Jaime Escalante, a Physics and Mathematics teacher from Bolivia, emigrated to the United States in 1964. Although he spoke no English at the time, he enrolled at the Pasedena City College in California and studied until he earned a degree in Electronics. The degree allowed him to get a day job and continue his studies until he earned a second degree in Mathematics.
American teaching credentials in hand, Escalante applied for a job at Garfield High School in East L.A. in 1976. Garfield was a hotspot of drugs, gangs and daily violence. The faculty of the school had given up on trying to help the kids rise above their situation and had very little confidence that they would ever amount to much. Escalante thought differently.
He informed the faculty that he intended to help prepare the kids for the rigorous Advanced Placement (AP) exam for calculus, an exam that would help them earn college credit. The faculty thought he was nuts. When they realized he was serious, they thought he was dangerous. What would it do to these kids to give them the expectation that they might do something with their lives? Many faculty argued that Escalante was setting them up for a huge fall.
But Escalante persevered. As the department chair, he hand-picked teachers and set up feeder classes for underclassmen who would be in his calculus class in years to come. He organized tutoring sessions and set up summer school classes at East Los Angeles College. He worked day and night with the kids all year to prepare them for the test. At one point, an assistant principle threatened to have him fired for coming in too early and keeping the students too late.
Over the next few years, he had modest success with a handful of students taking the tests. But in 1982, the program reached critical mass when 18 of 18 students passed and even surpassed most of the other kids taking the test around the nation. So low were everyone’s expectations of the students that even the Educational Testing Service, which administered the test, thought the students had cheated. In their minds, there was no possible way that some inner-city kids from gang neighborhoods could possibly have learned the material. They invalidated the test scores and made the students retake the test. When the students passed it again, it was impossible to deny them their victory.
By 1991, when Escalante left the school, 570 students were taking AP exams in math and other subjects. AP programs continue strongly today at Garfield with almost 700 tests taken on seventeen different subjects. One man’s stubborn resistance to low expectations changed the self-image of an entire school.
Escalante was a world-class teacher – not because he was smarter than any other but because he believed in the kids when no one else did. He looked beyond the self-fulfilling, limiting beliefs surrounding the students and saw their true potential. He knew that people often live up to or down to your expectations of them, so why not hold high expectations of them and see what they are capable of doing.
Escalante would say that his students had “ganas,” a desire that must emerge from within. True, but that desire is so often kindled by the confident expectation of a leader.