Today’s Personality: Jaime Escalante

Jaime Escalante was born in La Paz, Bolivia. While living in Bolivia he taught physics and mathematics for nine years. In 1964 he decided to move to the United States. To prepare, he began studying science and mathematics at University of Puerto Rico. Upon moving from Puerto Rico to California Escalante could not speak English and had no valid American teaching credentials. To rectify this he studied at night at Pasadena City College to earn a degree in biology. He took a day job at a computer corporation (Burroughs Corporation), while continuing his schooling at night to earn a mathematics degree at California State University, Los Angeles where he studied calculus under the noted professor Louis Leithold. In 1974 he began teaching at Garfield High School, in East Los Angeles in Los Angeles County, California. Initially Escalante was so disheartened by the lack of preparation in his students that he called his former employer and asked for his old job back. Escalante eventually changed his mind about returning to work when he found 12 students willing to take an algebra class.

The school administration opposed Escalante frequently during his first few years. He was threatened with dismissal by an assistant principal because he was coming in too early, leaving too late, and failing to get administrative permission to raise funds to pay for his students’ Advanced Placement tests. This opposition changed with arrival of a new principal, Henry Gradillas. Gradillas overhauled the academic curriculum at Garfield, reducing the number of basic math classes and requiring those taking basic math to concurrently take algebra. He denied extracurricular activities to students who failed to maintain a C average and new students who failed basic skill tests.

Escalante continued to teach at Garfield, but it was not until 1979 that Escalante would instruct his first calculus class. He hoped that it could provide the leverage to improve lower-level math courses. To this end, Escalante recruited fellow teacher Ben Jimenez and taught calculus to five students, two of whom passed the A.P. calculus test. The following year, the class size increased to nine students, seven of whom passed the A.P. calculus test. By 1981, the class had increased to 15 students, 14 of whom passed.

In 1982, Escalante came into the national spotlight when 18 of his students passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam. The Educational Testing Service found these scores to be suspicious, because all of the students made the exact same math error on problem #6, and also used the same unusual variable names. Fourteen of those who passed were asked to take the exam again. Twelve of the 14 agreed to retake the test and did well enough to have their scores reinstated. In 1983, the number of students enrolling and passing the A.P. calculus test more than doubled. That year 33 students took the exam and 30 passed. That year Escalante also started teaching calculus at East Los Angeles College. By 1987, 73 students passed the A.P. calculus AB exam and another 12 passed the BC version of the test. This was the peak for the calculus program. The same year Gradillas went on sabbatical to finish his doctorate with hopes that he could be reinstated as principal at Garfield or a similar school with similar programs upon his return.

Jaime Escalante’s students – where are they now?

In a special feature published on The Futures Channel website, Garfield High School alumni from 1976 to 1995 describe what they are doing today and the influence their legendary teacher, Jaime Escalante, had on their success. Among the students featured on the website, who have gone on to successful careers in medicine, law, business and engineering, is Thomas Valdez, a Research Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Part of Garfield High School’s class of 1991, Valdez passed the advanced placement Calculus exams after attending Jaime Escalante’s mathematics classes for three years. Now conducting research at JPL for the development of new fuel cells, Valdez is grateful for the strong work ethic that Escalante instilled. He explains that “one of the things Escalante gave me that I still hold dear to my heart now is he gave me the ability to push myself.” Like Valdez, Dr. Armando Islas, the first of his family to go to college, credits Escalante with providing a “life altering experience” for him and his classmates.

Islas recalls the encouragement that Escalante gave him more than 25 years ago to “do anything you want to do and nobody can put a ceiling on how high you can go.” Islas took this advice to heart and has enjoyed careers as a dentist, a police officer and a CEO. Another former student remembers him as an exceptional teacher who motivated students to believe in themselves. Daniel Castro has come a long way from the tough streets of East Los Angeles. The 33-year-old is now an attorney living in North Fresno. Castro took the lessons learned in Escalante’s classroom to heart. He graduated Garfield with honors. His high scores got him into MIT where he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering and he received his law degree from UC Berkeley.
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5 Responses to Today’s Personality: Jaime Escalante

  1. wally says:

    He was a great Math Teacher! He proved that it isn’t circumstance that makes achievement it is what he called “si se puede” with hard work.
    Motivalos, educalos es el momento!

  2. Sora says:

    He was agreat man who accomplished many projects for the benefit of his students.
    Jaime Escalente por siempre!!

  3. teresita says:

    he wass a greatt teacher he would always help students and help them pass the tests.
    mising jaime escalante

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