he had been increasingly self-serving.’' Today, he adds, Escalante “is not looked upon with a great deal of favor in the math department.’'

Math department chairman Stu Adler calls Escalante’s comments “a sore loser kind of thing.’' He admits that the proportion of Garfield students passing the first-year AP calculus test has regressed, but he says that isn’t surprising given that more students are taking AP calculus in the first place. Further, he says that the percentage of students passing the second-year examination “has actually increased since Escalante left.’'

Escalante now says, “I feel a kind of sadness because the whole program is gone with the wind.’' But he has fond memories of the students he taught at Garfield. In his office, he keeps a large scrapbook that contains photographs of each AP calculus class he taught at the school, accompanied by a printout of the students’ AP test scores. As he flips through the album, Escalante is like a proud parent showing off his children’s grades to a stranger. He mentions one former student who’s now working on a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of California at Davis, which is just down the road from Sacramento. Other students ended up going to Stanford or Berkeley. He says they call him often, and sometimes they even drop by his classroom. “You feel really great when you see these kids come back,’' he says.

One of Escalante’s gifts is his ability to raise large sums of money to support his teaching. In Los Angeles, thanks to help from the ARCO Foundation and the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education (FASE), Escalante was able to establish a Saturday and summerschool math program at East Los Angeles College. The program played an important role in the success of Garfield’s AP calculus students.

Escalante is in the process of setting up a similar summer-school program at Johnson. Last summer, he and several other instructors taught geometry to about 50 incoming sophomores. A $100,000 grant from the ARCO Foundation helped fund the project.

Last fall, Escalante received a threeyear, $363,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to expand the summer and after-school program. Sixty incoming freshmen from two feeder schools will take part in the project. And it won’t just be Escalante in front of the classroom; four other Johnson math teachers, including Joe Epperson, will also participate, along with tutors from California State University at Sacramento.

“Jaime has gotten [financial] help because he knows how to ask for it,’' Epperson says. “He’s building a program, and he’s doing it his way. Every teacher should grab the bull by the horns.’'

Escalante thinks the enrichment programs will make all the difference in achieving the kind of success he had at Garfield. “In one more year, maybe in a couple more years, this is gonna be one of the best schools,’' he says. “We are moving in the right direction.’'

Meanwhile, Escalante has continued to stay in the national spotlight. He and FASE collaborated to produce “Futures with Jaime Escalante,’' an award-winning PBS math and science series that is now available on videotape. In addition, Escalante is in great demand on the lecture circuit. He says he receives about 10 such requests every day; he turns down most of them for lack of time.

The fact is, Escalante doesn’t teach because he has to; if he decided to quit tomorrow, he wouldn’t be able to keep up with all the job offers he would receive. But Escalante seems to know that the classroom is where he belongs, and he has no intention of retiring when he turns 65, which is only three years away. “My commitment is with the students and the parents,’' he says.

Still, one wonders what will happen when Escalante is no longer teaching at Johnson. Will the foun- dations drop their support? Will the AP math program continue? Will the air-conditioning system be dismantled? A year after Escalante left Garfield, math department chairman Adler admitted that “losing Jaime Escalante was a heavy blow to our program.... Our students really do miss their mathematics teacher.’' Will Escalante’s inevitable departure from Johnson have the same effect?

Rudy Crew, now superintendent of schools in Tacoma, Wash., says, “I don’t like the idea of creating a hero out of Jaime. He’s not a celebrity. He’s a master at what he does. I think he can provide some much-needed inspiration for all of us.’' Yet Escalante is indeed a celebrity, and teachers are notoriously skeptical when it comes to hero worship. It isn’t hard to understand why some teachers resent all the attention Escalante has gotten. After all, most teachers--even the best of them--go through their entire careers without getting any outside recognition. Why should Escalante get all the glory?

And yet, why shouldn’t he? Why shouldn’t teachers who excel in their field be given “special treatment’’? Why shouldn’t teachers’ salaries be based on performance, and not on length of service? Escalante believes in tough standards for students and teachers--what’s wrong with that?

Instead of asking, “Why does Jaime Escalante get so much attention?’' perhaps we should ask, “Why aren’t more teachers getting the same kind of attention he is?’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1994 edition of Teacher Magazine as Jaime’s Escalante’s Second Act


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