Jaime Escalante, Teacher

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

These days, to be a parent with children in Los Angeles area schools is to live in fear. Fear that it might all go wrong, that your kid might be forgotten, or damaged for life by a bad algebra teacher.

You hear about the libraries being closed, the music and art classes that won't be offered anymore, and the truly crazy cutbacks like doing away with programs for autistic children and others for whom the public schools are everything.

And the teachers -- thousands in the LA Unified District alone –- who are threatened with being cast aside. Fired due to budget cuts, with no respect for which might have the magic touch.

The teacher who saves a shy girl with too much IQ for the room from vanishing into the back row. Whose extra attention steers a gangbanger to the university.

In other words, the next Jaime Escalante.

Escalante, who died this week at age 79, was at one time the most famous high school teacher in America.

His biographer, Jay Mathews, wrote in the Washington Post obituary that Escalante may also have been the most influential American public-school teacher of his generation.

It's a heroic American story, actually. Escalante came to California from Bolivia when he was 33, and needed ten years to learn English and get his state teaching credential.

He took up his new career at a challenging place to teach: Garfield High in East LA.

Just before he arrived, the school was on the verge of losing its accreditation. Students at Garfield tended to be poor and brown, and most didn't expect to go to UCLA or USC.

They sure didn't stay after school to work on advanced calculus problems.

But they came to Jaime Escalante's classroom after school. And on Saturday's, and during the summer.

He had that connection the best teachers strive for, and that parents desperately hope will happen for their child, at least once.

In East LA, Escalante changed the game.

In 1987, more students from Garfield took the Advanced Placement exam for calculus than from all but four American high schools, public or private.

Of the Mexican American students anywhere in the country who passed the exam, a quarter of them were from Garfield.

Perhaps more important, expectations were raised. Garfield kids now expected to prepare for college, just like the kids at Palisades High or Harvard-Westlake.

Escalante became famous. Mathews wrote his book, and Edward James Olmos got an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Escalante in Stand and Deliver.

His fame and his no-nonsense ways didn't win Escalante a lot of friends among the other teachers. He left Garfield, but he was never forgotten in East LA.

When word got around in recent weeks that Escalante was sick with bladder cancer, and would be coming back from retirement in Bolivia for treatment he could not afford, the family of admirers went to work.

Olmos organized a fundraising campaign through his production company.

Actress Vanessa Marquez, who made her screen debut as Ana Delgado in the movie 22 years ago, videotaped a plea for donations on YouTube.

Escalante, she said, gave hope to an entire community and changed thousands of lives.

His ended on Tuesday, just hours after Olmos drove Escalante from a hospital in Reno to his son's home near Sacramento.

Garfield High has already announced that it will name the school's new auditorium for Escalante.

The next time you pass through the intersection of Wilshire and Alvarado, take a look up.

That's Jaime Escalante's face looking down from a mural, painted on the side of the swap meet building that used to house the Westlake movie theater.

Throw an old teacher a salute.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed


Here are two of the many remembrances to Jaime Escalante:

Kevin Roderick's LA Observed

KCRW's Which Way, LA?

Banner image: Hector Ponce