Jaime A. Escalante, 79

Jaime Escalante dies, inspired 1988 film 'Stand and Deliver'

Jaime Escalante, the teacher who inspired the hit movie "Stand and Deliver" passed away at his home in Nev. Betty Nguyen reports.
By Jay Mathews
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Jaime A. Escalante, the most famous and influential American public-school teacher of his generation, died March 30 of cancer at his son's home near Sacramento. He was 79.

A lively, wisecracking Bolivian who did not begin teaching in the United States until he was 44, Mr. Escalante transformed one of the lowest-performing high schools in the country into a model for raising the achievement of disadvantaged children. A 1988 film about his success, "Stand and Deliver," with Edward James Olmos playing the East Los Angeles math teacher, spread his story around the world and inspired teachers in hundreds of inner-city schools to copy his methods.

Mr. Escalante pioneered the use of Advanced Placement, a program of college-level courses and tests designed for high-achieving private schools, to raise standards in average and below-average public schools. His success at Garfield High School, where 85 percent of the students were low-income and few parents had more than a sixth-grade education, suggested that more time and encouragement for learning could trump educational disadvantages.

Calculus was one of the most difficult of the AP subjects. The three-hour final exam, written and scored by outside experts, was considered an impossible goal by many Garfield teachers, familiar with the academic weaknesses of their mostly Hispanic students. Mr. Escalante's first calculus class in 1978 did poorly. Five of the original 14 students lasted the entire course. Only two passed the exam.

But each year's calculus class did better than the previous one. When in 1982 all 18 students passed the exam, Mr. Escalante hoped he had a thriving program that would only get bigger.

Then the Educational Testing Service, which administered AP exams for the College Board, accused 14 of the students of cheating on the exam. Outraged Hispanic community leaders suspected ethnic bias and called for protests. But Mr. Escalante urged his students to retake the exam, an option allowed under AP rules.

Twelve accepted his advice. The exam this time was heavily proctored. The results gave the film its dramatic high point and guaranteed Mr. Escalante's celebrity: All 12 passed the exam, including five who earned top scores.

A Washington Post investigation of the cheating charges unearthed copies of the original exams of 10 students, and they showed that nine of them had been involved in copying one another's work on one free-response question during the first exam. Mr. Escalante never accepted that account and noted that the second exam results were clearly valid.

The Garfield AP program continued to grow, with courses in history, government and biology, and spectacular results in calculus.

In 1987, Garfield students took 129 AP calculus exams, more than all but four high schools, public or private, in the country. That year more than a quarter of all Mexican American students in the United States who passed the Calculus AB exam attended Garfield.

Jaime Alfonso Escalante Gutierrez was born Dec. 31, 1930, in La Paz, Bolivia. He was a fun-loving, athletic teenager who developed into a natural teacher.

His first job was teaching physics, without a textbook, to a class at the American Institute, a school established by Methodist missionaries, when he was 21. He became a popular science teacher in La Paz, often working at one school in the morning, another in the afternoon and tutoring at night.

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