Chapter 3 of It Takes Ganas: Jaime Escalante’s Secret to Inspired Learning
The Los Angeles school system that Jaime Escalante joined in September 1974 was part of a community fractured by distrust and political turmoil. It was the product of a nation confused about its educational objectives. Lucky for us that Escalante didn’t know what he was getting into, or else he may never have taken the job.
An undercurrent of racial tension ran through the culture of the city. Identity politics affected every policy decision, every allocation of resources. In the 1920’s, Los Angeles had been one of the first big cities in America to adapt specific residential covenants excluding African-Americans from owning houses in 95 percent of the city’s neighborhoods. Yet the city was also the site of a historic legal ruling in Mendez v. Westminster and the California Board of Education. This 1946 Supreme Court decision held that maintaining separate educational facilities for public school students with Mexican heritage was unconstitutional. The Mendez case laid the groundwork for the more famous Brown v. Board of Education case eight years later in Kansas that made racial discrimination illegal nationwide.
Garfield High School was built in 1925 when its East Los Angeles neighborhood was home to white, lower middle class families. Beginning in the 1950’s, a demographic sea change surged over East Los Angeles so that by the 1970’s the neighborhood was overwhelmingly Latino and much more densely populated. (Garfield today is 99 percent Latino and 1 percent black.) Cultural and language barriers were serious hurdles to the Spanish-speaking community. Poverty, drugs, and gangs introduced still more problems.
Historically, American public schooling was a local institution, led by a school board and funded with property taxes. But by the 1970’s, a trend toward top-down control was gaining momentum. Most other countries had always controlled their school systems at the national level. This was the model Jaime Escalante had grown up with in Bolivia and where he became a master of his craft. The United States, with its federal model, originally put the local authorities in charge and set up local funding. As early as 1785, the Continental Congress reserved the income from a portion of each township in the country for “the maintenance of public schools.”
The federal government stayed largely out of the education business until the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was established in 1953. Opponents of federal oversight argued unsuccessfully that a Cabinet department overseeing education was unconstitutional, since there was no provision in the Constitution dealing with education.
One of the earliest steps in shaping national curriculum standards was the National Defense Education Act. This legislation was a direct response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, in 1957. Soviet and American scientists had been in a heated contest to see who could lift a payload into earth orbit first. Afraid of the consequences of losing the space race, the US encouraged schools to teach more math, science, and foreign languages. By influencing the high school curriculum, the government hoped to raise technological standards against international competition. This, it seems, was one of the first objectives of a national educational policy.
In 1965, a series of events marked a new level of government involvement in American public education, and a new sense of urgency in dealing with poor urban neighborhoods like Garfield’s. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, part of President Lyndon Johnson’s historic “War on Poverty,” provided federal funds to schools to help low-income students; and Project Head Start established preschool programs for the poor. These federal programs funneled many millions of dollars into school districts along with rules and controls required to qualify for the money. These and other programs of the era set up a relationship between funding and control that has defined federal involvement in education ever since.
Also in 1965, a study released by the Labor Department sent shock waves through the world of education. The Negro Family: The Case for National Action was written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a future U.S. Senator, then an assistant department secretary. His conclusion was that a child’s home environment was a more important indicator of success in school and in life than the educational environment. Specifically, Moynihan focused on the number of black children born out of wedlock versus the number of white children. In the 1960’s, about 20 percent of black children were born to single mothers as opposed to less than 3 percent of white children. The poverty and social instability of families headed by single mothers, Moynihan reported, was a principal cause of poor school performance.
Moynihan was harshly condemned as racist and elitist for his reporting. The resulting political fallout muted the impact of his study and kept policymakers and scholars away from the topic for years. This is all the more ironic because Moynihan himself was raised by a single mother and once worked as a shoeshine boy. The next year another major report, Equality of Educational Opportunity, supported the idea that student background and socioeconomic standing had a larger impact on academic success than school funding.
