Famed math teacher will now stand aside

In a bittersweet exit, Jaime Escalante is quietly ending his remarkable classroom teaching career that made math whizzes out of hundreds of inner-city teenagers.

Escalante, 66, was immortalized in the 1988 movie “Stand and Deliver,” starring Edward James Olmos. The film chronicled Escalante’s success at inspiring poor Latino students to master Advanced Placement calculus during his years as a teacher in Los Angeles.

For the past seven years, the maverick teacher has been delivering his flamboyant blend of math lessons and life lessons at Hiram Johnson High School, a gritty urban campus in east Sacramento.

On Tuesday, Escalante turned in his formal resignation to Hiram Johnson Principal Arthur Benjamin, saying he planned to retire from teaching after 35 years in the classroom to spend more time training teachers and pursuing other educational opportunities.

What he didn’t say in his letter, however, was what was in his heart: That the limelight — especially during his visible role this past year as a chief promoter of Proposition 227, the anti-bilingual-education measure — had taken a huge toll on himself and his family.

“It’s time to dedicate more time to my family,” Escalante said Tuesday. “And it’s time to step aside and give a chance to other teachers.”

Escalante made his retirement decision two weeks ago at the urging of his wife and two grown sons.

Escalante and his family, he said, were upset by hateful mail and criticism in the media regarding his role as honorary chairman of Proposition 227, the statewide ballot measure approved last week that calls for eliminating most bilingual education programs in California schools.

“The nature of the letters was very negative. They got personal and called him a traitor,” said Escalante’s son, Fernando Escalante, a 28-year-old civil engineer in Sacramento. “I was concerned about his well-being and safety.”

Escalante said his wife, Fabiola, had been urging him since his days in Los Angeles to slow down. During his many years as a teacher, he routinely devoted hours before and after school, during the daily noon hour and on Saturdays to tutor students in math.

“When I finally decided to retire, my wife said, ‘Finally. Finally. I hope this is through now,’ ” Escalante said Tuesday.

Escalante said he plans to step up his involvement in a teacher training project at California State University, Sacramento, as well as in educational efforts in his native Bolivia. He also is contemplating writing a book.

He said he is looking forward to having more time to devote to such interests and his family, but will miss his students deeply. “You get so familiar with them. They feel like your own family, your own sons, your own kids.”

Escalante chose not to tell most of his students he was retiring because he wanted to avoid emotional scenes.

On Tuesday morning, some students picked up on the unusually somber mood of their teacher. You don’t look the same today, one told him. Did you fight with your wife? another asked.

As his teenage proteges filed out of his classroom, he sent them into summertime with his trademark barrage of encouragement: “You guys are great. You’re all the best. You can do this. Don’t ever forget it.”

Professionally, Escalante was somewhat of a loner, preferring to spend his time with students rather than taking part in teacher or campus activities.

His students described him as a tough but caring teacher.

“He demands a lot,” junior Rudy Franco said. “He goes in-depth on the why of things and helps you really understand how things work.”

Across the campus, principal Benjamin reflected on Escalante’s resignation. “I feel a tremendous loss for the students at Hiram Johnson,” the principal said. “He had high standards for all the kids and he never lowered them.”

The state’s superintendent of public instruction, Delaine Eastin, had similar praise for Escalante.

“Everyone who has seen ‘Stand and Deliver’ or has visited his classroom and seen him stand and deliver, has a profound respect for the wonderful impact he has made upon his thousands of students over the years,” Eastin said.

In his seven years at Johnson, Escalante did not achieve the same dramatic results with students that he did at his former high school in Los Angeles. But according to Benjamin and other educators, he made a strong impact at the campus.

At Garfield High School in Los Angeles, Escalante came to fame for encouraging hundreds of students to enroll in Advanced Placement calculus classes. Students who pass the grueling AP tests may receive college credit.

The critically acclaimed “Stand and Deliver” documented Escalante’s experiences in 1982, when his class of inner-city students performed so well on the AP calculus exam that the Educational Testing Service invalidated his students’ scores. In the moving film, the 18 students retook the tests and passed again.

At Hiram Johnson, enrollment in AP calculus during Escalante’s years there — as well as student performance on the exams — has gone up and down, said Annette Manolis, an interim vice principal. Escalante, who taught an assortment of math courses, taught AP calculus during five of his seven years at Hiram Johnson. During those years, nearly all his students took the AP calculus exam — about 14 or 15 each year — and about three-quarters passed each year, he said.

Escalante said he was not able to achieve the same levels of success at Johnson that he did in Los Angeles for several reasons, including a high turnover of vice principals that hampered his ability to build a comprehensive math program.

Another difficulty, he and others said, was connecting with the diverse array of families whose students attend Johnson. At Garfield, Escalante enjoyed smooth communication and an easy rapport with the families of his mostly Latino students. At Hiram Johnson, he found that many parents either didn’t understand or objected to his demanding style and requests that students come for tutoring on weekends.

Escalante also said he found many of the teenagers of the ’90s less motivated and more hardened toward adults and learning than those of a decade ago.

“My father is well beyond retirement age. The job had become a huge challenge for him,” Escalante’s son said. “We told him, there’s no need for you to pull off ‘Stand and Deliver,’ part three or four. You’ve already shown the world what you can do.”

Fernando Escalante said it was difficult for his father to leave the classroom, but that the veteran teacher will never fully give up his life’s calling. “I don’t think he’ll ever stop being a teacher. That would be like asking him to stop breathing. It’s his very nature to teach,” the son said.

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