Escalante was born to two teachers of Aymara ancestry on December 31, 1930 in La Paz, Bolivia. He was proud of his Aymara heritage and as an adult would proudly proclaim “The Aymara knew math before the Greeks and Egyptians”. He taught mathematics and physics for 12 years in his mother country before immigrating to the USA. After immigrating, “he had to work many odd jobs, teach himself English and earn another college degree before he could return to the classroom.” In 1974, he began teaching at Garfield High School. Escalante was initially so disheartened by the lack of preparation of his students that he called his former employer and asked for his old job back. Escalante eventually changed his mind about returning to work when he found 12 students willing to take an algebra class.
Shortly after Escalante came to Garfield High, its accreditation became threatened. Instead of gearing classes to poorly performing students, Escalante offered AP Calculus. He had already earned the criticism of an administrator who disapproved of his requiring the students to answer a homework question before being allowed into the classroom. “He told me to just get them inside,” Escalante reported, “but I said, there is no teaching, no learning going on”. Determined to change the status quo, Escalante had to persuade the first few students who would listen to him that they could control their futures with the right education. He promised them that the jobs would be in engineering, electronics and computers but they would have to learn math to succeed. He said to his students “I’ll teach you math and that’s your language. With that you’re going to make it. You’re going to college and sit in the first row, not the back, because you’re going to know more than anybody”.
The school administration opposed Escalante frequently during his first few years. He was threatened with dismissal by an assistant principal because he was coming in too early, leaving too late, and failing to get administrative permission to raise funds to pay for his students’ Advanced Placement tests. This opposition changed with arrival of a new principal, Henry Gradillas. Aside from allowing Escalante to stay as a math teacher, Gradillas overhauled the academic curriculum at Garfield, reducing the number of basic math classes and requiring those taking basic math to concurrently take algebra. He denied extracurricular activities to students who failed to maintain a C average and new students who failed basic skill tests. One of Escalante’s students remarked about him, “If he wants to teach us that bad, we can learn.”
Escalante continued to teach at Garfield, but it was not until 1978 that Escalante would instruct his first calculus class. He hoped that it could provide the leverage to improve lower-level math courses. To this end, Escalante recruited fellow teacher Ben Jiménez and taught calculus to five students, two of whom passed the A.P. calculus test. The following year, the class size increased to nine students, seven of whom passed the A.P. calculus test. By 1981, the class had increased to 15 students, 14 of whom passed. Escalante placed a high priority on pressuring his students to pass their math classes, particularly advanced calculus. He rejected the common practice of ranking students from first to last and instead frequently told his students to press themselves as hard as possible in their assignments.
During the mid-1990s, Escalante became a strong supporter of “English-only” education efforts. In 1997, he joined the “English for Children” initiative, which was a campaign against bilingual education in California schools. In 2001, after many years of preparing teenagers for the A.P. calculus exam, Escalante returned to his native Bolivia. He lived in his wife’s hometown, Cochabamba, and taught at Universidad Privada del Valle. He returned to the United States frequently to visit his children. As of March 2010, he faced financial difficulties from the cost of his cancer treatment. Cast members from Stand and Deliver, including Edward James Olmos, and some of Escalante’s former pupils, raised funds to help pay for his medical bills.
Jaime Escalante moved to Sacramento, California, to live with his son in the city of Rancho Cordova. He taught at Hiram Johnson High School, a school very similar to Garfield High School. He died on March 30, 2010, aged 79, at his son’s home while undergoing treatment for bladder cancer. He is survived by his wife Fabiola and his sons Fernando and Jaime Jr. On Thursday April 1, 2010 a memorial service honoring Escalante was held at the Garfield High School where he taught from 1974 to 1991. Students observed a moment of silence on the front steps of the East L.A. campus. Another tribute to Escalante occurred in Portland, OR, as an unnamed artist renamed a street “N Jaime Escalante Ave” in tribute.
A wake was held on April 17, 2010 in the lecture hall at Garfield High School where he taught calculus. On Saturday, May 22, 2010, the California State University, Los Angeles chapter of Golden Key International Honour Society (GKIHS) honored Jaime Escalante by awarding him honorary membership at the New Member Recognition Ceremony. The award was accepted on behalf of the Escalante family by actress Vanessa Marquez, who appeared in the film Stand and Deliver, and LAUSD educator Elsa Bolado, who was a member of that first calculus class. Escalante is buried at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier Lakeside Gardens, Burial Section 18, Burial lot 3914, Grave 3, entrance 10. His date of death is March 30, 2010.
- December, 31, 1930
- La Paz, Bolivia
- March, 30, 2010
- Roseville, California
Cause of Death
- bladder cancer
- Rose Hills Memorial Park
- Whittier, California