This month we will be honoring educational pioneers of Latino and Hispanic origin in our series, Latinx Legacies. We believe powerful people teach powerful lessons, and this week’s spotlight is the widely acclaimed Jaime Escalante, a champion for the tenacity of the student spirit.
Jaime Escalante immigrated to America from Bolivia in the 1960s in search of a better life for his family. He packed his two degrees and love for his Aymara ancestry. The latter served him well when Latino students would doubt their abilities to understand complicated math equations. He would tell them to “remember that in your blood are the Mayan creators of modern math.”
Although a lauded physics and math teacher in La Paz, he was a novice English speaker and did not have the proper credentials to teach in the United States. After ten years of determination and a handful of hard jobs, he earned an American degree and felt confident in his grasp of the English language. The setting for his first assignment was Los Angeles’s Garfield High School, which in 1974 had a demographic of ninety five percent Black and Latino population with eighty five percent of the students coming from low income environments.
Escalante believed in the potential of each student. He stated that the greatest disservice an educator can bring to their classroom is “the discrimination of low expectations.” When he started at Garfield he saw the need to have Advanced Placement options, and with the advocacy of principal Henry Gracillas, he created an advanced summer math program. He handpicked students from classrooms who were engaged in their education, and although most of his students were three years behind the math standard required for AP testing, he knew that access to resources would outweigh their lack of training. He initiated classroom rules including an open door policy and required students complete rigorous work load and counseled his students when their home life was tumultuous.
In his second year of the program fourteen of his students took AP Calculus and passed. The College Board was incredulous due to the district’s educational demographic and made the students retake the test in a proctored setting, where twelve of them passed again. This vignette would later influence the Oscar winning film Stand and Deliver, the number one most watched educational video played in math classes across the United States. But his greatest educational achievement was in 1987 when eighty five of his students passed the AP Calculus test, accounting for twenty six percent of all Mexican American AP pass rates in the country.
Educational support to Escalante meant creating equitable spaces where students could feel safe and excited to learn. He adorned his classroom with inspirational posters, advocated the school board to provide air conditioning, wore silly outfits on difficult learning days and used student slang vernacular mixed with mathematical phrases. He believed that when teachers and administrators worked together to create the best environments for students to learn that achievement could be made into a formula and drew on the support of his principal, Henry Gradillas.
Escalante was awarded the Presidential Medal of Excellence and entered the National Teachers Hall of Fame in 1999 before his death in 2010. The Escalante Math Program lives on at East LA College as 4,000 students enroll every summer to be empowered to overcome their perceived limitations. Escalante hoped that his legacy would make his heritage proud and that educators would view each student not by what they brought into the classroom, but rather what they could become leaving it.