Jaime Escalante, the nation's most famous math teacher, has learned to tolerate occasional disappointments, but ignoring him is perilous. When the father of a truant algebra student failed to return his calls this year, he rang the man at 5 a.m. " I wanted to catch you before you went off to work," he said sweetly to the sputtering parent. The student returned to class.
Five years ago the film " Stand and Deliver" made Escalante a pedagogical celebrity, a public-television star and a friend of President Bush's. Much has changed. He is 61, near retirement age for most educators. The mathematics faculty of Los Angeles's Garfield High, the school he transformed into a national model, long ago turned against him. He has had to fight for grant money despite his success at preparing more students for the Advanced Placement (AP) calculus examinations than do all but a half dozen of the finest American secondary schools.
At Garfield he believed he could raise standards only by being as irritating as possible, and that brought clashes. Last summer, even as he was congratulating a record 147 AP calculus-test takers, he was stewing over his ouster as chairman of the mathematics department, his feud with the teachers' union and a widespread perception he had let Edward James Olmos's riveting film portrayal go to his head. He vowed to start all over again, an exercise in chutzpah that may be as important for educational reformers as it is for Escalante's already considerable self-esteem.
Since last fall he has been prowling the aisles of a remodeled automobile-shop class at Hiram Johnson High, in a blue-collar section of Sacramento, a place very different and very far from 98-percent Hispanic Garfield, in the East L.A. barrio. He is teaching not calculus students but freshmen and sophomores still struggling with arithmetic and algebra. "He's done very well," said Richard Cisneros, the principal this past year. How Escalante performs at Hiram Johnson may answer several intriguing questions about the permanency of his results and the adaptability of his method-the most successful effort so far to teach disadvantaged American children mathematical concepts crucial to modern science and technology. Can he achieve the same success in a different environment? Can Garfield still keep its calculus classes churning with a math department devoid of Escalante and his disciples?
Escalante, who speaks with a thick Bolivian accent, has always taught Hispanic students. At Johnson he faces the first ethnically diverse student body of his career. The school is only 19 percent Hispanic, with the rest of the students non-Hispanic white (31 percent), Asian (30 percent), black (19 percent) and Native American (1 percent). "You have to adjust yourself," Escalante said. " You have to use a different procedure. One of the things I do is combine sometimes one Anglo kid sitting with a kid from a different ethnic group, and they work together." He had a friendly foundation ship him new, larger desks to make this possible.
In each class his new students, who often have some vague knowledge of the character in "Stand and Deliver," have learned the strenuous difference between an entertaining 103-minute movie and an entire year with the real Escalante. He succeeds because he believes that disadvantaged students can do difficult work and because he kindly, if firmly, insists that they do it. He uses visual aids and mind games, and exploits the power of teenage peer pressure by creating the aura of a winning football team preparing for the Big Game-the AP test. At Johnson he has insisted that weak students meet him an hour before school, or for several hours after. When four out of five of the kids on his list failed to show up for these special sessions, he unleashed his favorite weapon--calls to their parents.
Contact between American public-school teachers and parents has so deteriorated in three decades of increasing class loads and two-career marriages that few educators realize what a potent force even the threat of a phone call can be. "I just called at night and said,'I'll be here tomorrow waiting for you at 7 o'clock'," he said. To frustrate excuses about busy signals, Escalante persuaded the school to install two telephones in the office in back of his classroom. Attendance quickly improved.
Back at Garfield, large numbers of students enrolled in calculus last fall despite the departure of both Escalante and his award-winning protege, Ben Jimenez. Angelo Villavicencio, the only remaining Escalante-trained math teacher, said approximately 115 students took the AP calculus examinations in May. That is more than any other school in Los Angeles, but many teachers doubted he could maintain that pace with inexperienced associates and a new year-round, multitrack class schedule.
Villavicencio resigned last month. Other Garfield teachers, he said, only put "numbers and numerical concepts on the board" and lacked "a parental kind of touch." He said the new schedule forced him to beg students to come to class during a six-week vacation in January and February. Principal Maria Tostado rejected his charges and said she expected excellent results from the remaining calculus teachers.
Escalante still lends advice and moral support to the Saturday-and-summer program for students and teachers he established in 1983 at East Los Angeles College. His PBS series on mathematics, science and careers, called "Futures," won a Peabody and 21 other broadcasting and education awards, and will return for a second season. He is preparing a series of calculus workbooks and a paperback version of his PBS special with Bill Cosby, "Math ... Who Needs It?!", which is scheduled to be shown again this fall.
Is Escalante's future bigger than any classroom? Jack Dirmann, whose Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education supports Escalante, thinks his energy can eventually be put to better use than "going out and cracking the whip over five classes a day." But don't tell his students at Johnson, who were warned, as usual, of dire consequences if they were not prepared for his final examination. He is immersed in plans to start an advanced calculus class next year, and appears to be in the middle of a dispute with other Johnson teachers over his idea for a summer class in trigonometry.
" Not everybody likes this. With some people I'm not getting along," he says, understating matters for once in his life. "But," he adds, with the self-satisfied smile of someone who knows there's a whole world out there ready to be awakened at 5 a.m., "I'm used to that."