Hispanic Heritage Month: Acknowledging Legendary Educator Jaime Escalante

By: Nelleke Bruyn, DA-Costa Rica, and Michael Ramos, DA-Australia

Born in South America on New Year’s Eve in 1930, Jaime Alfonso Escalante Gutiérrez was an immigrant, an educator, and a mentor. Against all odds, Escalante opened the eyes and minds of hundreds of East Los Angeles students. Most of Escalante’s students were economically disadvantaged, gang members, and labeled as “unproductive citizens of society.” Sadly, at the age of 79, he passed away on March 30, 2010 after a bout with bladder cancer. But his story is important and his contributions enormous. Any recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month should not be complete without touching on Jaime Escalante’s inspiring story.

He was a certified math teacher in his native Bolivia, but struggled to learn English. After traveling with his wife, Fabiola, from La Paz to Puerto Rico and then on to Los Angeles five decades ago, Escalante continued with his dedication of teaching mathematics to America’s youth. It was at this point that the majority Mexican-American students from Garfield High School – an inner-city school where weapons, drugs, unwanted pregnancies, and other challenges faced many teenage students – first met Escalante in their classroom in 1974.

At the time, Garfield High’s reputation was far from a quality institution of learning; in fact, it was in danger of losing its official approval to even operate. But with Escalante’s help, students who began with only a basic understanding of addition and subtraction began to progress to enormous lengths in taking mathematics seriously, asking inquisitive questions, studying outside of classroom hours, taking summer school, and eventually solving complex equations and working with calculus functions, standard deviations and derivatives. In short, Escalante turned around the school’s math program from one of the worst in the nation to one of the best.

Escalante’s story was told in the inspiring 1988 film “Stand and Deliver,” which starred Edward James Olmos as the protagonist and Lou Diamond Phillips as one of the “unteachable” students. In 1982, 18 of his students took and passed an AP (Advanced Placement) Calculus – college-level mathematics. The test administrators claimed that the Garfield students “must have” cheated. Absolutely outraged, Escalante counter-claimed that his students’ exceptional mathematical abilities were overshadowed by their low-economic class and skin color. Not to be discouraged, 12 students were chosen to re-take the AP Calculus exam with different questions, and they passed again. In fact, 5 of them earned top scores.

Escalante ended up teaching math in Los Angeles for many years. Among Escalante’s graduates is Erika Camacho, Ph.D. Before she took his algebra class, she recalls that her only goal was to be a cashier. Nowadays, she is a distinguished math professor at Arizona State University. Similar stories of amazing accomplishments can be said about Escalante’s other former students, many of whom went on to become American scientists, engineers, architects, and university students – something once thought unthinkable for students at Garfield High. Other math teachers from around the country have incorporated his successful teaching methods.

Given the evidence of his thriving education strategy, there can be no doubt that Escalante was a transformational leader in the L.A. Latino community. In short, he made his students believe in themselves when the rest of society didn’t want to. In 1988, President Reagan awarded Jaime Escalante the Presidential Medal for Excellence. On July 13, 2016, the U.S. Postal Service introduced a Forever Stamp commemorating Escalante for his invaluable service to his community.

Despite the hard work of America’s mathematics teachers, most of them, unfortunately, will not go down in history books as notable Americans, but one name we should never forget is Jaime Escalante: someone who finally broke through to “uninterested” and “unteachable” high school students and taught them ambition and triumph when they believe in themselves and give their best in applying math skills.