Jaime Escalante turns students into calculus whizzes

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 30, 2010; 8:36 PM

This report was published Dec. 12, 1982, in The Washington Post.

LOS ANGELES -- Garfield High School, a drab block of concrete in the middle of a low-income, Hispanic neighborhood in East Los Angeles, has been known for high absenteeism and youth gangs, but never for higher mathematics. Perhaps that is what fooled the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J.

In the May 19 national advanced placement calculus test, which is so difficult that only 2 percent of graduating high school seniors ever attempt it, a startling total of 18 Garfield students passed. Many had similar correct answers and seven made the top score of five, what one Garfield teacher compared with "walking on water."

Sensitive to the slightest hint of invalid scores, the service, which composes the Scholastic Aptitude Test and other national examinations, demanded a retest for 14 of the students, but the results were the same. It had stumbled across, not a cabal of cheaters, but the students of Jaime Escalante, 51, a Bolivian immigrant who has performed a miracle in a tough, big-city school.

In the process, he also has shown what a rigidly organized classroom routine and a deep devotion to teaching might do to solve what is becoming a national crisis.

In the third decade since the Soviets put the first artificial satellite in orbit, science and mathematics in American high schools have fallen on hard times. Qualified teachers are quitting in droves for better-paying jobs in private industry.

In California, according to a recent study by University of California researchers James W. Guthrie and Ami Zusman, 750 science and mathematics high school teachers are retiring each year, but only 250 students in the state university system currently are training for such jobs.

Some school districts are trying to retrain athletic coaches to fill the gap, but students still graduate woefully ill-equipped for the new era of high technology, thus adding to the unemployment rolls at a time when high-tech jobs are going begging.

To motivate his students, Escalante uses a Spanish word, ganas, which loosely translates as "the urge" -- the urge to succeed, to achieve, to grow. It is difficult to teach, and impossible to legislate, but a look at one remarkable teacher can show how it grows and the forms it comes in.

Garfield High School sits five miles east of downtown Los Angeles, drawing students from long, flat blocks of small stucco and frame houses, the homes of middle- and lower-income families, almost all of Hispanic descent. The community, said principal Henry Gradillas, "does not have that great love for education. They have large families, they have to go to work, they start families early."

Escalante's routine includes a five-minute test at the beginning of every class. He insists that homework be done; he has taped the assignments for the whole year into each textbook so no one can claim forgetfulness. His tests are long and difficult, and after-school work is usually a must.

Escalante came to the United States in 1964, with 11 years' experience as a teacher in Bolivia. But he could not speak English well and could only find a job as a busboy in a Pasadena restaurant. Within six months he had been promoted to head cook. He studied electronics in his free time at Pasadena City College and soon won a job with the Burroughs Corp. as a technician. The money was good, "but I hoped to go back to school and teach again."

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