Latinos poured into Los Angeles in the 1960’s and 70’s, eventually outnumbering the blacks who had come west by the thousands to work in the factories and shipyards during World War II. Racial tension was constant and pervasive in area high schools, where principals had to deal daily with gang activities, fights, and other disruptions. Only a few miles west of the Garfield campus on East 6th Street in the Eastmont neighborhood was the livid scar of the 1965 Watts Riots, where a major neighborhood thoroughfare had been torched to the ground and never rebuilt. What started as a routine traffic stop escalated into four days of arson and looting, fed by contempt for a militarized police department accused of deep-seated corruption. Thirty-two people were killed and four thousand arrested.
The election of Los Angeles’ first African-American mayor, Tom Bradley, in 1973 had not yet brought harmony to the city by the time Jaime Escalante stepped into a classroom at Garfield. And the national government was distracted with a crisis of its own. On August 9, 1974, a month before Escalante taught his first day, the President of the United States resigned from office for the only time in history. The cultural, social, and political upheaval of the times produced an educational environment that was unsettled, unsure of itself, and on the defensive. In East LA the students struggled, the budget was strained, and the facilities were frayed. The new teacher from La Paz would have his hands full.
Escalante Arrives at Garfield High School
Jaime Escalante pulled his green Volkswagen into the parking lot at Garfield High School and walked happily across the parking lot to his meeting with other math teachers. At last, after ten long years of re-establishing his credentials, Jaime was about to fulfill his dream of teaching in America. And not just any teaching job – a job guiding students through the exciting new world of computers. Based on what he saw in his years at Burroughs, he was convinced that computers were a pathway to success in the future and, more important, a ticket out of the LA barrio to a well-paying career.
On his way inside he noticed graffiti on the walls and trash blown up against the chain link fence. The place could use a little sprucing up.
The meeting began with handing out class schedules to each teacher. Glancing over his sheet Escalante saw “High School Math” for his first period. Next was another “High School Math,” then three more. His whole day was teaching five sections of this mysterious course. He politely asked what the course was. “It’s basic math,” the administrator explained. “Most of our new teachers start with it.”
Escalante was confused. “But Mr. Avilez told me I would be teaching a new computer course.” “Didn’t they tell you?” the man answered. “We weren’t able to get that course.” The principal had hoped computers would be part of the curriculum that year for the first time, but it didn’t happen. Probably the funding he had hoped for never materialized.
Escalante walked to his next meeting in another building on the campus. A dozen or so teachers there listened to Michael Litvak, a math teacher who was also in charge of Garfield’s Title I program for mathematics. This far-reaching section of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act awarded federal money to schools to help educate students from low-income families. To qualify, a school had to show that at least 40 percent of its students lived below the federal poverty line, and had to follow strict rules about how the money was used. One of the ways schools justified their need was to pull eligible students out of regular classes and concentrate them in remedial classes.
Mr. Litvak showed them games and exercises designed to make math more interesting to students who weren’t learning by traditional methods. Students would cut pictures out of a book then measure the cutouts. Jaime thought to himself that in Bolivia this would be elementary school stuff. First he had faced the disappointment of not teaching a computer class, and now he thought about the time he would waste watching teenagers cut pictures out of workbooks. Maybe his wife had been right that he should never have quit his job at Burroughs.
Classes started the next morning. As a new teacher at the bottom of the pecking order, Escalante didn’t have a classroom of his own but moved from room to room each period. To start, he needed directions to the office where he would pick up his classroom assignments. A well-dressed, soft-spoken young man gave him directions. As he spoke Escalante noticed the pistol under his coat: he was a plainclothes security officer.
In the office he waited an hour for directions to his first class. By then the period was over, so he hustled down the hall to his second period in room 801. He walked in to see desks pushed into a semicircle and the students talking in a loud and rowdy way. The boys tended toward tapered jeans, white t-shirts, and long hair held back by bandannas. Girls wore tight, revealing clothes calculated to distract. As he wrote his name on the blackboard he heard one student yell, “Hey, what class is this?” “Sex!” came the answer from the front row. It was an eerie replay of his teaching test in La Paz. The laughter peaked and then changed to a low rumble as he explained the class rules and started a math lesson. His audience had no interest whatever in what he was saying and no plans to listen. To Jaime, who loved learning and whose students in Bolivia had been so eager and appreciative, his first day at Garfield was deeply disappointing.
