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A Calculated Move : Jaime Escalante Prepares to Leave to Teach in Sacramento

June 19, 1991|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite the protesters bearing signs demanding that "Jaime Must Stay!" Garfield High School's most famous teacher prepared to say goodby to the East Los Angeles campus Tuesday--but not without delivering a few parting shots at colleagues who have opposed him.

Jaime Escalante--a charismatic and controversial educator whose dramatic success teaching calculus to underachieving Latino students was depicted in the acclaimed 1988 movie "Stand and Deliver"--cited faculty politics and petty jealousies for his decision last week to leave the Los Angeles Unified School District for a teaching job in Sacramento.

Basically, the problem boils down to a difference in philosophy, Escalante said Tuesday, after making a brief appearance at a morning rally on the school's front lawn attended by about 20 parents, community leaders and other supporters.

In his view, the sole concern of teachers should be to help students get the best possible education. That, he says, means coming to school early and staying late to tutor students who are in danger of failing, making phone calls to parents to assure their cooperation and soliciting community support.

"We are here to help students. That is my philosophy. And that is my weak point," said Escalante, who gave Garfield's commencement address Tuesday night. "I put too much time into students."

Escalante, 60, who has taught at Garfield for 17 years, routinely spent lunch and after-school hours tutoring youths who planned to take the advanced placement calculus exam--the most rigorous advanced math test for high school students.

He was so successful with a small class of underachievers in 1982 that the Educational Testing Service, which administers the exam, invalidated the scores, believing that the students had cheated. Most of the 18 pupils retook the test and passed.

Since then, the number of Garfield students taking advanced placement examinations in math and other subjects has soared--this year, going up to 570 students taking tests in 14 different subject areas.

Because of Escalante's dedication, many students sing his praises.

"Most of us are sad" that Escalante is leaving, said senior calculus student Angela Fajardo. "We are going to lose a great friend, a great man. He stays with us until 7 at night. No teacher does that."

Most teachers applaud Escalante for his seemingly tireless efforts on behalf of students, according to Garfield math department chairman Stu Adler. But Adler acknowledged that the celebrated instructor rubbed some faculty members the wrong way.

"It's the way he acts toward certain people--that he is the master," Adler said, adding that he, personally, would prefer that Escalante remain at Garfield.

Another math teacher, Angelo Villavicencia, said Escalante alienated some instructors because he told them he did not think they were good teachers.

"He uses blunt language at times," Villavicencia said.

After several years of running the math department virtually unchallenged, Escalante lost the election for the chair last year. At the time, he charged that the school's teachers union representative, who ran the election, had turned other teachers against him and essentially engineered his ouster.

Escalante, who had walked on the picket lines with his colleagues during the bitter teachers strike in 1989, resigned his union membership after the defeat.

Others suggest that Escalante's unhappiness stems from his being treated like a celebrity during the scores of off-campus appearances he makes every year.

"Outside of Garfield, Jaime is a national figure," said Garfield Principal Maria Tostado. "Here, he is just one of the faculty. No one makes a big to-do about Jaime. I don't think that's strange. It's just the way it is."

But Tostado, who said she tried to persuade the teacher to stay, described Escalante as an undisputed leader of his profession.

"He's excellent. He's a master," she said.

Escalante has focused international attention on Garfield, drawing hundreds of visiting educators to his colorfully appointed classroom.

Educational experts say his hallmark is his thorough command of his subject and his unique classroom style. He entertains students as he leads them through the complexities of advanced mathematics, unabashedly using such props as meat cleavers and funny hats to hold their attention while making a point.

But that showmanship also has earned him some rebukes from fellow educators, who are concerned that the public now expects all teachers to be as flamboyant.

"There is no one formula" for a good teacher, United Teachers-Los Angeles President Helen Bernstein said recently. "What is sad is, now people think every teacher has to be a performer" like Escalante.

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