Math Teacher’s Health Fails, Legacy Earns Winning Grade

Back in 1974, when math teacher Jaime Escalante arrived at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles he was disheartened: the troubled school held the record for underachievement. But in the years that followed Escalante would turn several students into calculus whizzes and Garfield became one of the four highest ranking public schools with advanced-placement calculus students. Escalante's achievements were so astonishing that in 1988, they were the basis for the film "Stand and Deliver." Last week, news broke that Escalante is very ill, battling cancer, at a treatment center in Reno, Nevada. Host Michel Martin gets an update with Los Angeles Times staff writer Esmeralda Bermudez.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, in talking about these big issues of national education policy it can be easy to overlook the hard work of individual teachers. Back in 1974, math teacher Jaime Escalante arrived at James A. Garfield Senior High School in East Los Angeles, which had all the usual markers of a troubled urban school: high drop out rates, low achievement. Escalante began teaching calculus and was so successful that Garfield High became one of the public schools with the highest number of students enrolled in advance placement calculus.

Now if all this sounds vaguely familiar, then it's probably because you remember the 1988 film, "Stand and Deliver," starring Edward James Olmos in the lead role. Today, Jaime Escalante is far away from the classrooms of Garfield High. He's very ill and battling cancer at a treatment center in Reno, Nevada.

Los Angeles Times staff reporter Esmeralda Bermudez recently visited him, and she is with us now at NPR - from NPR West to tell us about it. Esmeralda, thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. ESMERALDA BERMUDEZ (Staff Writer, Los Angeles Times): Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: I just want to play a short clip from the film just so that people remember who it is that we're talking about. And here it is, and this is from a clip in which Jaime Escalante is responding to a belligerent student who gave him the - what we'll call the one-fingered salute. Let's call it that. Here it is.

Ms. BERMUDEZ: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of movie, "Stand and Deliver")

Mr. EDWARD JAMES OLMOS (Actor): (As Jaime Escalante) Odele, come on, a negative two plus two equals? Anybody can do it. Fill the hole. Minus two plus two equals? Come on, just fill the hole. You can do it. You're going to let these burros laugh at you? Minus two plus two equals? I'll break your neck like a toothpick. Odele.

Mr. LOU DIAMOND PHILLIPS (Actor): (As Angel) Zero.

Mr. OLMOS: (As Jaime Escalante): Zero. You're right. Simple. That's it. Minus two plus two equals zero. He just filled the hole. Did you know that neither the Greeks nor the Romans were capable of using the concept of zero? It was your ancestors, the Mayas, who first contemplated the zero, the absence of value. True story. You burros have math in your blood.

MARTIN: So, Esmeralda, you found out that I think a lot of people still remember Jaime Escalante and still remember that film, but you think back at the high school, at Garfield there is very little - there is very little trace of him. You say his name is rarely mentioned, there is really no recognition of him. Why is that?

Ms. BERMUDEZ: You know, it's sort of a mystery. I talked to the assistant principal - one of the assistant principals at length about this. And he was there. He actually, I think he graduated, I want to say maybe in the 80s or so. So, he was there when Jaime Escalante was there. He was aware of his reputation. But as I mentioned in the story, when Mr. Escalante left the school it was - there was a lot of discord. There was a lot of - he says a lot of jealousy, a lot of politics that he didn't want to get involved with.

And a lot of the teachers apparently had - were resentful of the fact that he had his copy machine, from what I understand at some point he had his own secretary. He was getting lots of funding from different companies. And it seems from what assistant principal told me that it's possible that some of that resentment still lingers till this day. There are a few of his students who teach there and not very many were really, you know, willing or eager to talk about him.

MARTIN: Why not? Why do you think that is?

Ms. BERMUDEZ: It's one of the things that the assistant principal mentioned to me over and over was we - we're moving on. We have much - you know, other things to focus on at this point. We're really busy with other things. We can't - this is - this - the movie only lasted so long was something he mentioned to me, and you can't keep this battle cry going and going.

Eventually, students are going to get fed up with it. And he just - his name, you know, if you walk around through the campus, you're really not going to see anything. And his classroom, it's a nondescript building. If you weren't for the sign that says his name and the word Ganas, which was his rallying cry to students, you wouldn't notice it.

MARTIN: Hmm. Well, you also mentioned that he is very ill. When you visited with him, you said he doesn't have much time left.

Ms. BERMUDEZ: Right, right. Just a few weeks ago, he had been living in Bolivia for a number of years, and he came to Northern California about six months ago to receive care. And just a few weeks ago, he was told by doctors that he just has a few weeks - a few months at best to live. And he was sent home to his family, and they basically were told to just wait for him to die.

MARTIN: That's sad.

Ms. BERMUDEZ: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You said, in retrospect, he wishes he had never left Garfield High. Why did he leave? And why does he now say he wishes he hadn't?

Ms. BERMUDEZ: This is something one of his best friends told me - Onkelovia Vincentia(ph), who was there visiting Mr. Escalante when I was in Reno - and, you know, it's funny. It's been so many years, but - and he can't speak. His vocal cords have been burned from stomach acids from his various illnesses. And while I was there, this man struggled so hard to just convey that same message that he was conveying at Garfield. He wanted to continue that, and I think it still lives with him very vividly till this day. That was his...

MARTIN: His legacy.

Ms. BERMUDEZ: Exactly - his biggest accomplishment.

MARTIN: Well, that's sad. Well, thank you for keeping us up-to-date on it, even though it is a sad story. Esmeralda Bermudez was kind enough to join us from our studios at NPR West. She's a reporter - a staff reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Esmeralda, thank you so much.

Ms. BERMUDEZ: Thanks a lot.

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