Escalante decided that Fabiola was right. He would go back to Burroughs at the end of the school year. But when he told the principal his plans, Mr. Avilez begged him to wait until the spring to decide. As an incentive, he told Jaime he would give him a classroom of his own. He could move into room 801 for good. The classroom was in sad shape, not cheerful or welcoming, not a place that encouraged learning. With the help of a few trusted students, Escalante transformed the space over a weekend. They painted the walls, scrubbed the desks clean of doodles and graffiti, and put up posters of the Los Angeles Lakers. The principal was so surprised and impressed that he sent other teachers over to look at Escalante’s handiwork.
Once he had a clean, inviting classroom, Escalante turned his attention to how he could keep his students’ interest. They didn’t see math as having any relevance in their lives. It was boring. It was pointless. It was for somebody else. One subject the kids did seem interested in was sports. So he started using sports metaphors in class. He also challenged pupils to handball games after school: if they won they got an A; if he won they had to do their homework. Though he was putting on weight, his experience and skill paid off. He always won.
As he had in Bolivia, he gave students nicknames when he couldn’t remember their real ones. To engage them he made comments about their clothes, their makeup, or whatever he could think of that would get their attention and provoke a reaction. They in turn gave him a nickname. The Lone Ranger was a popular Saturday morning cowboy show. The title character’s faithful companion, Tonto, often referred to the Lone Ranger as “Kimo Sabe.” His students christened him Kimo and the name stuck. He was Kimo from then on.
Jaime challenged any behavior he considered a barrier to learning, whether it was actually against the rules or not. There were relatively few rules at school, and the ones they had were poorly enforced. Yes, there were armed guards to protect the campus against gang violence and keep weapons off the property, but the students were often rebellious, irresponsible, and rude in ways that chipped away at administrative authority in a thousand little ways every day. It was as though the school had decided these were poor students whom a failing educational system had badly prepared for high school. As a consequence, they couldn’t be expected to do any better. They had no tradition of respect for education or academic achievement, so the best the school could do was push them through the system and collect those federal dollars.
Students Need to be Challenged and Inspired
Jaime disagreed. He believed his kids had it in them to learn. But they had to be challenged and inspired, to have an environment that promoted learning, not one full of distractions. A girl who sat in the front row of one of his classes sometimes wore nearly transparent blouses. Finally one day he explained to her that if she kept dressing that way, the highest grade he could give her was a C. “How can you do that?!” she demanded. “It just makes a bad impression,” he answered.
When the girl threatened to see the dean, Escalante encouraged her to go ahead. Returning a few minutes later she grandly announced, “The dean says this is within the dress code and I have a right to wear it.” “You do have the right to wear it,” Escalante said, “just not in my class.”
Jaime was determined to set standards for dress and behavior that encouraged learning. Later in the day, he went to the dean to plead his case. If the office didn’t back him up, he insisted, whatever rules he tried to enforce were meaningless. His authority and control over the kids would evaporate. The dean disagreed. This was consistent with what Escalante would face all year: administrators who enforced the bare letter of the law because that was the path of least resistance and the way to making the fewest political waves in the educational bureaucracy. People who kept systems running smoothly and didn’t rock the boat were the ones rewarded with better jobs up the ladder.
As the year went on, Escalante kept sending unruly students to the office, and they kept returning with notes saying the dean had spoken with them. No discipline, no consequences. Administrators didn’t know what to do with the new math teacher who kept pressing for better standards and was so proud and particular about how his classroom looked.
The lax attitude toward discipline affected the school on a wider scale. Gangs were a longstanding problem in the neighborhood. In order to appeal to gang members so fewer of them would drop out, Mr. Avilez gave each gang a school-sanctioned place to post its logo and invited them to register officially with the school. Eighteen gangs signed up. They divided stairways and halls among themselves, confusing and terrorizing everyone else as they staked out their turf. Even teachers avoided the spots where gang members hung out. The cafeteria was especially hazardous.
