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Lasting lessons of a teacher who delivered

Jaime Escalante's former students reflect on what they learned -- not just about math, but about life.

April 03, 2010|Sandy Banks
  • JROTC students at Garfield High march in a procession Thursday honoring the late Jaime Escalante, whose work in turning East L.A. students into math whizzes inspired the film "Stand and Deliver."
JROTC students at Garfield High march in a procession Thursday honoring… (Mark Boster/Los Angeles…)

High expectations.

That's been the shorthand explanation for the accomplishments of Garfield High math teacher Jaime Escalante, whose death on Tuesday prompted tributes from Washington, D.C., to East Los Angeles.

Escalante was lionized in the 1987 movie "Stand and Deliver" for turning barrio kids into calculus whizzes by stressing hard work and high standards.

But could it really be as simple as that?

I went to Escalante's former students to find out what his legacy tells us.

::

Anthony Garcia wasn't one of Jaime Escalante's calculus stars. He was an 11th-grader enrolled in basic math when the new teacher was assigned his Garfield High class.

"We made fun of him," Garcia recalled. "He wanted to teach computer science, but he got thrown to the wolves instead."

Garcia and his classmates expected basic math -- the low-expectation curriculum that had been good enough for who they were.

Escalante tossed out the lesson plans. He told them they were ready for algebra.

"A lot of us fought it," Garcia said. "It seemed hard. We're weren't used to working like that."

They struggled. They learned they were smarter than they thought. And they began thinking beyond assembly lines and auto body shops.

Garcia earned a degree in sports medicine from Cal Poly Pomona and now works as a trainer for Chivas USA. His eyes teared up when he talked to me about Escalante at a Thursday morning tribute on the Garfield High lawn.

"We tended to love the guy," Garcia said. "Because he loved us."

Ben Rodriguez was nine years behind Garcia, Class of 1988. He remembers a taskmaster, "frustrating . . . stern, didn't speak very much." And a mathematics-mad cheerleader whose "crazy antics" and "weird gimmicks" made learning fun.

With Escalante, Rodriguez mastered four years of math in three: Algebra II in 10th grade. Trigonometry and math analysis during the summer. Calculus A, B and C in 11th and 12th. Saturday "math enrichment" classes.

He fulfilled a teenage dream with an internship Escalante helped arrange at the Jet Propulsion Lab.

And he gave up on another, after the teacher gave him a "fail" on a progress report. "He saw me trying out for the football team," Rodriguez said. "He gave me a 'fail' so I wouldn't be eligible. I dropped the football team, and my grade went up to a 'B.'

"I didn't like it then, but I get it now. He didn't want us to lose focus."

Escalante tried to muffle distractions by making the "math nerds" big men on campus. "He saw the football players walking around with lettermen's jackets and went out and got jackets with a bulldog [the school mascot] on the back," Rodriguez recalled. "You saw the nerdy kids walking around with calculus jackets. . . . It created a sense of confidence. That carried on to other matters."

But confidence wasn't always enough.

Rodriguez didn't get a passing score on the AP calculus exam. Decades later, he still remembers the problem that stumped him -- and several of Escalante's other students. "It had to do with a trough, and none of us knew what a trough was," Rodriguez said.

Escalante explained the meaning with a diagram. "He drew a trough, and the minute he drew it, we understood. . . . We could have gotten the problem right, but we didn't know the word."

They had never heard "trough" in East Los Angeles.

::

High expectations are great, but they're not magic.

Teachers who consider their students bright tend to challenge and encourage them. Students internalize that perception and work harder.

But it's an empty cliche in a system saddled with unprepared instructors, overcrowded classes and a "dumbed-down" curriculum, said Cal State Northridge mathematics professor David Klein, author of "The State of State Math Standards 2005."

"Math is hard because it's so hierarchal," Klein said. "What you learn depends very much on what came before. So when a student goes far along without study habits, without mastering prerequisites, there's a huge amount of work to be done filling in those gaps.

"What Jaime Escalante did so well was building the steps . . . and instilling the belief that you can have success.

"I think his major achievement was inspiring students to put in the time and effort it takes to learn calculus. And helping them learn to break up a job into manageable steps."

It's a lesson that stuck with his students long after all the lessons about integrals and derivatives lapsed.

"I haven't touched a math problem since," said Rodriguez, who studied mechanical engineering in college but now works in human resources. But the discipline, the goal-setting, the logic: "That's stuff I'll never forget."

Escalante did more than propel a group of barrio children; he left a mark on the next generation.

Rodriguez moved his family last year to Glendora from East Los Angeles. The schools are tougher and the work is more advanced. But his children are ready for the challenge.

"My 11-year-old daughter will stay up late at night doing her homework," he said. "That's thanks to Jaime Escalante."

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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