One step inside and it’s clear. We’re in a master’s domain.
There are no other classrooms like this at Hiram Johnson High School. The personal Xerox machine, the soft carpet and oversized steel desks, a slick stereo that purrs Puccini, and walls covered with movie posters and other hip banners. The room is extra large, with an air conditioner that roars but never enough to drown out the star of the show.
Ladies and gentlemen, give a big welcome to famed math teacher Jaime Escalante.
“I’ll be at the door Monday morning,” he warned students when they couldn’t define a cosine. “You know the answers, you get to come in and watch the show. You don’t know, it’s ‘Have a nice day,’ ” he said in his exaggerated tough-guy tone.
Most of the students love the performance and say Escalante has inspired them to new heights in their studies — not just in algebra, trigonometry or calculus. He’s tutoring an African American student, for instance, who needs help in Spanish.
But the kids are only vaguely aware of this maverick’s latest against-the-grain move to change how California students, particularly minorities and immigrants, are taught.
Escalante, hero to many Latinos for his legendary success in teaching their children complex mathematics — he was immortalized in the 1987 film “Stand and Deliver” — wants to abolish mandatory bilingual education in California public schools. Last month he was named honorary chairman of a statewide campaign to put an initiative on the June primary ballot that would do just that.
“I’ve gotten calls from people saying, ‘How can you do this? You’re supposed to be our leader. How can you do this to our kids?’ ” Escalante explained one recent morning in the specially equipped classroom built for him by the Sacramento City Unified School District. In the middle of the room is a smaller office with one-way glass so visitors and teachers wanting to check him out can watch unobtrusively.
He teaches with all kinds of props and gadgets he has made and collected over the years. He bribes students with doughnuts, calls them affectionate little names like “stoogie” when they don’t respond quickly enough and nurtures them through mathematical formulas most adults would consider rocket science.
“I guess I’m supposed to be in favor of bilingual education, but it makes no sense to me to teach in Spanish,” he said. “I have to use the language people here use, and that is English. That is the language these kids are going to encounter in the world.”
He has received dozens of letters and phone calls accusing him of selling out and forgetting his roots; some callers warn that immigrant kids will be left behind if they aren’t taught in bilingual classrooms. “Mr. Escalante, please reconsider your position on this proposition and announce your decision publicly,” said a plaintive Oct. 17 letter from Sacramentan Manuel LaForm. “Personally, I know many children will be sacrificed if the initiative is enacted.”
Like a good many people of his generation — he is 62 — Escalante, a native of Bolivia, tends to see the world through the lenses of his own life experiences.
He arrived in Pasadena at the age of 33 because his wife threatened to leave him if he didn’t seek a better life for his family by moving to the United States. At first, Escalante was lost. He spoke no English. His first job was mopping the floor in a coffee shop.
He started taking English classes at Pasadena Junior College, and one day his supervisor cornered him with a less-than-enticing offer.
“‘Are you learning the language?’ he asked me. I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ And he said, ‘Good. You are a smart man. You learn English and one day you will be working in the kitchen.’
“I just pictured in my mind once I get the language I will say bye-bye,” Escalante recalled, “because this is not the job for me.”
He spent some time working on computers for an electronics firm, then took a job at a rough East Los Angeles high school known for its rowdy, disadvantaged students and low academic standards. Garfield High School was on the verge of losing its accreditation when Escalante started there in 1974.
Before he left nearly 20 years later, after his constant arguments with other instructors and the local teachers union had escalated past the point of repair, there were only four high schools in the country that had more students taking and passing advanced placement calculus exams. And the school stopped using bilingual education 15 years ago, replacing it with teacher assistants who could help immigrant kids through classes conducted in English, Escalante said.
Escalante said he likes that approach, because he believes it helps non-English-speaking students master the language more quickly than traditional bilingual education. But he has no plan for funding or implementing such a program, and the initiative he supports neither provides for nor prohibits using bilingual teaching assistants.
“Jaime Escalante spent 25 years trying to help out our community, and now we have people claiming he’s a back-stabber, a sellout,” Manuel Campos, one of Escalante’s Garfield High graduates, said last week. “What happened to all those years at Garfield that he did his best to train us?”
Although Campos takes issue with Escalante’s claim that mandatory bilingual education programs actually harm immigrant kids, he does not begrudge him his personal views or involvement in the campaign.
His loyalty is easy to understand. Campos, 29, is a doctoral candidate in engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Next year, he said, he will be one of just 15 Latinos in the nation to get a doctor of engineering degree.
“He’s my inspiration,” Campos said. “He’s my lifetime mentor. One of the reasons I did so well . . . was the training I had with him. I spent three years with him. I find myself defending him a lot on his bilingual stand, but he’s entitled to his view. Not that many people know him like I did. He really changed my life. I’m dedicating my dissertation to him.”
Escalante was lured to Hiram Johnson five years ago by Rudy Crew, then superintendent of Sacramento schools, in hopes he would serve as a model to other teachers and strengthen the high school’s math curriculum. And while Principal Art Benjamin said Escalante has clearly had a positive impact on the students in his classes, for a variety of reasons he has been nowhere near as successful as he was in Los Angeles.
Escalante said vice principals at Hiram Johnson have changed frequently and not supported his efforts to have students stay in his classes at least three years as they progress to harder math. A feud he had with one former vice principal got so nasty the administrator finally sent Escalante a letter apologizing for talking offensively to him, as did a member of the school board.
Then there is the issue of community and parental support. Escalante has received thousands of dollars for equipment and other help from business leaders and the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education, but nearly all from Los Angeles. He used the money to outfit his classroom, and the foundation will soon reissue a 24-part video that has been broadcast on PBS called “Futures” that features Escalante and his teaching methods. But very little financial support, he said, has come from Sacramento.
“The help we get here is Mickey Mouse,” he said in his usually blunt way that tends to rub some people the wrong way. “We don’t have the help we used to have. I have a different kind of success, but not the way I expected it to be.”
Nevertheless, Benjamin, who Escalante said has been very supportive of his work, is glad Escalante is at Hiram Johnson.
“My reading is that he’s doing well and that the students who are in his class are being challenged at a higher level than they would otherwise be,” Benjamin said.
“He has a tremendous focus on the students and being in his classroom. That’s where his strength is. He doesn’t seem to be interested much in what goes on outside. He’s not a member of the staff lounge clique. His focus from dawn to dusk is in his classroom.”
No matter what his politics, his students are clearly engaged. He can leave the classroom for 20 minutes, as he did the other day to participate in a telephone debate about bilingual education for a Spanish-language radio station in Los Angeles, and the kids keep right on working.
He piles on the homework, and they still show up Saturday morning for extra tutoring.
“He’s the greatest,” beamed Diyay Jafari, a 16-year-old junior in Escalante’s trigonometry class. “I picked him instead of being in an honors history class because I actually learn from him. He knows how to keep me interested.
“This stuff is kind of hard and if I didn’t have all the entertainment to keep me focused, I wouldn’t learn it. I know he’s controversial, but that’s who he is.”