Teacher Portrayed in 'Stand And Deliver' Dies

The Bolivian-born math teacher who surprised the education establishment by teaching students in a tough Los Angeles high school to master calculus and other higher math courses has died. Jaime Escalante was 79. His inspiring story gained fame in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver but in later years he struggled to duplicate his earlier successes.

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Jaime Escalante was a math teacher, but he taught more than calculus in an East Los Angeles classroom. He taught inner city students from some of L.A.'s toughest neighborhoods to see themselves differently.

The Bolivian-born math teacher was the subject of the 1988 hit film "Stand and Deliver," which showcased his story and his gift for teaching. Escalante died yesterday after a long battle with cancer. He was 79. NPR's Claudio Sanchez has this appreciation.

Mr. JAIME ESCALANTE (Teacher): My assignment, it was not just to teach mathematics. It was to teach discipline and responsibility.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: That's Jaime Escalante the last time I interviewed him several years ago in Washington, D.C., where he was giving a speech as part of a national campaign called No Excuses.

For 20 years, the Bolivian-born Escalante taught calculus and advanced math at Garfield High School in one of east L.A.'s most notorious barrios, a place where poor, hardened street kids were not supposed to master mathematics -certainly not algebra, trigonometry, calculus. But Escalante believed that a teacher should never, ever let a student give up. So I asked him what kept you from giving up.

Mr. ESCALANTE: You have to love the subject you teach. And you have to love the kids and make them see that they have a chance, opportunity, in this country to become whatever they want to.

SANCHEZ: And to make it, Escalante often said, you need ganas, Spanish for desire and drive. Ganas was Escalante's battle cry, not just in motivating his students but every time he chided apathetic administrators and jaded teachers. The movie "Stand and Deliver" captures the tension perfectly in this scene, when Escalante, played by Edward James Olmos, makes an announcement at a faculty meeting.

(Soundbite of movie, "Stand and Deliver")

Mr. EDWARD JAMES OLMOS (Actor): (as Jaime Escalante) I want to teach calculus next year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) Boy, that's a joke.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As character) That's ridicules. Our kids can't handle calculus. We don't even have the books.

SANCHEZ: Escalante would later say that "Stand and Deliver" was 90 percent truth, 10 percent drama. His biggest complaint was that the movie left the impression that his students, most of whom were struggling with multiplication tables, mastered calculus overnight.

Fact is, Escalante's kids ate, slept and lived mathematics. They arrived an hour before school and stayed two, three hours after school. Escalante drilled them on Saturdays and made summer school mandatory. Some parents hated it and they let Escalante know it.

(Soundbite of movie, "Stand and Deliver")

Unidentified Man#2 (Actor): (As character) Bring us a couple of beers, please.

SANCHEZ: In this scene, Escalante shows up at a family restaurant owned by the parents of one of his brightest students, Ana. Her father had pulled her out of Escalante's calculus class so that she could work more hours at the restaurant. Escalante tries to change his mind.

(Soundbite of movie, "Stand and Deliver")

Mr. OLMOS: (as Jaime Escalante) Ana can be the first one in your family to graduate from high school, go to college.

Mr. JAMES VICTOR (Actor): (as Mr. Delgado) Thank you for your concern. Her mother works here, her sisters, her brothers. This is a family business. She's needed.

SANCHEZ: But she could be a doctor instead of wasting her life waiting tables, Escalante insists. Anna's father is insulted.

(Soundbite of movie, "Stand and Deliver")

Mr. VICTOR: (as Mr. Delgado) I started washing dishes for a nickel an hour, now I own this place. Did I waste my life?

SANCHEZ: He kicks Escalante out of the restaurant, but the math teacher's message sinks in and Ana returns to her calculus class. Escalante's remarkable success at Garfield High got lots of attention, not all of it good. In 1982, all 18 of Escalante's advanced math students passed the calculus AP, or advanced placement test, a really tough college-level exam. The test maker, though, accused the students of cheating. Escalante accused the test maker of racism. The students retook the test and passed again with pretty high scores. It brought the story to the attention of Hollywood and catapulted Escalante onto the public stage after "Stand and Deliver" came out in 1988.

By 1991, 600 Garfield students were taking advanced placement exams, not just in math, but in other subjects - unheard of at the time. That year though, Escalante resigned, in part, because he was tired of the run-ins with fellow teachers who viewed him as a prima donna.

Years later, it pained Escalante to hear parents complain that Garfield's math curriculum had been dumbed-down. Still, the last time we spoke, he only wanted to talk about the fond memories he had of Garfield High. How do you want people to remember you, I asked him.

Mr. ESCALANTE: The only thing I could say, to be remembered as a teacher, picturing that potential everywhere.

SANCHEZ: You can't be a good teacher unless you see the potential in every student, he said. He believed this to his core. That's why Jaime Escalante was a great teacher.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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Students 'Stand And Deliver' For Former Teacher

Jaime Escalante is seen here teaching math at Garfield High School in California in March 1988. i i

hide captionJaime Escalante is seen here teaching math at Garfield High School in Los Angeles in March 1988. Many of Escalante's former students are raising money to help pay for their teacher's medical costs as he battles bladder cancer.

AP
Jaime Escalante is seen here teaching math at Garfield High School in California in March 1988.

