Chapter 1 of It Takes Ganas: Jaime Escalante’s Secret to Inspired Learning
Jaime Escalante was an incredibly effective teacher. Yet this very effectiveness came at a cost: wherever he went, he created waves. For many of the educators who worked with Escalante, that wasn’t a problem. Escalante’s students achieved such remarkable success that fellow teachers and administrators were often willing to cut him slack. The new principal at Garfield High, however, thought otherwise. She ran a tight ship, and she wasn’t about to let anything rock her boat.
Maria Elena Tostado had risen through the ranks of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Like many of her fellow career educators, she had taken the safe and steady path to success. The surest way to regular promotions was to follow procedures, obey instructions, and make sure employees who reported to her did the same. She wasn’t about to jeopardize her professional standing to placate a prima donna math teacher who was a royal headache at district headquarters.
In the main office – known by many in the school system as “Downtown” – Escalante was notorious for his endless demands and insistence on bending the rules. And when rules got bent, complications arose: angry parents, unhappy administrators, unsettled unions, unfriendly politicians. The California state educational code was 2,300 pages long. Tostado’s responsibility was to deliver its promises and policies, not circumvent them, to 3,500 mostly poor and Hispanic students that crowded into the Garfield campus in East LA, built more than sixty years earlier and badly frayed by decades of overuse and underfunding.
Her predecessor, Henry Gradillas, had handled Escalante like a rock star, giving him what he wanted and shielding him from the wrath of students, parents, and school administrators who chafed under his high expectations and low tolerance for mediocrity. Gradillas’s sympathetic view of Escalante and his unorthodox teaching techniques would be swept away by Tostado’s new vision. Maybe Gradillas was willing to spend his own personal and professional capital to insulate this renegade from the consequences of his behavior; but she was not.
Within five years of Tostado’s arrival at Garfield, every teacher and teaching method associated with the controversial and divisive Jaime Escalante would be gone without a trace. And so would one of the most spirited, innovative, successful and famous Advanced Placement programs in the history of American education, replaced by a system that failed in every way except that it followed the rules. Tostado ensured the elevation of procedure over results, the return to mediocrity from hard-won excellence, the triumph of indolence and apathy over talent and industry. Indeed, few have been as successful as she at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Advanced Placement Calculus
Escalante taught his first Advanced Placement calculus class in 1978, four years after he came to Garfield, cobbling a curriculum together from old test questions and handouts he scrounged himself because there was no budget for textbooks. Five students survived his intense regimen of drills, before- and after-school tutoring, and lunchtime review sessions to take the Educational Testing Service national AP exam at the end of the year. Two of them passed.
Gradually attendance increased. In 1982, eighteen students took the AP calculus test and for the first time everyone passed. That was also the year fourteen of the pupils were accused by ETS of cheating. Shocked and angered by the accusation, Escalante, Gradillas, and a growing national chorus accused the testing company of discrimination, despite the fact that students’ identities were unknown to the graders who read their answer sheets. Twelve of the fourteen agreed to retake the test (the others had already moved on with their educations) and all twelve passed.
This spectacular vindication transformed Escalante and Garfield High into celebrities. All the Advanced Placement courses on campus surged in popularity, with AP calculus enrollment growing every year. In 1987, 127 Garfield students took the AP calculus exam and eighty-five of them passed. That meant 27 percent of all Mexican-American students in America who passed AP calculus that year were students in Jaime Escalante’s program.
Hollywood Comes to Garfield
Also in 1987, production began on a Hollywood version of the 1982 controversy over whether Escalante’s students had cheated. Stand and Deliver, starring Edward James Olmos and Lou Diamond Phillips, was filmed that summer at Garfield and at nearby Roosevelt High. It dramatized the story of poor Latino kids whose parents were gardeners and hotel maids, who pinned their hopes for the future on passing an elite national test, and who proved the doubters wrong by passing a retest with the encouragement of their incredible and gifted teacher.
What the movie didn’t show, and what Mrs. Tostado and other like-minded educators fretted so about, was the price of this success to everybody outside the AP calculus bubble. By the time Stand and Deliver celebrated its Oscar nomination for best actor, the seeds for the destruction of Escalante’s calculus program were already sown.
After Henry Gradillas was promoted from dean of discipline to principal in 1981, he had used his position to help Escalante build his program. He helped scrape up money for advanced math textbooks even though most Garfield students struggled with far simpler problems. In the aftermath of the 1982 publicity, so many students signed up for AP calculus that Escalante requested a new, larger classroom. Gradillas gave him a big music rehearsal hall and assigned the other calculus teacher, Ben Jimenez, to a second music room. A member of the school board appropriated $25,000 for air-conditioning to make Escalante’s room more appealing to summer school students. Escalante also eventually arranged facilities and funding for high school summer classes at East Los Angeles Community College a few blocks from Garfield.