At the same time, he argued for higher standards of behavior, Jaime also lobbied the math department chairman for more challenging basic math textbooks. The chairman said no. Students’ test scores were already low. If they couldn’t learn the math now, how could they possibly tackle anything more challenging? When Escalante pressed his point, saying that at least some of the kids could grasp it, the chairman told him there was no money for new books.
That summer Jaime thought about his future while working at two electronics plants. The year had been a real disappointment, and he hadn’t signed a permanent contract to teach. It would be easy to transition into something else. He finally decided to go back for one more year, then take Fabiola’s advice and switch to a career in electronics.
A New Direction
Jaime was getting his classroom ready for the first day of school when he heard that the principal had been reassigned. Mr. Avilez, whose administration was later described as “tragically unsuccessful,” along with every other administrator at Garfield was gone.” In the spring of that year, an accreditation team visited the school and threatened to close it. Teacher morale was low, half the students dropped out, and the half that stayed were struggling. Shocked into action, the school district brought in a whole new team.
The new principal, Paul Possemato, took the school in a completely different direction. Out went the gang placards. Where students were routinely five or ten minutes late for the start of class, now they had to be in their seats on time. The school had become a meeting place for non-students to hang out, flirt, and be seen with members of their gangs. Possemato locked the doors and declared that outsiders were no longer welcome. Those who tested the new rule were arrested by police. Gang symbols and graffiti were washed off and painted over. The new principal organized banquets and other events to create a sense of community.
Mr. Possemato noticed Escalante’s way of reaching out to kids to make math interesting. Escalante saw past the teenage bluster and attitude to the young person who could learn and wanted to learn but needed encouragement and approval. The principal understood how proud of his classroom Escalante was, how he took such care to decorate it and keep it clean. He also saw that Jaime was on the brink of giving up teaching.
He asked Jaime what he would like to do at Garfield. “Teach math,” was the quick reply. “Isn’t that what you’re doing now?” the principal asked. “No, sir.” To him the elementary lessons he was required to teach didn’t live up to the name. The principal moved him to a better classroom more central to the campus and promised him he could teach algebra.
Another change Possemato made was to appoint a new dean of discipline. Henry Gradillas was chairman of the biology department when Possemato arrived. Before teaching, Henry had spent six years in the army as an Airborne Ranger instructor, teaching some of the military’s toughest soldiers how to jump out of airplanes. Henry had a heart for students, whom he believed needed discipline and high expectations to offset a life of low achievement and little encouragement. He was 210 pounds of military muscle and had no hesitation about wading into a fight to bring it to a speedy conclusion. When students swore at him like they did other teachers, Gradillas roared back that they would never speak to him that way no matter how they talked to other people.
Gradillas had been born in East LA and graduated from Garfield’s neighborhood rival, Roosevelt High. He had seen all sorts of administrators and programs that gave Latino students little chance for success. And he had seen the self-fulfilling prophecy of these low expectations, which delivered failure upon failure. A widespread feeling existed that these young people, many from broken homes and with so many other problems, couldn’t handle being criticized for their academic shortcomings. It would damage their fragile self-esteem. Gradillas cared far less about their self-esteem than about pushing them to achieve their full potential. In his view, school should not mirror the low expectations and poor results of the neighborhood but challenge them: Garfield should be a way up and out to a better life by consistently meeting high standards.
This view paralleled Escalante’s outlook exactly. In the new dean of discipline he soon found a soul mate who was devoted to education and convinced that every student had potential to succeed. Not all were equally gifted, but all should be equally encouraged and all could accomplish far more than a distraught educational system could imagine.
As he learned his first day at Garfield, Jaime had to get his students’ attention before he could teach them. How could he explain math to them if they sat down in class and tuned him out? The solution was classroom instruction with a healthy dose of theater mixed in. Early on in his teaching at Garfield, he was trying to explain fractions but wasn’t getting very far. When his students sauntered into class the next day, he was wearing a chef’s hat and apron he’d saved from his restaurant job. He lined up a row of apples in front of his surprised audience. To warm them up he attacked the first apple with a meat cleaver, chopping it to bits. Then he cut the next apple into quarters and handed one piece to a student in the front row.