Jaime Escalante is seen here teaching math at Garfield High School in Los Angeles in March 1988. Many of Escalante's former students are raising money to help pay for their teacher's medical costs as he battles bladder cancer.

AP

The lawn in front of Garfield High School in East Los Angeles was sodden from the morning's rain. But the weather didn't dampen the enthusiasm of many Garfield graduates, who came from all over Los Angeles and beyond to show their support for their former teacher, Jaime Escalante.

Escalante's former students recently learned he is in the end stages of bladder cancer that has spread throughout his body. The medical costs have depleted Escalante's savings, and the students are determined to help out.

'Barrio Kids'

To the astonishment of the outside world, Escalante taught many of these returning graduates math — advanced math, like trigonometry and calculus.

Garfield educates some of Los Angeles' poorest students, many of them from immigrant families, and many of whom never conceived of college as a possibility. But Escalante did.

The Bolivian-born teacher believed math was the portal to any success his students could achieve later in life. So before school formally began, and after school ended, his door was open for extra help. And the students came on weekends and worked through holidays to prepare for the hardest exam of all — the Advanced Placement calculus exam.

"It was hard," says Mark Baca, who now works with a Los Angeles nonprofit. "But he changed the minds of people all over the world about barrio kids."

Escalante's barrio kids became stars, exemplars of what can happen when knowledge-thirsty kids with ganas — a deep desire — to succeed combine with a dedicated teacher with ganas for their success.

"Everything we are, we owe to him," says Sandra Munoz, an attorney who specializes in workers' rights and immigration cases in East Los Angeles. She was not originally an Escalante student.

At the Garfield fundraiser, former students and community members sign a banner for Escalante. i i

hide captionAt the Garfield fundraiser, former students, parents and community members pen fond messages to the teacher the kids nicknamed "Kimo," a play on The Lone Ranger's moniker Kemosabe.

Karen Grigsby Bates/NPR
At the Garfield fundraiser, former students and community members sign a banner for Escalante.

At the Garfield fundraiser, former students, parents and community members pen fond messages to the teacher the kids nicknamed "Kimo," a play on The Lone Ranger's moniker Kemosabe.

Karen Grigsby Bates/NPR

"But that's what he'd do," she says. "He'd see someone and decide they needed to be in his class. So he pulled me out my sophomore year and put me in his class, and I took math with him. He would teach anybody who wanted to learn — they didn't have to be designated gifted and talented by the school."

Munoz's cousin also ended up an Escalante student, and he was still learning English.

After-Hours Tutoring

Escalante tutored his students until late at night, piled them into his minivan and brought them home to their parents, who trusted Escalante in ways they never would other teachers.

"My mother used to stay up," says Arícelí Lerma, an attorney. "Not to check up on him, but to bring him a plate of food because she knew how hard he was working!"

Escalante, whose students mischievously nicknamed him "Kimo" (a play on The Lone Ranger's Kemosabe moniker), would not only work with his students until they were all ready to drop from exhaustion, he employed them in the summers as tutors. And he showed them that the best colleges in the country were not beyond their reach.

Lerma reels off a partial list of where she and other Escalante students from the class of 1991 went: Occidental, Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, MIT, Wellesley.

Dolores Arredondo, who is now a bank vice president went to Wellesley. She said that one year, Escalante appeared at the Pachanga celebration for Latino students that the Ivy League and Seven Sisters colleges held on the East Coast. It was a home-style Thanksgiving for those who couldn't afford to fly home.

"Someone told me they'd asked Mr. Escalante to speak, and he did," Arredondo says. "Not only did he come, he came with a suitcase full of tamales made in East L.A." A thoughtful taste of home for students who hadn't been there in a while.

Giving Back To 'Kimo'

Now, even though he hasn't asked for it, Escalante is getting his old students' help.

Dolores Arredondo, left, and Alicia Becerra look over their 1991 yearbook from Garfield High School. i i

hide captionDolores Arredondo (left) and Alicia Barrera look over their 1991 yearbook from Garfield High School. "Even if you weren't his student, he would always ask you, 'How're you doing in trig? What’s happening with your grades?'" Arredondo says.

Karen Grigsby Bates/NPR
Dolores Arredondo, left, and Alicia Becerra look over their 1991 yearbook from Garfield High School.

Dolores Arredondo (left) and Alicia Barrera look over their 1991 yearbook from Garfield High School. "Even if you weren't his student, he would always ask you, 'How're you doing in trig? What’s happening with your grades?'" Arredondo says.

Karen Grigsby Bates/NPR

Actor Edward James Olmos, who received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Escalante in the 1988 hit movie Stand and Deliver, is spearheading an effort to support Escalante and his family in what looks to be the teacher's final days.

"Yes, he's dying," Olmos says. "We all will, eventually. But what we want is to die in comfort and dignity, with our loved ones around us. After all that Kimo has done for us, it's the least we can do."

Back at Garfield, more people stream onto the school's lawn to sign a big banner that will be sent to Escalante. He is staying with his son, Jaime Jr., in Sacramento, Calif., so he can commute to Reno, Nev., for medical treatment.

As a Bolivian band plays in homage to Escalante's birth country, some people write checks or contribute cash. And drivers and passers-by stuff money into buckets shaken by two Garfield mascots — 6-foot felt bulldogs.

At the end of the day, the former students have raised almost $17,000, a sign that Escalante's kids and the community he made so proud were ready to stand and deliver for him.

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