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Revisiting ever-surprising high school that 40 years ago changed my life

Garfield High still remembers Jaime Escalante but has worked hard to be even better

Garfield High School in Los Angeles became known for its student successes in AP Calculus led by influential teacher Jaime Escalante. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

When Lucy Juarez was a student at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles in the 1980s, she did not take the Advanced Placement Calculus class that had made her school famous. She took computer science instead.

She graduated from UCLA, worked with computers for a few years, then realized what she wanted to do was teach. Now she is Garfield’s leading AP Calculus teacher, a job once held by the rumpled, irascible Bolivian immigrant who became America’s most influential high school instructor — Jaime Escalante.

Escalante died in 2010 at age 79. He had a huge effect on many people, including Juarez and me. Because Escalante established such high standards in Garfield, Juarez has 27 AP Calculus students and her colleague Gilberto Sosa has 16. It is not as many as Escalante and his colleague Ben Jimenez had when Garfield was a larger school, but still impressive for a neighborhood campus where nearly every student is from a low-income Hispanic family.

An AP cheating scandal at Garfield in 1982 led to national publicity, the film “Stand and Deliver,” and lasting celebrity for Escalante. His story convinced teachers throughout the country that impoverished high school students could succeed in college-level courses, with three-hour final exams written and graded by independent experts, if they were given more time and encouragement to learn.

The most startling thing I discovered about Garfield then was that Escalante and Jimenez produced 27 percent of all the Mexican American students in the country who achieved passing scores of 3 or higher on the 1987 AP Calculus AB exam.

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I visited Garfield recently to meet Juarez and the school leaders who have kept AP Calculus, and particularly AP courses in general, at such a high level.

Dec. 7 is the 40th anniversary of my first visit to Garfield. On that day I was just trying to steal a story I had seen in the Los Angeles Times about the cheating scandal. It took me awhile to adjust to Escalante’s thick Bolivian accent. Once I saw the astonishing things he was doing — dragging kids into AP, forcing many to come in for three hours after school and even insisting falsely that no one could drop his classes — I wanted to know more.

I had never before been in an AP class. I was not an education reporter. But while writing articles and then a book about Escalante I decided teachers and learning would be my focus for the rest of my life as a journalist.

Most U.S. schools then would never have admitted into AP any of the inner-city students Escalante in Los Angeles was proving could handle calculus. The tendency was to choose sorting over teaching. That is still the case, but the situation is slowly improving with the help of teachers like Juarez at Garfield.

Her father was a construction worker, her mother a housewife. She was shadowing teacher friends at Garfield 25 years ago to see if teaching was meant for her when a math position became available and she got the job.

“Stand and Deliver,” released in 1988, is a wonderful film. Created by filmmakers Ramón Menéndez and Tom Musca, it is the main reason so many teachers have been inspired by Escalante. But the movie had to simplify what happened at Garfield. As it shows, when Escalante’s students were accused by the College Board of cheating on the 1982 AP exam, they were allowed another try on a test with different questions and heavy proctoring. The 12 who did that all passed again.

What was not revealed, because the filmmakers didn’t know about it, was that at least nine of the 14 test takers did cheat on the first exam, according to my later interviews with the students and inspection of their exam sheets. One student passed around to at least eight others a proposed solution to one of the free response questions. That answer was wrong and did nothing to improve their scores, but it proved they had broken the rules.

Their success on the retest showed beyond doubt they knew their stuff. I concluded they had heard so often that people like them couldn’t learn calculus that they reached for a crutch they didn’t need.

Their triumph over disbelief in inner city kids’ abilities has established a schoolwide confidence in hard work at Garfield that is still strong. Juarez’s classroom, No. 611, has walls papered with math formulas while students wrestle in small groups with the latest problem the teacher has put on the board. Juarez has none of the L.A. Laker posters Escalante put on his walls, but there is a life-size photo of the main characters in the TV comedy “The Big Bang Theory,” about nerds working at Caltech whose dialogue is full of science and math references.

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Juarez said of her intensely engaged students, “They believe they can do this class. They challenge themselves. … If a student is struggling I say, okay, come to my tutoring, in the morning, after school, or when we do AP prep on Saturdays several weeks before the big exam.” The summer classes Escalante established to accelerate students still exist, and are a big reason so many Garfield students are ready for calculus by senior year, and sometimes before.

Garfield’s 47-year-old principal, Andres Favela, preaches the importance of more time for learning, just as Escalante’s principal Henry Gradillas did. Gradillas was a former Army airborne ranger who protected Escalante from many critics at the school who thought the pushy guy from Bolivia was too hard on his students, and on teachers who didn’t meet his standards.

Many new Garfield buildings have replaced the ones I knew back in the 1980s. Its local reputation for excellence still glows. It has many parents and neighbors who want to help whatever it is doing. There is a remarkable on-campus monument to Garfield military veterans, including several hundred who served in the Vietnam War. The school will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2025.

Favela said he is often in touch with his aunts and uncles who attended Garfield. “They call me and the first thing they say is, ‘Don’t mess up my school,’” he said. One of Juarez’s own children now attends the high school, as did her two older children who are now at Princeton and UC Berkeley.

Garfield is among the 12 percent of U.S. high schools that have the equivalent of at least half of juniors and seniors taking at least one AP, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge college-level exam each year, up from just one percent in 1998. The school has 2,248 students, about a third less than in the 1980s because of new schools built nearby. That drop in enrollment, and the rising popularity of AP Statistics and other AP subjects, means the school has only about half the number of students it had in 1987 taking AP Calculus.

But the total number of AP tests in all subjects has gotten much bigger. The school gave 329 AP exams in 1987 when I was a regular visitor. That number reached 559 in 2022 and is expected to go above 800 in May 2023.

Forty-seven percent of Garfield AP exams had passing scores of 3, 4 or 5 in 2022, a high number for a school with its demographics. AP teachers in the past 40 years, including Escalante and Juarez, have heard many students who failed AP exams tell them that struggling in the difficult courses made them more ready for college. Studies show that to be true.

In this trouble-filled post-pandemic era it is hard to find a school with teachers as enthusiastic about their jobs as the ones I saw during my latest Garfield visit. They see themselves as part of a national movement to unleash the hidden talents of children at the lower end of the income scale.

There are huge pictures of Escalante all over campus. If he were here he would joke about that. He once complained to me that seven schools in Bolivia had been named after him and not one had paid him any money for the privilege.

But he would be happy to see students at Garfield still being lured in for more learning before school, after school and each summer, eventually finding themselves in college doing better than they ever dreamed.