In city kids he finds the mathematician's mind
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.
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.
``He's unique in that he's a natural comedian, but his jokes have a whiplash that goes back to what he wants you to remember,'' says Jos'e Garcia, a student at California Polytechnic Institute in Pomona, who took calculus with Escalante last year.
Whether Escalante is using the arms of an ``E.T.'' doll to denote curves on an X or Y axis, the leg of King Kong to denote a parabola, or a magic wand to denote positive and negative slopes, the idea is always the same: Make learning fun, keep the environment upbeat, hold attention, and simplify problems in ways that kids can remember.
``Other teachers know these tricks, but I've never seen anyone that pulls them off as well as him,'' says George Ramos, a junior studying for the AP calculus test this spring. ``You study harder outside of class because of him. He makes you feel you have to, but you also want to.''
When the enthusiasm level begins to dip, Escalante has his students begin drumming the desks in unison. Or he asks them what music they would like to hear today, stealing into a side room to switch on booming loudspeakers. But the long-nurtured abundance of spirit that exists in classes today is a far cry from the early days in 1974, before Escalante had created a name for himself.
In a small office to the side of his classroom, Escalante describes to his interviewer elaborate methods, used mostly in the early days, to keep gang members or other recalcitrant students from dropping his courses (algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus): Threats of detention, flunking, or school transfer were issued, mostly in collaboration with the school principal, counselors, and parents. He doggedly pursues the parents for cooperation.
``Sometimes I get them [parents] to sign papers agreeing their son or daughter will not watch TV or waste time when they should be studying,'' chuckles Escalante. ``They think they are signing legal papers.'' These ``learning contracts'' get parents to agree to daily quizzes, weekly exams, and 90 minutes of study each night for their children.
In one scene in the movie, he doggedly pursues one star pupil's father, who wants her to drop out of class to work in the family restaurant. Escalante prevails: The girl stays, passes the AP test, and goes to college. (This incident is completely true. Ninety percent of the movie is accurate, Escalante says, with minor details changed and some composite characters used.)
``He works from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., using the non-class time to counsel students nonstop,'' says Tostado. ``And if a student is not in class, he's on the phone to parents to find out why.''
Part of Escalante's success comes from understanding his students' social habits. He says he gave one gang member three textbooks - one for home, one for locker, one for class - because the student confided he was harassed by other gang members for being seen carrying books.
The movie begins its story with the 1982 controversy, portraying Escalante as a disgruntled senior tester at a computer company, switching jobs to try teaching at an inner-city school. But the real Jaime Escalante was something of a teaching wizard even before he left Bolivia in 1964. His 11 years' experience there included the Military College Academy and a high school where his students won top national honors in physics and math for five straight years.
His expertise and reputation, however, counted for nothing in his adopted land, so Escalante had to learn English and attend college all over again in the United States. Working as a busboy, cook, janitor, and electronics tester, he put himself through night courses at Pasadena City College before getting his BS and teaching credentials at California State University in 1973. The next year he started teaching at Garfield.
``In Bolivia, we have much more tradition of motivating students and making learning fun,'' he says. ``In the first place, neither teacher nor student has any books, so you must learn how to use your classroom time to most advantage - and find ways to help them remember what they've learned.''
Many of Escalante's students have made it into colleges they had never dreamed of before: Harvard, Columbia, Yale, the University of California at Berkeley, and UCLA. True to form, Escalante asks his graduates to return to the classroom to teach his kids a lesson.
``I ask professionals from my early classes to say a couple words to my kids and they come and say, `I used to sit in that chair and Escalante would try and mess me up. I wanted to quit, but look where I am today.'''