Born in La Paz, Bolivia, Jaime Escalante immigrated to the United States in the 1960s, seeking greater stability. What he found were new challenges and unexpected national fame.Escalante was a successful teacher in his native country, fie graduated from San Andres University in La Paz, then taught math and sci¬ ence at high schools and the Colegio Militar, the national military academy.
When Escalante came to the United States, his Bolivian teaching credentials were not accepted. He was forced to work at odd jobs, such as busboy, cook, and electrical technician, to earn a living. At the same time, he attended classes at Pasadena City College and later at California State University, Los Angeles, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1974.
With his degree in hand, he was qual¬ ified to teach again.Escalante deliberately sought the challenge of teaching kids in a rough Hispanic neigh¬ borhood, at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. Most of the students at the school lived in difficult circumstances. Little was expected of them as students, and they didn’t expect much of themselves, either.
Escalante, however, employed tough street talk and an uncompromising, confrontational style that challenged the students to demand more of themselves. He appealed to their sense of pride in, and curiosity about, their culture by teaching them the mathematical brilliance of the ancient Mayan calendar system. He succeeded in getting them to pass their basic math courses and defied prevailing wisdom by introducing a calculus course.
Most school officials believed calculus was too difficult for these students.In 1982, Escalante proved his critics wrong again by having his students take the advanced placement (AP) calculus test, a rigorous exam that can earn college credit for high school students. In a testament to his tremendous teaching ability, all of Escalante’s students passed the test.
Some of Escalante’s colleagues asserted that either a mistake had been made or the students had cheated. Escalante had his students take a new test. They performed even better the sec¬ ond time and silenced the disbelievers.Escalante’s accomplishments caught the attention of newspapers, magazines, and televi¬ sion.
After reading a story about him in the Los Angeles Times in 1988, Cuban-born director Ramon Menendez created a popular film about Escalante called Stand and Deliver.The movie made Escalante a national celebrity and a hero in the teaching communi¬ ty. He was featured on the PBS television pro¬ gram “Futures” and began working as an edu¬ cation consultant.
He has received numerous honors. His students continued to excel, and many of them have received academic scholar¬ ships from colleges and universities. In 1991, Escalante moved to Sacramento, California, where he became a teacher at Hiram Johnson High School.