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Teacher Showered With Honors : East L.A. Calculus Class Makes Winners

November 29, 1987|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES — First there was the rhythmic thump, thump, thump of fists pounding to music.

Then the chant of "chair! chair! chair!" as a late arrival took his place on a child-size seat at the front of the room.

So began a recent day in Jaime Escalante's Advanced Placement Calculus class at Garfield High School.

Each weekday, Escalante puts hundreds of teen-agers through unorthodox exercises of intellect and horseplay at the East Los Angeles high school.

Garfield was nearly closed as a failure 12 years ago when Escalante began teaching there. Now school officials say it ranks fifth in the nation in the proportion of students--73%--who pass advanced placement calculus exams for college entrance.

Dozens of Awards

A recipient of dozens of awards and honors, Escalante, a Monrovia resident, earlier this month received a Distinguished Alumni Award from the California Assn. of Community Colleges. At the same time, his classes were deemed exemplary by a company that is doing research for the National Science Foundation.

A motion picture based on Escalante's career, "Walking on Water," starring Edward James Olmos, is scheduled for release in February by Warner Bros., according to producer Tom Musca.

The object of all this attention is a 56-year-old Bolivian native who could not speak English 23 years ago when he came to the United States.

His classroom is a former rehearsal room in the music building and his students are average looking teen-agers, mostly Latinos and a few Asians.

The walls are plastered with signs, slogans, sports posters, cartoons and math formulas. The biggest sign says "GANAS," which literally means "to win" in Spanish. To Escalante, the word means to "decide to learn. Improve oneself to get ahead."

Staccato Repartee

In class, Escalante engaged in staccato repartee with 45 10th-graders. His bursts of "Got it? Got it? Got it?" were answered by "Got it!" and "Yep! Yep!"

Throughout the day, students came early to class, concentrated intently and lingered afterward.

"It's very tough," said Dan Garcia, 16. "I stay up until 1 a.m. doing homework, but I know this is going to give me a better future."

"He's one in a million," said Maria Elena Tostado, principal of the more than 3,000-student school. "Everyone is trying to get into his classes. He and his students seem to feed off each other with their energy and enthusiasm. If they're absent, he calls their homes immediately. He tells parents these kids have the capabilities they need for higher education and he keeps them informed."

Escalante, who had taught math and physics in Bolivia, settled in Pasadena in 1964. He took every English class that Pasadena City College offered, then every electronics class. He worked as janitor, bus boy, cook and electronics tester to support his wife and two sons until he earned a teaching degree from California State University, Los Angeles.

After his first day at Garfield High School in 1974, Escalante said: "I didn't want to come back. I was completely disappointed during the first year--I saw kids graduate with just basic skills."

That year, Garfield--dominated by gangs, covered with graffiti, with discontented teachers and a high dropout rate--was targeted to become the first school in Los Angeles history to lose its accreditation from the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges.

But the school survived, and by 1979 four of Escalante's students passed the advanced placement college entrance exam. Administered by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., the test enables high school students to earn college credits in several subjects, such as math, calculus, science, history and languages. Only about 1% of high school students nationwide take the three-hour exams. Last year Garfield accounted for more than 17% of all Latino students in the country who took the calculus tests.

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