The power of educational inspiration

By Mike Fox

This past Tuesday, one of the most famous high school teachers passed away due to cancer. Jaime Escalante, whose story many are aware of due to Edward James Olmos’ Oscar nominated portrayal of him in the 1988 film, “Stand and Deliver,” was celebrated for his commitment as a math teacher to inner city Los Angeles youth.

His efforts started when he arrived in the 1970s at Garfield High School, an underperforming and predominately Hispanic neighborhood located in East Los Angeles. The school was performing so poorly that it was in danger of losing its accreditation. The common philosophy surrounding the issue aimed at gearing curriculums towards lower skill sets in math, but Escalante refused. He struggled with the school’s administration to institute an Advanced Placement curriculum.

In the 70s, Advanced Placement curriculums weren’t as common – even in suburban school systems – as today’s program, which seemingly has them ingrained in basic curriculums. He was able to preach the importance of Advanced Placement tests to his students by noting that many high paying jobs have a mathematic focus. A former computer engineer himself, Escalante had an intimate knowledge of the burgeoning fields of the time.

Over the course of the next twenty years, he continued teaching his advanced math classes, believing that each student had just as much potential as the next. He believed the only limit to students’ capabilities was how hard they were willing to work and how much they wanted the grade. Their only limit was their desire – or in Spanish, “ganas.”

Progressively, the results improved. Eventually, they improved so much there was  suspicion of cheating in 1982, when 18 students passed their tests under similar and peculiar circumstances. After most of the students retook the exam, Escalante was absolved.

His strengths were not limited to his ability to motivate students, but also could be found in his belief that teachers should truly care about the wellbeing of their students. Touching on his belief in students and how they were the source of his ability to inspire them, he told National Public Radio in an interview, “You have to love the subject you teach and you have to love the kids and make them see that they have a chance, opportunity in this country to become whatever they want to.”

In 1988, he received a series of accolades, including the aforementioned biopic, a written biography and the reception of the Presidential Medal for Excellence in Education from President Ronald Reagan. By the end of his career at Garfield High, his advanced math program had ballooned to several hundred members.

Towards the end of his life, he suffered financial difficulties due to expensive cancer treatments. He received financial support from his score of past pupils, many of whom are now working in engineering-related fields.

Escalante’s career and life exhibit the highest ideals of education. It lifted people out of dangerous neighborhoods by exposing them to their own abilities. His inspirational tactics were free, and the quality of his educational pursuits was not determined by expense, but by compassion.

Escalante’s power to provoke thought rested in his relentless optimism. He refused to let a lack of resources determine the range of a student’s progress. Most of all, he didn’t judge students because of where they were from. He saw his students as having the same abilities as anyone.

Not all public school systems are as fortunate to be blessed with a figure such as Escalante. However, all public education institutions have the ability to deliver people the same elevating gift Escalante did. That gift is accessible education – the education needed to advance through society with skills determined by commitment, as well as the moral lesson that each individual has potential to succeed.

In present economic times, the quality of public education is endangered. Either governmental priorities are being shifted or resourses are being lost to a seemingly unprecedented scale of graft. In higher education specifically, prices keep rising while discernible improvements in quality aren’t always visible.

Education is becoming politicized, marginalized and sometimes simply forgotten. Our state has a rich history of education that reaches far beyond the prestigious institutions which dominate the rankings.

In the mid 1800s, Horace Mann, a state level bureaucrat, became aware of the elevating impact of education on society. Not just on individuals, but on the overall raising of quality of life and societal success. His studies led to the formation of “normal schools,” the precursors to our current system of organized public education. These “normal schools” fought religious or private domination in basic and higher education under the pretense that this style of education elevates the lives of students and the composition of communities.

Our state and nation would do well not to forget the examples of Escalante and teachings of Mann. America should realize education is the key for both self and societal betterment. After all, as School House Rock once said, “Knowledge is Power!”

Mike Fox is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]