Jaime Escalante: a teacher with ganas

Teachers often don’t get all the credit they deserve.


But one teacher, Jaime Escalante, represented the best of what a teacher can be and how a teacher can motivate his students.

Escalante taught students in the barrio of East Los Angeles to do advanced math and calculus, and his amazing work was chronicled in the 1988 movie “Stand and Deliver” starring Edward James Olmos.

Escalante, 79, died this week from cancer.

He taught AP calculus to students who were low-income, whose parents were immigrants or laborers, and most did not have a high school education.

In 1987, more than one-quarter of all Mexican-Americans students who passed the AP calculus exam were from Garfield High School, where Escalante taught, according to Jay Mathews, education columnist for The Washington Post who followed Escalante and his students.

There also was a great obituary by reporter Claudio Sanchez on National Public Radio and a television report by George Lewis of NBC News. Lewis reports that some of Escalante’s former students now work for NASA or a college professors.

The accomplishments that Escalante made with his students were so surprising  that 14 of his students were accused of cheating on the AP exam by the Educational Testing Service. I guess they couldn’t believe that low-income Latino students were smart enough to pass the test.

Twelve of them retook the exam and they passed it again. And they did even better than the first time.

Escalante, who born in Bolivia, didn’t have a magic teaching formula. He simply made his students come in after school and on weekends to do extra homework. He pushed them and their parents.

He had a philosophy that he summed up with one word ganas.

There’s isn’t a direct translation into English. But to do something with ganas means to do so enthusiastically with determination, discipline, the willingness or desire to succeed.

I know there are many teachers today pushing their students to echale ganas or to go for it.

Still, nearly one in four Hispanic students drop out of high school, according to 2007 data from the U.S. Census. But in 1980 the dropout rate for Hispanics was at 40 percent. So it’s improving.

I hope Escalante can be an example for all of us. We need more teachers, principals, parents, students and school administrators with the ganas to succeed.

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