Jaime Escalante (born December 31, 1930) is a professor and teacher of mathematics who gained renown and distinction for his work at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, California in teaching students calculus from 1974 to 1991.
Jaime Escalante was born in La Paz, Bolivia. While living in Bolivia he taught physics and mathematics for nine years. In 1964 he decided to move to the United States. To prepare, he began studying science and mathematics at University of Puerto Rico. Upon moving from Puerto Rico to California Escalante could not speak English and had no valid American teaching credentials. To rectify this he studied at night at Pasadena City College to earn a degree in biology. He took a day job at a computer corporation (Burroughs Corporation), while continuing his schooling at night to earn a mathematics degree at California State University, Los Angeles where he studied calculus under the noted professor Louis Leithold.
In 1974 he began teaching at Garfield High School, in East Los Angeles in Los Angeles County, California. Initially Escalante was so disheartened by the lack of preparation in 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.
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. 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.
Escalante continued to teach at Garfield, but it was not until 1979 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 Jimenez 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.
In 1982, Escalante came into the national spotlight when 18 of his students passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam. The Educational Testing Service found these scores to be suspicious, because all of the students made the exact same math error on problem #6, and also used the same unusual variable names. Fourteen of those who passed were asked to take the exam again. Twelve of the 14 agreed to retake the test and did well enough to have their scores reinstated.
In 1983, the number of students enrolling and passing the A.P. calculus test more than doubled. That year 33 students took the exam and 30 passed. That year Escalante also started teaching calculus at East Los Angeles College.
By 1987, 73 students passed the A.P. calculus AB exam and another 12 passed the BC version of the test. This was the peak for the calculus program. The same year Gradillas went on sabbatical to finish his doctorate with hopes that he could be reinstated as principal at Garfield or a similar school with similar programs upon his return.
1988 saw the release of a book Escalante: The Best Teacher in America by Jay Mathews (ISBN 0-8050-1195-1) and a movie Stand and Deliver detailing the events of 1982. During this time teachers and other interested observers asked to sit in on his classes. Escalante received visits from political leaders and celebrities, including then-President Ronald Reagan and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Escalante has described the film as "90% truth, 10% drama." He stated that several points were left out of the film:
Over the next few years Escalante's calculus program continued to grow but not without its own price. Tensions that surfaced when his career began at Garfield escalated. In his final years at Garfield, Escalante received threats and hate mail from various individuals.
By 1990, he had lost the math department chairmanship. At this point Escalante’s math enrichment program had grown to 400+ students. His class sizes had increased to over 50 students in some cases. This was far beyond the 35 student limit set by the teachers' union and in turn increased criticism of Escalante's work.
In 1991, the number of Garfield students taking advanced placement examinations in math and other subjects jumped to 570. That same year, citing faculty politics and petty jealousies, Escalante left Garfield with Ben Jimenez. Escalante found immediate employment with the Sacramento, California school system.
Angelo Villavicencio took the reins of the program after their departure and taught the remaining 107 A.P. students in two classes for the next year. 67 of Villavicencio’s students went on to take the A.P. exam and 47 passed. Villavicencio’s request for a third class due to class size was denied and the following spring he followed Escalante and quit Garfield.
The math program's decline at Garfield became immediately apparent following the departure of Escalante and other teachers associated with its inception and development. In just a few years, the number of A.P. calculus students at Garfield who passed their exams dropped by more than 80 percent. In 1996, Angelo Villavicencio contacted Garfield’s new principal, Tony Garcia, and offered to come back to help revive the dying calculus program. His offer was politely rejected.
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 part time at the local university. He returned to the United States frequently to visit his children.
As of March 2010, he has faced financial difficulties from his battle with cancer. Cast members from Stand and Deliver, including Edward James Olmos, are currently fundraising to help pay for his medical bills.  He has moved to Sacramento, California, so that he can commute to Nevada for his medical treatments.
"The day someone quits school he is condemning himself to a future of poverty."
"That’s the point. It goes like this: Teaching is touching life."
"One of the greatest things you have in life is that no one has the authority to tell you what you want to be. You’re the one who’ll decide what you want to be. Respect yourself and respect the integrity of others as well. The greatest thing you have is your self image, a positive opinion of yourself. You must never let anyone take it from you."