Escalante took a dim view of activities that detracted from math. Indeed, he thought of students who engaged in such activities as “murderers” insofar as they “killed” time that could have been spent more productively on math. Time was, for Escalante, the most precious commodity and he filled every available minute of his young students’ lives with mathematical training. He opened the old band hall, MH-1, at seven a.m. every school day and kept it open late. Students came by for tutoring during lunch. They came on Saturdays and kept working through the summer.
Escalante was always playing catch-up, having to cover a vast amount of remedial ground. Students entered Garfield in the tenth grade, most of them with the barest grasp of arithmetic and basic algebra. To prepare them for AP calculus in only three years was a massive challenge that took all their focus and concentration. Escalante discouraged them from cheerleading, band, football, and anything else that distracted them from his assignments. He also discouraged after-school jobs, even though many students needed to help support their families, work in the family business, or take care of younger siblings.
To keep them interested, Escalante transformed his classroom into a wacky wonderland. He decorated the walls with posters of his beloved Los Angeles Lakers, rewarded correct answers with candy, and threw pillows at students who gave wrong answers. Some days he made them answer a question before they could come in the door. Sometimes he brought doughnuts or hamburgers to class. He might demonstrate a math idea by cutting apples into pieces with a meat cleaver, or using an E.T. doll as a puppet. Steps to problem-solving were transformed into basketball or hockey moves. He patrolled the aisles, dishing out encouragement and criticism in equal measure, commenting on a haircut here, a fashion statement there. He mimicked a cheerleader one minute and a gang member the next. When the class needed a change of pace, he blasted “We Will Rock You” and pounded his desk along with the class. Or he might play music from a favorite opera, or folk tunes from his native Bolivia.
In Jaime Escalante’s view, this was what it took to cram five or six years’ worth of math into three. It was a matter of having the ganas, a Spanish word he often used to describe the desire to learn. Anything was worth the sacrifice to give these students a chance to compete for a college track that would take them out of the barrio and into a successful, high-paying career. Escalante’s students were accepted into top colleges around the country. At one point fourteen of his former students were at Harvard, Yale or MIT at the same time. MIT professor and audio system inventor Amar Bose gave an open invitation to any Escalante student who wanted to enroll there, and helped pay their expenses.
Escalante’s principal, Henry Gradillas, steadfastly supported this enthusiastic teacher who devoted so much time and energy to students and poured himself into their lives. That level of dedication deserved all the help the principal could give him. Gradillas, formerly a captain in the elite Army Airborne Rangers, respected the school district’s rules and regulations but found many creative ways around them. He charged in with confidence where rules were ambiguous or absent. And there were times when he conveniently looked the other way, convinced that the results Escalante achieved were worth veering a bit from those 2,300 pages of regulations.
But it was also true that Escalante made other teachers feel shortchanged. Why didn’t any of them get a bigger classroom? Air-conditioning? Off-budget textbooks? After he became math department chairman in 1981, why didn’t he do his required faculty service, the administrative work he was supposed to do along with his fellow teachers? What right did he have to make a student give up band practice? The football team? An after-school job?
The counseling office sometimes told students who wanted to drop Escalante’s classes that they couldn’t, which was not exactly true. Parents complained about the long hours and endless quizzes and homework. “Downtown” complained about the money. The teachers union disapproved of the long hours and large classes, believing they were against the work rules and set a bad precedent. Yet, upstream to administrators and downstream to teachers and parents, Gradillas tirelessly ran interference for his friend and colleague who worked harder than anybody and got spectacular results. When even the janitor complained about Escalante’s long hours, Gradillas gave the teacher his own key.
Nineteen eighty-seven was a pivotal year. It was the year that, by hogging resources and irritating a wide range of people, Jaime Escalante developed and led a calculus program that produced more than one-fourth of all the Mexican-American students in America who passed the AP calculus test – leaving Beverly Hills High in the dust and besting all but three high schools in the nation in the number of exams given. It was the year the Hollywood film Stand and Deliver went into production, which soon would make Jaime Escalante a media celebrity far beyond the world of education. It was also the year that Henry Gradillas decided to take a sabbatical to finish his doctoral dissertation, “Characteristics of Capable Teachers,” explaining, “I wanted to show the kids you’re never too old to learn.” And it was the year that his successor, Maria Elena Tostado, began to dismantle the program Escalante had built and Gradillas had protected in order to replace it with her own.