“How much of the apple do you have?” he asked. “A fourth,” the student replied. “And how much is left?” The student looked at the slice in her hand and then at the rest of the apple. “Three fourths.” “Right!” Escalante exclaimed. “For your reward you can eat your apple slice!” Now the rest of the class watched with rapt attention as Escalante chopped another apple into thirds. “How much of the apple is this?” “One third,” a couple of voices rang out. “And how much is left?” “Two thirds!”
He picked up two slices and held them side by side. “And which is bigger, one fourth or one third?” Looking at the three dimensional example in his hands, students saw the concept of fractions suddenly emerge from the fog of theory into something concrete they could touch and understand. Take away a fourth of an apple and you have three fourths left. A third is bigger than a fourth. By now the whole classroom was eager to answer, munching happily on their examples.
Treats were an easy and effective way to energize students and do something out of the ordinary that they could look forward to. On quiz days, he handed out candy as a bribe so students wouldn’t skip class that day. As they hunched over their test papers, Escalante walked up and down the rows putting a piece of candy on every desk and saying a word of encouragement to each student.
In 1977, Jaime lost two of his allies at Garfield. Paul Possemato was transferred to another school, and Henry Gradillas became assistant principal of a junior high in the district. The new principal was Jessie Franco. To Escalante she seemed nice enough, but not interested in challenging or pushing the students. Escalante felt there was a world of untapped potential waiting to be unleashed. But they had to have more advanced material and take school more seriously. Even the algebra 2 class used what Jaime thought were simple grade school problems.
Jaime raised administrative hackles for criticizing another teacher’s lessons as too elementary. He was only trying to offer suggestions for helping students more, but the teacher took it as a professional slight and Escalante got a warning from a vice principal to get along with his colleagues. Escalante was establishing a habit of frank assessment and criticism that got him into trouble repeatedly over the years. He had no patience with teachers who didn’t, in his view, work hard enough. To put Jaime in his place, this particular teacher pointed out that he’d been teaching fifteen years. “The only problem,” Escalante responded, “is you’re not teaching the right stuff.”
Beginning his fifth year at Garfield in the fall of 1978, Kimo had mastered the craft of making his students pay attention in class. Other teachers, desperate to gain control over their own classrooms, visited his class to learn his secret. There they saw students who sat quietly, paid attention, and worked hard. The simple tools he had developed to achieve this result eventually became the foundation of his historic success.
The first rule was consistent high standards for academics and behavior. Without a classroom environment that invited learning, every student was at a disadvantage. Escalante once traded classes with Ben Jiménez, a new teacher at Garfield who couldn’t get his unruly charges under control. Escalante began the class by demanding quiet and obedience. He ejected one student who kept talking; then another, then another. After the third one had been sent out, the room got quiet. The next morning he gave a quiz that many students flunked. Now he had their attention. As Escalante biographer Jay Mathews observed, Jiménez realized that the key to Escalante’s success in class was “quick, harsh action at the first sign of trouble.” He didn’t wait for the situation to become unbearable. The longer a teacher waited to deal with disruption, the harder it would be to fix.
Every detail that improved a student’s chance of success, no matter how small, was worth Jaime’s time and attention. He taught his students respect and responsibility as well as math. He hated wasting time, and there was no excuse for parents and administrators not holding these kids accountable. He believed that they were used to getting away with lazy behavior, and that was no way to learn. It irritated him when students came in late day after day, or skipped class entirely, and got a tardy slip from the office admitting them to class without any consequences. He had some slips printed up and offered to give them out himself if students would tell him honestly where they were. If they didn’t want to say, he declared he would charge ten cents per slip.
Escalante chafed more than ever at the low standards and elementary material his students had to work with. But his principal insisted there was no money for new textbooks. Hearing that news, Escalante asked to transfer to another school. That threat yielded results. The principal had praised his “excellent classroom organization and lesson plans.” He was a teacher who worked hard and saw his kids’ potential realized. She scraped together three thousand dollars and got him the new books.
