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In city kids he finds the mathematician's mind

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 24, 1988



Los Angeles

AT the back of Jaime Escalante's classroom is a sign that reads, ``Calculus Need Not Be Made Easy - It Is Easy Already.'' At the front is another reading simply ``Ganas,'' which means desire, passion, and guts - one of Mr. Escalante's favorite words. And any schoolday, the Bolivian immigrant may be found here proving the first statement - with the aid of pop music, cheerleading exercises, and numerous props such as ``E.T.'' dolls - and instilling the second.

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Escalante's teaching career is the subject of a new major motion picture (``Stand and Deliver'') and upcoming book (``The Best Teacher in America''). But a visit to his classroom finds Escalante even more remarkable than his movie counterpart.

His success story began in scandal.

In 1982, all 18 of his Garfield High students - a predominantly Hispanic inner-city high school previously known more for gangs than grades - took and passed the Advanced Placement calculus test, a grueling three-hour exam for college-bound students that only 3.6 percent of the nation's seniors even attempt. In fact, Escalante's students passed with such flying colors that the Educational Testing Service, which administers the exam, said the results suggested that ``copying occurred.''

A cloud of suspicion hung over the school for six months until the class members retook the test, under armed guard: all passed, some with perfect scores.

``When they passed the second time, the whole community said, `See, they aren't stupid, they can really learn,''' says Garfield High principal Maria Elena Tostado. Besides waking up the community to new possibilities for their children in top colleges and in science and electronics careers, the passing grades presented landmark evidence to school curriculum advisers, who had only grudgingly allowed Escalante to attempt the advanced classes.

``It broke through a long-entrenched belief that these Hispanics couldn't understand such advanced concepts and that we were just going to hurt them if we tried to make them achieve and failed,'' Ms. Tostado says.

What may be more important is the galvanizing effect Escalante's achievements have had on the school as a whole, its teachers, and specifically the math department. Each year more students have enrolled in advanced courses previously thought unteachable - and each year, record numbers pass the vaunted AP test. Last year, 87 students passed, one of the highest numbers from any school in California, most with many more contenders.

Like the sum total of all the signs he has plastered on his walls, and posters of superachievers from Einstein to Magic Johnson, Escalante's primary message is, ``You can do it.''

``The first day of class I don't even talk about math, but rather sports,'' Escalante said in an interview. ``I say, `Wilt Chamberlain, famous L.A. basketball star, used to block a great number of shots, and at the same time intimidate the other team. Then I say, `Don't let fear of calculus ``block'' your mind or algebra ``intimidate'' you.'

``The next day I talk about Jerry West, all the time making jokes to get them to relax and enjoy the class. I say they used to call Jerry West `Mr. Consistency,' because he would practice by shooting the same shot 400 times. I say in the same way, you must practice with your homework problems,'' Escalante admonishes his students, ``so when you reach college, the problems will be a piece of cake. If you are too `cool' to study, next year you will be frying chicken or pumping gas.''

Escalante's classes have been described by administrators and students as more like boot camp than anything else. Often, the ``ticket'' to class is a solved problem for Escalante at the doorway, with a grace period of 10 minutes until the proper solution is achieved - or study detention after school is called for. Once inside, the students are cajoled affectionately by Escalante, walking the aisles like a drill sergeant, often swatting them with a red velvet pillow. Before getting down to business, he asks them about their personal lives, hobbies outside school, sports achievements.

Once rapport is established and attention won, it's down to calculus. But in the middle of solving a problem on the board, he stops to tell jokes or stories, always with the aim of helping students remember the answer.

``I have always had a problem with math, but he gives me the enthusiasm to proceed,'' says Elvira Juarez, a junior.