In an interview in the fall of 1987, Tostado hailed Escalante as “one in a million. Everyone is trying to get into his classes. He and his students seem to feed off each other with their energy and enthusiasm.” She added that the surge in interest in AP classes was continuing. “He’s had a huge impact on the whole school.” And yet at the same time, the first steps for undermining Escalant’s calculus program were already under way.
The following spring, Stand and Deliver was released and Edward James Olmos received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Escalante. Suddenly, everyone wanted to interview this remarkable teacher and see him in action. Vice President George Bush stopped by his classroom, and President Ronald Reagan applauded Escalante’s drive and success. Escalante began going on speaking trips, sometimes accompanied by Tostado. Participation in AP calculus was down a bit compared with the year before, and results down even more: 119 students sat for the exam and fifty-five passed. Escalante blamed the drop on the distraction of so many visitors and the false impression of moviegoers that passing the AP test was easy. Years of actual classroom preparation had been squeezed into one academic year in the film. But the interest in advanced calculus had sparked enrollment in other subjects as well so that 443 students campus-wide took at least one Advanced Placement exam, ranking Garfield thirty-third out of 8,247 public and private high schools nationwide, and more than any other inner-city school.
“It was Mr. Escalante, who has followed his own grinding trail of self-improvement, who was the catalyst for the sparkling gains the school has made,” Tostado said in 1988. “Jaime is a master teacher above all.”
Within a year, Escalante was the subject of a biography, Escalante: The Best Teacher in America, by Jay Mathews, the host of a Peabody Award-winning PBS series titled Futures, and had been invited to the White House to consult on education (he declined, but met President Reagan in California later on). A feature article in The New York Times described an animated Mr. Escalante standing in front of his class with a baseball and glove explaining trajectory in terms of a pitch. On the wall was a poster reading, “Calculus need not be made easy: It is easy already.”
John Bennett, director of the AP program at Garfield, sounded one note of caution in the Times article: “I think a lot of people feel Escalante has built a little empire. That has been divisive to some extent, but the overall effect has been really positive.”
“The good [teachers] are not jealous of him,” Tostado responded. “The ones I find making the noise are the ones who are not measuring up.”
Escalante’s Support Structure Destroyed
But as these glowing comments went out in the national press and Jaime Escalante’s star continued to rise, the support structure that made his success possible was being destroyed and the new leadership was beginning to reveal its true colors.
In the fall of 1988, Henry Gradillas finished his doctoral dissertation and returned to Los Angeles. Not only was he renowned as the principal who had supported and encouraged Jaime Escalante, he was also praised for his skill in reducing gang violence, managing discipline, and raising academic standards. With his new Ph.D., he might have expected an assignment that put his abilities to work system-wide. Instead, he was put in charge of asbestos removal.
A spokesman for the district explained that it was a temporary assignment until they “found something good for him.” However, Escalante believed office politics were involved and one unnamed administration source admitted that Gradillas was “too confrontational.” Jaime’s friend was being sidelined because he stirred things up “Downtown.” “He eliminated a high percentage of the teachers who were teaching from the desk, not doing their jobs,” Escalante remarked. Tostado pointed out that Gradillas had sharply reduced the number of shop classes and “some people downtown are philosophically at odds with that.”
In fact, Gradillas had curtailed shop classes because, as he explained in a later interview, “boys were sitting around in woodshop making shoeshine kits. It was a waste of time. The auto shop had an old car with a carburetor. What’s the point of learning to fix [an obsolete] carburetor when cars don’t have them any more?” He wanted the classes to be useful or be eliminated and the space used for more productive learning.
“When someone like Henry makes a drastic change in curriculum or in policy,” Tostado continued, “he ends up fighting not only his faculty, to convince them of the need of it, but ends up fighting with the powers that be that determine such decisions.” It was a kind of fight Tostado preferred to avoid.
One administrator who asked not to be named told the Washington Post that Gradillas had “offended his superiors by being ‘fiercely, unbelievably dedicated to children … A number has been done on him.'” Another colleague added, “A maverick in this district … is in trouble.” Garfield’s career counselor, Joe Lopez, told reporter and author, Jay Mathews, that Gradillas’ treatment was payback from “Downtown” for the disruptions his high standards and dedication to students caused. “Henry proved them wrong in everything they did.”
By 1990, Escalante could no longer depend on the Garfield administration for the help he needed to maintain his celebrated but unorthodox program. Tired of facing irate parents and unhappy students, counselors now allowed students to drop Escalante’s class when they felt overwhelmed. Under Gradillas, the administrators had encouraged, even cajoled, students to tough it out and had worked to convince parents that the sacrifice was worth it. When a counselor let a student drop calculus for more practice time with the swim team, Escalante believed the school had lost sight of what he was trying to achieve.