Advanced Placement Calculus Launched
With these new materials, Escalante could launch a plan he’d been developing to start an advanced placement (AP) calculus class. AP classes were a rarity at Garfield High. There was AP Spanish and a small program in AP history and physics. Advanced placement tests were given nationwide by the College Board, which also administered the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). By passing an AP test, high school students were awarded college credit for advanced instruction. Escalante had never heard of AP when he came to Garfield. Nobody there talked about it or promoted it or encouraged students to try it. After all, AP was designed for students at elite prep schools like Exeter and Andover, or for students at rich public schools like Beverly Hills High, twenty miles west of Garfield on I10, but not for the poor Latinos of East LA.
In planning his first year of advanced placement teaching, Escalante faced off against his relentless enemy: time. There weren’t enough hours in the school day to teach an AP calculus curriculum to students who’d never had a challenging algebra course, or trigonometry, or any other advanced math. And unlike high schools in many American cities, Garfield started in the tenth grade, not the ninth. So Escalante only had three years instead of four to bring them up to speed.
Escalante convinced fourteen students to enroll in his AP class that fall. He told them they would have to come to class early every day, take a daily quiz, and have a test every Friday. Within two weeks half the students had dropped out. Two more quit before the year was over. When he complained to one of the counselors that she was making it too easy for the students to quit, she told him that the material was too hard; these kids could never master it.
Jaime drove his advanced students hard every day, yet also worked to make it encouraging and fun. He handed out candy, talked in sports metaphors, played music in the classroom, and did everything he could think of to build team spirit. On the wall, he put the big sign that would later become famous: “Calculus need not be made easy; it is easy already.”
Shortly before the advanced placement test, Escalante learned there would be a testing fee of twenty-one dollars each. This was a reduced rate for poor students, but even so his kids couldn’t come up with the money on such short notice. Jaime quickly organized a car wash to raise the funds. For years afterward, he and his students would sponsor car washes, bake sales, candy sales, and whatever it took to raise the testing fees.
In the spring of 1979, Escalante’s first AP class of five sat for the exam. A score of 5 was the highest possible; 1 was the lowest. A 3 or better was considered passing by most schools and worthy of college credit. Of the five who took the test, two scored 4, two scored 2, and one scored 1.
The two passing grades encouraged Escalante to redouble his efforts. The next year, nine students took the test and seven passed. In 1981, fifteen students took the exam and fourteen passed, including one with the first-ever score of 5 at Garfield.
Along with extra hours and zany demonstrations with apples and meat cleavers, Escalante expanded his repertoire of tricks to toys that helped students remember particular things: a pair of wind-up shoes to remind them to go step-by-step, a monkey climbing a pole for inverse functions, a goofy cutout of the cartoon character Charlie Brown repeating the Escalante instruction, “Factoring! Factoring!”
He also threw in basketball terms. “Give-and-go” to illustrate absolute value; “three second violation” to underscore the three possibilities of an absolute number. He lined his students up outside the classroom and made each one answer a question before they could come in. If they were wrong, or if they hesitated, they had to go to the back of the line. “Ten minutes,” the teacher would order. “Maybe you spend the time studying your book.” Some had to go through several rounds but all finally made it inside. It was hard but it was fun, challenging, and part of being on a special team.
Escalante’s hard driving approach and take-no-prisoners attitude got results in the classroom. It also created headaches for the administration. Escalante always wanted his students to try harder, to do more. That meant he was always lobbying for more materials, more time, and more support from the principal and others. He was quick to criticize other teachers he thought weren’t working hard enough or pushing their students.
He had no patience for teachers who read the newspaper in class and let their assistants do their work. He was incensed to overhear another teacher working on a real estate deal and soliciting business from other teachers. When he complained to the principal, she explained that teachers were protected by union seniority rules and there was nothing she could do. Counselors complained about Kimo’s strong-arm tactics both to enforce his rules and to keep students from dropping his classes. When pupils came to him to sign a transfer form out of his class, he tried to make them believe they weren’t allowed to drop.
