LOS ANGELES -- The faculty of Garfield High School has always had mixed feelings about the school's celebrated mathematics teacher, Jaime Escalante. Some have applauded the attention, money and support for advanced courses he has brought to Garfield. Others have labeled him a bully and a showoff increasingly distracted by fame stemming from his portrayal in the film "Stand and Deliver."
It was not so surprising then that this year, with his calculus program still quantum leaps ahead of those in other inner-city schools and his methods about to reach a national audience through PBS, the Garfield mathematics department voted to dismiss Escalante as chairman, a small and apparently harmless rebellion against a man who has never been reluctant to tell other math teachers what they are doing wrong.
"You concentrated too much attention on the students and not the teachers," one critic on the faculty told him. It is an accusation that pleases him, for he credits much of his success to his distaste for faculty meetings, union conferences or anything else that might take him out of his classroom.
For now the new chairman, his longtime colleague Ben Jimenez, is still letting Escalante set his own schedule. His summer and Saturday math and science program has now blossomed into a full-fledged institute of 932 students and 13 faculty. His "Futures" video series, a lightning-paced mix of mathematics, celebrities, gadgets and young minority professionals, is about to hit the U.S. public school system with the same joyous electricity of an Escalante lecture on absolute value.
"The message being delivered to a young audience hits the mark each time," said Philip Lum, principal of Lincoln High School in San Francisco, in a letter to "Future's" coordinating producer, Robert Hoffman. "This is, for once, a media message that does not 'talk down' to its younger audience."
Escalante, Hoffman and Jack Dirmann, associate director of the small Los Angeles foundation that organized the series, had been talking for some time of ways to teach his method to a mass audience, rather than just promote the cinema image created by actor Edward James Olmos in the movie.
For all the distractions and faculty strife, Garfield -- with a student body that is 98 percent Hispanic, 80 percent poverty-level -- still produces more students taking the difficult Advanced Placement calculus tests than all but a handful of American high schools. After slumping to a 46 percent passing rate on the tests in 1988, Garfield students improved to 54 percent in 1989. This year, despite the chairmanship dispute, 71 percent of the 109 Garfield students who took the tests passed with scores of 3 or higher -- making them eligible for calculus credit at most major U.S. universities.
Escalante admirers -- led by the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education with financial backing from ARCO, the Carnegie Corp., the U.S. Energy Department and Ronald McDonald Children's Charities -- assembled a small group of producers, directors and writers to fashion a video series that turns the Escalante classroom into a window on the mathematical wonders of optics, hydro-engineering, architecture, automotive design and even sports and acting. In one episode Escalante compares muscles with Arnold Schwarzenegger, in another he walks reluctantly toward a ride with a Blue Angel pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Donnie Cochran, and in another he plots sound waves with Hans Zimmer, who composed the score for "Driving Miss Daisy." Audio wizard and MIT professor Amar Bose and basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also appear.
But what electrifies student audiences as much as the celebrities and quick-cutting looks at modern science are the faces -- faces of optics designers, sound engineers, physicists, architects and members of a variety of other difficult professions. The faces are young and in many cases female, and a number of them are black or Hispanic, visible proof to an even younger audience of such people that they can succeed in science and mathematics if properly inspired.
"Futures" executive producer and co-writer Steve Heard sees this as a question of advertising, and the series is often paced like a good Pepsi commercial. "Out of the avalanche of messages hitting teenagers today, mathematics has been poorly marketed," he said. "Math has often been positioned with 'brainy kids,' 'slide rules' and 'no fun.' One of the things we're trying to do is reposition math by showing its connection with exciting professions, with action, with success."
Other Escalante initiatives are underway. A "video textbook" of about 10 90-minute Escalante calculus lectures is planned. In the latest edition of Howard University's Journal of Negro Education, he and Dirmann published a 16-page article outlining his methods, one of the most detailed guides he has ever produced and a conscious effort to demonstrate that the system can work as well for welfare-family black children in Anacostia as for illegal Mexican immigrants in East Los Angeles.
Joan Katz, director of the Elementary/Secondary Service, PBS's school programming arm, said "Futures" will be broadcast on a daytime schedule beginning this fall and will also be available from PBS on videocassettes. "The response to PBS's airing of 'Stand and Deliver' was overwhelming," she said. "It really struck a chord with educators. We wanted to build on that with 'Futures' by offering an exciting and unprecedented opportunity through TV to help all students get turned on to math."
The chairmanship fight has left a sour odor in some parts of the Garfield campus. Jimenez, who said he did not initiate the effort to oust Escalante, has been proud of his contribution to the calculus program; 95 percent of his 43 students passed AP calculus tests this year, compared with 55 percent of Escalante's 66 students. Yet according to Jimenez, after the mathematics faculty voted 13-4 for Jimenez as chairman, Escalante called him disloyal and removed him from the summer program faculty.
Jimenez said he still supports the summer program. Escalante, now 59, has said he plans to leave Garfield within two years and seems to enjoy the chance to reach out to other teachers and students. In the summer program at East Los Angeles College, he lectures visiting elementary and junior high teachers regularly and gathers his own teaching staff for a daily discussion of classroom technique.
"It's great," he said. "Each day I can put into practice the things I'm doing in the class, talking to the kind of people who are willing to listen."