Escalante was now under more pressure to conform to district policies. In the past, any student who wanted to take one of his classes could do so with his permission, even if they didn’t have the required prerequisites. Now those exceptions became problematic. He raised administrative hackles when he wanted to use an aide for calculus that was hired for remedial instruction. There had been complaints about the money designated for his use that he received from corporations to fund his summer school at East LA Community College, saying it should instead go to the college math department for them to distribute. (When they threatened to commandeer the money, the sponsor in turn threatened to withdraw it, saying it was for Escalante’s program specifically.)
Also in 1990, Escalante was replaced as chairman of the math department by his protégé Ben Jimenez. It’s likely that Tostado and others were weary of their celebrity teacher having the title and the extra $500 per year and yet not fulfilling his assigned administrative duties. Escalante believed it was a ploy by the teacher’s union to undercut his ability to assign students to their classes and funnel promising prospects into his advanced sections. The union had turned teachers against him and promoted his young colleague. The first vote was a tie; Jimenez won on the second ballot. Escalante resigned his union membership after his defeat.
That year he decided to move to another school.
Stung by the “ingratitude” of parents and teachers he believed didn’t appreciate academic achievement, Escalante announced in February 1990 that he would resign from Garfield to teach elsewhere or take a job in computer design. A story in the Los Angeles Times reported that his main reason for leaving was receiving letters from parents who wanted their children to drop advanced math classes to spend more time with sports and other interests. He claimed these parents “don’t see education as the way to succeed in this country.” He also said he had received threatening phone calls both at the school and at home. What’s more, Escalante complained of a “lack of district support” and what he believed was jealousy on the part of other teachers.
It was true that some teachers resented the attention Escalante received because of the film Stand and Deliver. They thought he was arrogant and demanding. It was also true that Jaime lacked subtlety when judging fellow teachers who failed to meet his high standards. In one often-repeated exchange, Escalante bluntly criticized a teacher for her students’ poor performance. When the teacher exclaimed that she’d been teaching students for fifteen years, Escalante replied, “Well, you’ve been teaching them the wrong thing.” Others resented the idea that for them to be considered good teachers the public now expected them to be as flamboyant and spend as much time in class as he did. Some colleagues also resented that President George Bush had visited Escalante at Garfield High, and that the teacher had openly supported Bush for president.
Though many students loved him and worked hard to earn his approval, some were glad to hear he was leaving. One Garfield graduate who had been in Escalante’s classes for three years commented, “I think once he leaves, the school will go back to normal and start doing good things. The movie really made things bad for us at school.”
Days after his announcement, Escalante changed his mind. Following a meeting with the assistant superintendent of Los Angeles schools and Tostado, he said that he would stay at least until the end of the school year. “I was going to quit in two weeks,” he told reporters. “I was going to be a bad boy, but I looked at all the kids and decided I couldn’t do that.” In addition, he wanted to continue developing a summer program he had started at nearby East Los Angeles Community College (ELAC). When administration policy kept him from teaching the courses he wanted in summer school at Garfield, Jaime had arranged to teach his summer classes on the ELAC campus. Under sponsorship of the National Science Foundation and funded by ARCO (now a subsidiary of British Petroleum), the program had grown to 1,000 students a year from schools all across the district studying math, science, English, and teacher training in the Escalante method. Other corporate sponsors included Xerox, IBM, GTE, and the Carnegie Foundation, all donating specifically to Escalante’s summer program.
Escalante Leaves Garfield
But in the spring of 1991, Escalante again announced his departure. This time he made good on his threat. He blamed “faculty politics and petty jealousies” for his decision to leave Garfield after seventeen years for a teaching position in Sacramento. Henry Gradillas would never have let a teacher who got such results leave his school; he would have done whatever it took to keep him. But while calling him “excellent” and “an undisputed leader of his profession … a master,” Tostado also told the LA Times, “Here, he is just one of the faculty. No one makes a big to-do about Jaime. I don’t think that’s strange. It’s just the way it is.”
Lucy Romero, a faculty member at Garfield for more than thirty years, remembers Tostado as a “very, very insecure person” who “wanted to make her mark” as a principal. Three years into Tostado’s tenure, the faculty petitioned the district unsuccessfully to have her removed. She left after nine years on the job.
Angelo Villavicencio, who started teaching at Garfield the year Gradillas left and taught calculus alongside Escalante, believed Tostado was jealous of Escalante’s success and notoriety and wanted him gone. “She did not want any Escalante legacy at Garfield,” Villavicencio recalled later, “and brought in her own team of teachers she believed were better. She tried her best to get rid of any Escalante legacy, and she succeeded.”