Once again Escalante thought about changing jobs. He applied for a position at another school closer to his house in Monrovia, and reconsidered picking up his electronics career at Burroughs. He had no doubt they would welcome him back. Monrovia High surprised him by rejecting his application, saying their students didn’t have the problems Garfield’s did and that they didn’t think his intense approach would be successful there. He resolved to give Garfield another shot. He’d seen real progress the last few years; maybe there was hope for the future.
In 1981, Garfield made Escalante chairman of the math department. They may well have done this to get even with him for his criticism of some teachers and what some considered his high-handed ways. The bureaucratic duties that went with the job would have been a nuisance – if Escalante had done them. However, early on he told the rest of the faculty that he had no interest in boring meetings or reports and would not be participating in them. He would not be responding to administrative bureaucrats from the district office. The advantage of his new position was that he could scour the student body for promising math students and encourage them to take advanced courses that would equip them for AP calculus. Junior high schools didn’t prepare their pupils for higher math, and Garfield only required one year of basic math to graduate. Finding likely prospects for calculus among the school’s 3,000 students at the time was hard work with few rewards.
1982: The AP Calculus Exam
Also in 1981, Henry Gradillas returned to Garfield as the new principal. Henry and Jaime rekindled their friendship and reinforced their belief in the value of pushing students to achieve.
That year Escalante had eighteen students in AP calculus. It was the largest advanced math class ever at the school. His satisfaction was somewhat offset by knowing that he could have had twice as many if only other algebra teachers taught more advanced material and hadn’t let students transfer out of their classes without a fight.
Escalante could be harsh on his students, even the outstanding ones. Students who didn’t turn in homework were berated in front of the class and ordered out. He warned those who missed extra study sessions to go to marching band or cheerleading practice – or even another time-consuming subject such as chemistry – to drop it all and concentrate on math. Some did, and some didn’t. Pressing for a still higher level of commitment, he required parents of AP students to sign a contract saying their children would do their homework and come to class. He scheduled extra sessions before school, three hours after school, as well as during lunch. Sometimes he drove his students to tears. When the pressure was too much he gave them a break, just as he had done for his students in Bolivia. He brought them all doughnuts or hamburgers, or adjourned for a game of volleyball.
On the morning of May 19, 1982, eighteen nervous students filed into room 411, sat down at widely spaced intervals in the room, and began the advanced placement calculus exam. Andreda Pruitt, the head counselor at Garfield, proctored the test. When the test was over, she gave the completed answer booklets to John Bennett, the AP history teacher, who combined them with the history, English, and Spanish tests and sent them in a special envelope to the Educational Testing Service in New Jersey to be graded. There were sixty-nine exams in the packet, a record for Garfield.
By the middle of July, letters started arriving from the ETS giving Garfield students their grades. So far every single student had passed and some had earned 5s. Jaime was already thinking ahead to how he could improve the program for next year. It was a Saturday afternoon when he took a call at home from his student Elsa Bolado. She’d already told him she had received a 4 on the exam. Now she had gotten a certified letter from ETS saying that graders “found close agreement of your answers with those on another answer sheet from the same test center. Such agreement is unusual and suggests that copying occurred. The Board doubts that these grades are valid … ” The letter offered three choices for resolving the question: cancel the grade, provide proof there was no cheating, or retake the test.
Fourteen of the eighteen Garfield students who took the AP calculus test got the same letter. Based on the similarity of their wrong answers, the Educational Testing Service accused them of cheating.
1. For more about the history of real estate covenants in Los Angeles see “A Southern California Dream Deferred: Racial Covenants in Los Angeles” by Kelly Simpson, February 22, 2012, at kcet.org and “Living With a Reminder of Segregation” by Jessica Garrison, Los Angeles Times July 27, 2008
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2. Quotation from the Continental Congress from their papers at the Library of Congress
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3. The Negro Family PDF available at web.stanford.edu; related information from “The Moynihan Report: An Annotated Edition” by Daniel Geary, The Atlantic, September 2015
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4. “Tragically unsuccessful” characterization of Avilez administration from Escalante: The Best Teacher in America by Jay Mathews, New York: Henry Holt and Company 1988
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Information about Escalante and his work from Mathews (ibid.)