MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Back in the late '80s, a dedicated high school teacher in East Los Angeles inspired a hit movie. "Stand and Deliver" was the story of Jaime Escalante, who convinced his students they could do anything with a good education.
Recently, Escalante's family revealed that he's dying of cancer and that he's run out of money. So now, the teacher's many admirers are standing up and delivering for him.
NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports.
Unidentified Man #1: Come on, move on.
(Soundbite of applause)
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: The light drizzle on a recent afternoon didn't dampen the enthusiasm of Garfield's cheerleaders.
Unidentified Group: G-A-R-F-I-E-L-D...
BATES: They shook their pompoms on the street in front of Garfield High and encouraged passersby and drivers to drop donations in buckets held by students dressed as bulldogs, their school's mascot.
Unidentified Group: (Unintelligible).
Unidentified Woman #1: That's Ms. Escalante.
BATES: From the early '80s through 1991, Bolivian-born Jaime Escalante successfully taught calculus and other advanced math classes at Garfield to Latino kids who were routinely written off by society. Mark Baca says, by teaching students like him the rigorous discipline...
Mr. MARK BACA: He changed the minds of people all over the world about barrio kids.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. BACA: But we love Kimo because he was our mentor, he was our teacher, he was our friend, and he motivated us to believe in ourselves.
BATES: And the barrio kids who mastered algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus under Escalante have come back to show their gratitude.
Lawyer Araceli Lerma reels off a partial list of schools that accepted Escalante's students from her 1991 graduating class.
Ms. ARACELI LERMA (Attorney): My classmates, folks went to Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, MIT...
Unidentified Woman #2: Wellesley.
Unidentified Woman #3: Wellesley.
BATES: Escalante's story was immortalized in the motion picture "Stand and Deliver." Edward James Olmos earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Escalante, and the two have remained close ever since.
Now, Olmos is spearheading the effort to help his friend in the final stages of Escalante's illness. Olmos says it's the least they can do for the teacher his kids affectionately nicknamed Kimo, short for kemosabe, he who knows.
Mr. EDWARD JAMES OLMOS (Actor): To say thank you to someone while they're alive is the best way of communicating your love for them.
BATES: What Kimo did for his kids, Olmos says, is hard for people who don't come from here to fully appreciate.
Mr. OLMOS: He started off in a very small inner city school, showed the entire country that these kids that were from intensely difficult environments were capable of handling what he called the great equalizer, which was mathematics.
BATES: Math, Escalante believes, is the portal to understanding almost everything else. If you can figure out the patterns, the logic of math, you can do anything.
Lawyer Sandra Munoz says Kimo ignored labels and classifications like gifted and honors.
Ms. SANDRA MUNOZ (Attorney): The thing about Mr. Escalante is he didn't care whether or not you were designated in the gifted and talented program. He gave opportunities to everybody.
BATES: And as this clip from "Stand and Deliver" shows, he expected them to work for it, even when other kids got time off.
(Soundbite of film, "Stand and Deliver")
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Saturdays? We've got to come on Saturdays, too? And no vacation?
Mr. OLMOS: (As Jaime Escalante) Yup, pass the AP exam and you get college credit.
BATES: What it took was ganas, the desire, the will to do the work.
In a comfortable house in the town of Whittier, classmates Dolores Arredondo and Alicia Barrera are leafing through their Garfield yearbook.
Unidentified Woman #4: It's embarrassing, right? All that hair in the '80s.
BATES: Barrera reads Escalante's inscription.
Ms. ALICIA BARRERA: Remember you are the best, love Jaime, stand and deliver.
BATES: Barrera says that was Kimo's mantra to his students: Work hard, then work harder. You can do this because you are the best, which doesn't mean it'll be simple, he told their class when he spoke at their 1991 graduation.
Mr. JAIME ESCALANTE: You must be ready to work harder than you ever worked before.
Ms. BARRERA: And once we went to college, math wasn't as hard. You know, we were - you know, most of the classes weren't as bad as because they didn't require as much as what he had required from us.
BATES: Barrera's classmate, Dolores Arredondo, is vice president at one of California's largest banks. She becomes visibly emotional about Escalante's legacy.
Ms. DOLORES ARREDONDO: He brought so much pride to the school, to the neighborhood. He even, I think, elevated the standards that other teachers had for themselves.
BATES: She's eager to help the man who she says changed their lives.
Ms. ARREDONDO: That's why I think we all feel this sense of responsibility not just to him but to his family because they shared him with us, and now we got to give back to them.
BATES: And they will. Escalante's former students have the ganas to see that their beloved mentor gets the support he needs.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.