NEWS BLOG (WSAU) An exceptional person died last week. Jaime Escalante, the teacher who was profiled in the movie Stand and Deliver, died of cancer at age 79. He was considered by many to be the best high school teacher in America.
Trained as a mechanical engineer in Bolivia, he insisted that he be allowed to teach AP calculus at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. Like many inner-city high schools, Garfield had a very high drop-out rate. Most students were not proficient in basic math. The school didn’t bother teaching AP calculus, the most difficult of the advanced placement classes, because of the expectation that no students would be interested in it, and certainly none would pass it.
Yet we would probably never know about Jaime Escalante if it wasn’t for a cheating scandal in 1982. His students were accused of copying on the AP calculus exam – because it was thought to be impossible that 18 of his students passed. 14 faced formal cheating allegation. 12 agreed to take the test again. All 12 passed a second time.
His methods were simple… there was no substitute for hard work, from students and teachers. Students who didn’t “get it” would spend three hours after school. Test preparation and study sessions were on Saturdays and before school each morning. Hr worked 60-hour weeks preparing his students.
And there are parts of Escalante’s story that weren’t told by Hollywood. Escalante ran afoul of the teachers union for insisting that more than the maximum 35 kids be allowed in his class. His union bullied him for working extra hours for free. He threatened the parents of kids who wanted to drop out, saying he’d report them as illegal immigrants. He lied to his students – telling them they’d have to drop out of school if they quit his class, or that he’d call the police if they got into trouble after school. Several years after Escalante quit teaching in Los Angeles, the calculus program died. A decade later he offered to return to Garfield, but was told ‘no thank you.’
Yet his results are undeniable. Of his first 109 students to pass AP calculus, only 9 came from families where a parent had completed college. Only 35 had parents who were high school graduates. From that group 98 earned college degrees. Many became doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers.
Yet Escalante’s most important lesson isn’t for his students, but for us. It is to fight against low expectations, the soft racism that marginalizes human potential. “Students rise or fall to whatever level is expected of them,” he said. We see a poor Hispanic kid from a run-down neighborhood in Los Angeles, from a broken home where English isn’t spoken, with dirty clothes and little money. Surely they won’t amount to much. All it takes is one teacher who believes otherwise to prove us wrong.
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