After the events of summer 1982, when Jaime Escalante's Advanced Placement Calculus students were accused of cheating and then vindicated on a re-test, Escalante had become famous first in local and then national news. The original story about an American institution, ETS, allegedly discriminating based on race to accuse the latino students of cheating, turned into a story of surprise and applause as an "academic sinkhole" like Garfield High managed to have such a large number of students taking AP Calculus.
The events of 1982 inspired a film about Jaime Escalante, Stand and Deliver, which spread his fame to an even wider audience. But the film came too early. In the years following 1982, calculus at Garfield High continuedto grow with the same momentum, reaching ever greater heights. After the 18 students taking the exam in 1982, there were 33 in 1983, a whopping 68 in 1984 (more than double the previous year!), and two years later, in 1986, a staggering 151 students took the test, more than eight times as many as in the year that brought Escalante fame.
While AP Calculus was in overdrive, other AP programs also began to thrive. Garfield High now offered Advanced Placement courses in History, English, Biology, Physics, French, Government, and Computer Science, with a growing number of students taking these year on year.
Within twelve years, Garfield High had transformed from a gang-ridden hole on the brink of being shut down, to an academic beacon with a waiting list of 400 students. It is truly a story worth telling.
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After a short time working at Garfield High School, Jaime Escalante was asked to take over Advanced Placement calculus. Advanced Placement is a type of examination which offers "college credit", meaning that those who pass have a reduced number of courses that they need to take to get a degree. It's a hard exam, basically.
Escalante wasn't sure about the programme at first, but soon became keen to take it over and expand it. He felt that it gives an objective view of his work and that of his students, and gives them something to strive towards and be competitive about.
Escalante worked hard to push his students. He used every tactic he could think of, from bribes to threats to guilt trips; and he extended study time to before school, after school, lunchtime, and summer break. He worked so hard that one day he had a heart attack, and worked right through it. This story did much to add to his mystique.
The calculus classes expanded: first 5, then 8, then 15, and in 1982 there were 18. That was a fateful year, when his students would be accused of cheating by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). The accusation would draw attention to this burgeoning calculus programme in what all had assumed to be an academic backwater, and national fame followed. But Escalante would not rest on his laurels.
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In 1974, Garfield High School got a new principal (headmaster) in the form of Alex Avilez. The school was in turmoil, with a major gang presence, and a police presence to help combat the gang presence. It was noisy, with music blaring from "dozens" of radios; fights broke out often; truancy was rampant; and the dropout rate was 50%.
Avilez's core belief was in people's fundamental goodness. He was excited about young people and about human potential, and wanted to aim for a peaceful Garfield High in which everyone loved one another. The way to achieve this, he decided, was to treat the students as the adults they were about to become. He registered the gangs with the school, placed their insignia in prominent locations, and negotiated with gang leaders to preserve decorum and reduce violence.
Possemato was principal after Avilez. Together with Gradillas, he had a very different approach to discipline at the school. Although Gradillas believed that every child knows the difference between right and wrong, he felt that this sense was often deeply buried, and the way to get the best out of adolescents often involved pushing their buttons and riling them up emotionally. He would physically take down students being a danger to others, accuse liars of being cowards, and tell parents that they were sorry that their children had no respect for them.
The difference in the effectiveness of these two approaches was stark. One almost plunged the school into an abyss, while the other saved it from closing. It is an important part of the Garfield High story that doesn't get told as much as Escalante's calculus teaching, and yet was essential to its success.
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One of the main lessons from the story of Jaime Escalante's career at East LA's Garfeild High School was that it was ultimately a team effort to reach the academic level that the school eventually did. Apart from Escalante himself, there are two figures who stand out as central to the story: Henry Gradillas and Benjamin Jimenez.
Gradillas joined Garfield High as a biology teacher after six years in the US army and a short stint as an orchard manager. He saw clear similarities between the young people in his classroom and those who he had been training as an army captain - they were only slightly younger, and they had similar needs, desires, and problems. He would later be promoted to Dean of Discipline and finally Principal (Headmaster) of Garfield High, positions in which he would help deal with Escalante's problem students, and provide him with the resources he needed to make the Advanced Placement Calculus courses a success.
Jimenez was one of the other mathematics teachers at Garfield. Impressed with Escalante's classes, he became an apprentice and later collaborator and ally to Escalante. He would go on to run many of the courses preparing students for a the rigours of calculus, and would run some of the calculus classes themselves when the program grew above 100 students. Without Jimenez, Escalante would be left with only uninterested teachers and active enemies in his department, and too much work for one individual to carry out.
Escalante himself needs much less introduction, famous as he is. The title of the book is Escalante: The Greatest Teacher in America after all. The book goes into more detail about his background than those of the others. The most interesting thing we hear about his background is how he struggled as a beginning teacher, and the teachers that he admired as he went through his training. It is enlightening to see what his early influences were in terms of his approach to teaching.
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Jaime Escalante was a Bolivian teacher who came to Los Angeles in the 1960s. After joining the chaotic failing school Garfield High as a mathematics teacher in 1974, he soon began an Advanced Placement Calculus program that grew to an unheard of size for such a disadvantaged community.
In 1982, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which wrote and marked the tests, suspected Garfield High students of cheating. This led to interest from the media and later fame for Escalante as people started to take notice of what was happening at the school. Soon after, the film Stand and Deliver was produced based on Escalante's success up to that point, starring Edward James Olmos in the leading role.
However, even this film did not capture the scale of the success at Garfield High, as it came too early. After 1982, the number of students at the school taking AP Calculus continued to climb to stratospheric heights, from 18 in 1982 - already unbelievable to most, hence the media attention - to 33 in 1983, 68 in 1984, and an eye-watering 151 in 1986. Other AP programs also took off, including History, Government, English, Physics, and Computer Science.
How did all this happen? What is Escalante's secret? These are pressing questions, as they could lead to a better understanding of how to motivate and teach students, as well as how to turn a failing school around.
This book is written as a story, and so the themes and key lessons from it have to be disentangled from the narrative. We will be looking at it in four parts:
There are several lessons to take from the story of Escalante and Garfield High. I hope you enjoy learning from this exceptional case study as much as I have.
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