Ben Jimenez, Escalante’s protégé and successor as department chair, left at the same time, and Villavicencio took Escalante’s place. A year later, Villavicencio followed his mentor out the door. “I saw the writing on the wall and said, ‘I’m not going to last,'” he says of those days. He was identified with the Escalante regime, and, he says, the new principal’s attitude was, “My team is better than Escalante’s team.” Tostado declined his request to add a third class of calculus in order to reduce class size, and in fact threatened to make matters worse by taking away the large music classroom he had inherited. She shied away from supporting Escalante’s strict standards in the face of continuing complaints from parents and district officials. Don Mroscak, a counselor at Garfield from 1967 to 1994, remembers that “expectations fell off” during that time. “There was no more push.” Concludes Villavicencio, “There were some narrow-minded people there. They were jealous of his success … It took four or five years for the whole thing to go down the drain.”
In a 2002 article, Jerry Jesness, who later collaborated with Gradillas on a book, wrote of Escalante’s legacy at Garfield, “By 1996, the dynasty was not even a minor fiefdom.” Reporting Escalante’s death from cancer in 2010, The New York Times observed, “Without him, Garfield’s calculus program withered.” Results prove the point. In 1996, five years after Escalante left Garfield, eleven students passed the AP calculus exam, down from the historic high of eighty-five in 1987. When Villavicencio offered to return to the school to relaunch the calculus program, the administration told him they were doing fine and didn’t need any help. In 2009, fifty-five Garfield students sat for the AP calculus exam; thirteen passed.
As a team, Jaime Escalante and Henry Gradillas produced an educational system that outperformed anything before or since. But it was of necessity a renegade operation that strained, evaded, or ignored the rules and put their professional careers at risk. When Gradillas left, Escalante lost the protection of a sympathetic principal and was hounded from his job. Their results had been historic, but their methods were an administrative headache. Weighed in the balance by “Downtown,” administrative harmony trumped student performance.
In any other field or venture that puts a premium on results, Escalante’s success would have had the world beating down his door to copy it. Anything impeding such astonishing results would be swept aside in the quest for excellence – people replaced, polices changed, priorities and resources reordered. But history and experience show us that the world of education is a different world.
Does great teaching have to be a renegade operation? Do the best results have to come from outside the educational mainstream? Unconventional teachers, along with parents desperate for unconventional results, may spill out around the edges but more often leave the system entirely to find a better way. The legacy of Jaime Escalante proves we can achieve incredible results in education by doing an end run around the system. It also proves that the system resists end runs and is only too happy to embrace mediocrity.
Why is that? And what will it take for the American educational mainstream to encourage and support a teacher like the Bolivian immigrant who wore funny hats, played loud music, annoyed his colleagues and superiors, and proved to the children of immigrant gardeners and hotel maids that they could get into Harvard, MIT, or any other top university that they might want to attend?
Throughout his career, Escalante hammered home the fact that we all can do far more than we think we can. And that includes educators as well as students.
All it takes is ganas.
1. Information about Maria Elena Tostado and her relationship with Jaime Escalante from author interviews with Henry Gradillas (11/9/14), Lucy Romero (11/10/14) and Angelo Villavicencio (11/11/14).
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2. Gradillas’s comment on reasons for finishing his doctorate from author interview
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5. Quotations about Gradillas’s reassignment from “Praised Principal Put in Academic Siberia” by Jay Mathews, Washington Post, November 27, 1988
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6. Escalante’s comments about “ingratitude” and his decision to leave Garfield from “Celebrated Math Teacher Escalante Says He’ll Quit” by Elaine Woo and Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times, February 22, 1990
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7. Escalante’s and Tostado’s comments about Escalante’s final decision to leave Garfield from “A Calculated Move: Jaime Escalante Prepares to Leave to Teach in Sacramento” by Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1991
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8. Lucy Romero comments about Tostado from author interview
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9. Angelo Villavicencio comments about his departure from author interview
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10. Don Mroscak’s comment about falling standards at Garfield from author interview (11/9/14)
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11. Jerry Jesness comment on Escalante’s legacy at Garfield from “Stand and Deliver Revisited” by Jerry Jesness posted at reason.com, July 1, 2002
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12. Quotation about “withered” program from The New York Times obituary by William Grimes, March 31, 2010
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13. Villavicencio’s offer to relaunch calculus at Garfield from author interview
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Information about the life of Jaime Escalante and the history of his calculus classes at Garfield High from Escalante: The Best Teacher in America by Jay Mathews, New York: Henry Holt and Company 1988