Jaime Escalante

Jaime Escalante

(1930 – 2010)

DJ Name: Pa’(esca)Lante 

So, it’s basically fall. Pumpkin candles are out of stock. Sweater weather is approaching. And school is kinda, sorta back in session…virtually, but also not? Who’s to say? As many questions about the future of American education are at the forefront of a not-so-normal back-to-school season, we wanted to shed light on an influential school teacher named Jaime Escalante who transformed the math program and the lives of many overlooked students at Garfield High School in Los Angeles from the early 1970s through 1991. He said, “We are all concerned about the future of American education. But as I tell my students, you do not enter the future — you create the future.

Then he made this fuego playlist to inspire his students and future generations of students to jam to as we create the future. Pa’lante con Jaime: 

Jaime Alfonso Escalante was born to Zenobio and Sara Escalante on December 31, 1930 in La Paz, Bolivia. In the nursery, he was explaining the ever-important use of PEMDAS for a math equation to his fellow babies. “Recuerda, multiplication before division.” As a niño, Jaime enjoyed playing all of the sports like fútbol, basketball and handball. He impressed his teammates with his skills and with his ability to predict the exact height the soccer ball needed to reach in order to soar over the goalie’s head into the back of the net because he had such a bright physics brain. 

When he reached his teen years, Jaime attended Colegio San Calixto, a Jesuit high school. His favorite subjects were math and engineering. Shocking, right? (As two former history majors, we can tooootally relate to being dope at math n’ stuff.) What is shocking, though, is that Jaime wasn’t the good egg he eventually encouraged his own students to be. His quick wit and clever comebacks were not supported. The Jesuits he was surrounded by may have taken vows of obedience, but Jaime did not. He found himself in trouble more often than not. Eventually, Jaime graduated and joined the Bolivian army briefly to fight against rebels of the Bolivian government (interesting considering he was just a lil’ rebel with a cause himself in the classroom). When his time in the service came to an end, Jaime enrolled at the Normal Superior, which was the Bolivian state teachers college. 

While at the Normal Superior, his math and physics classes were easy as pi for him. His teachers noticed his Superior mathematical talent (what’s that like?) and encouraged him to pursue a teaching career in the world of numbers and equations for his career. So, while taking his classes, he also started to teach classes and by the time he graduated, Jaime was a teacher at three prestigious Bolivian schools. He learned how to work a classroom and learn the inner workings of the teen brain by observing those teachers whose classes he went to every day. It was a lot of trial and error, day in and day out. 

During his time at Normal Superior, Jaime met his future wife (and current classmate), Fabiola “the fabulous” Tapia. She was “acute” gal and he became her tutor in, of course, math. After many study sessions together and long hours spent figuring out the square root of whatever, the two began to see each other outside of the library. Eventually these two lovebird teachers got married and completed the square by tying the knot on November 25, 1954. A year later, they had their first son, Jaime Jr. and they began to wonder if Bolivia would be their home forever: where they’d raise their family, establish a career and grow old together — or if they should consider moving elsewhere. Fabiola, especially, wanted the new family to leave Bolivia for the United States because she believed the ol’ U.S. of A would offer them better economic opportunities and more stability for their livelihoods. 

So, in search of a solution to their equation of Jaime + Jaime + Fabiola = where to next, Jaime went to spend a year in Puerto Rico as a part of the Alliance for Progress program (Alianza para el progreso). In 1961, President John F. Kennedy proposed this 10-year plan to bring schools, healthcare facilities and new infrastructure throughout Latin America. AKA, the U.S. wanted to sprinkle its democratic fairy dust over the lands of Latin America before Fidel Castro’s communism abracadabra’d out of Cuba. After a few years of the program, though, military regimes took control of many countries in Latin America and the Alliance diminished. While in Puerto Rico, Jaime did get to tour several United States schools and was impressed with the facilities and education. This convinced him to head stateside.  

Jaime hopped off the plane at LAX with his dream, a limited English vocabulary and a math textbook (obviously) in 1963. He purchased a Volkswagen Beetle (no punch back) and took on a bunch of odd jobs to make ends meet. He mopped floors, washed dishes, cooked burgers and studied more math and physics as he was en route to receiving his associate’s degree from Pasadena City College. Fabiola and baby Jaime later joined him in the City of Angels. And Jaime continued to work jobs of odds and ends as he figured out how to get back into the classroom as a teacher. He earned a scholarship to California State University and graduated with his bachelor’s degree. After graduation, Jaime was hired as a teacher at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, which had a history of drugs, violence and “unteachable” students. 

When he arrived at Garfield, Jaime expected to be a computer teacher since that’s what he was hired for. Much to his surprise, there were actually no computers at the school. So he taught math instead. Garfield High was not performing well and was at risk of losing its accreditation. The math textbooks they had in stock were more appropriate for fifth graders rather than high schoolers — sounds like our math intelligence level! After a year of teaching at Garfield, a new administration was hired and Jaime asked that a tougher curriculum be offered. Señor Escalante challenged his students to take themselves seriously in the classroom. He believed that if they put in the time and the effort, they could master the more advanced classes, but first those had to be an option at Garfield. He began teaching algebra and eventually introduced the first calculus program with a class of five students. 

He held his students aCOUNTable (ha) as they counted the numbers and figured out the equations, ya know. In the classroom, he commanded their attention with jokes, math demonstrations and posters on the surrounding walls that had inspirational quotes like, “insPIre” or “Dreams + Work = Success.” Okay, so we don’t actually know what these posters said. We’re just being annoying with average math jokes. Nonetheless, Jaime eventually got through to his students and they respected him. In addition to class, he held study sessions before school, after school, during lunch and on Saturdays to help his students prepare for their exams. He also got parents involved to help at home in making sure that their kids did their homework. All five of his first calculus students took the advanced placement exam, and four passed. This was a big deal and inspired Escalante to recruit more students to level up. 

By the early 1980s, his advanced calculus program had grown to 18 students, and all passed the AP exam. Controversy followed, though, as 14 of those 18 students received letters from the Educational Testing Service saying that their scores were invalid. The ETS believed that they cheated because similar mistakes were made on all of their exams. Jaime was not pleased with the ETS. He believed that they singled out his students on account of their backgrounds. Most of his students were Mexican-American and from low income families, and because Garfield High didn’t have much of a track record of successful advanced placement exams, they were an easy target to question. Struggling students succeeding for once? Whaaaaaaat? Could you believe it ETS? Because you should’ve.

12 of the 14 agreed to retake the test, and to no surprise they all passed. The story made headlines, and eventually skyrocketed Jaime into the national spotlight. Hollywood even made a movie about his class titled Stand and Deliver. The spotlight and Jaime’s success as a teacher brought a lot of external funding to Garfield which allowed for the purchase of things like computers. 

Jaime did whatever he could to command his students’ attention and inspire them to learn the material so that they could pass exams. Unfortunately, though he had a good relationship with his students, he didn’t share the same good vibes with fellow faculty members in his school. In his efforts to raise standards within the school and rewrite the curriculum, he also irritated his colleagues with his extremely high bar for educational standards. He also encouraged his students to learn English and speak English in academic settings — since many of his students were Mexican-American, English was not their first language and Jaime thought it was important for them to challenge themselves and learn a new language while they were still young with malleable brains. His stance wasn’t necessarily popular, though, and he got lots of hate mail for supporting Proposition 227 which successfully took down bilingual programs in California in 1998. 

Tired of the hate and ready for a blank slate, Jaime headed off to Sacramento to gather some new mementos. He taught at Hiram Johnson High School for seven years, but then said “adios” to the U.S. and headed back to Bolivia with Fabiola. Upon his return, he once again said “hola” to the classroom, vowing to keep teaching until the teaching took him. Or something like that. But he’d gotten a taste of that American pi and he had a hard time saying bye bye. He frequently returned, this time with the goal of entering the political world so as to hopefully enact more widespread change in the system. He almost joined forces with President George W. Bush to work as an educational advisor, but instead teamed up with Ahhhhnold (the governator) to terminate bad educational practices in California schools. 

As he aged and his health declined, Jaime also returned to the U.S. to seek cancer treatment, which was slowly leaving his body deteriorated. Because he had a hard time currying favor with other educators, Jaime won few awards in his 30-plus teaching career. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Excellence by Prez Reagan, and in 2016 USPS put his face on a stamp. But the REAL WINNERS were his students who got to learn all about numbers! And triangles! With Jaime! Sorry, went off on a tangent there. Jaime succumbed to cancer at age 79 in 2010. But even though the number of students he taught was finite, his impact on math curriculums everywhere and future students was infinite. 

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