Tough Exam Near : Bush Just a Distraction at Garfield High
The scene was all too familiar to the students at Garfield High School--the visiting dignitary, the entourage, the crush of cameras and lights, the swarm of reporters.
Weeks ago, they had ceased to be impressed by such displays. But by the time Thursday’s guest arrived, some of them were downright peeved.
This time the visitor was Vice President George Bush, whose campaign stop at this East Los Angeles campus could not have come at a worse time for the students of America’s most celebrated teacher, Jaime Escalante, the new “Rocky” of public education. Escalante’s quest for academic excellence at an inner-city school is being told in theaters across the country in the critically acclaimed film “Stand and Deliver.”
To Escalante and his students, the vice presidential visit is the latest and biggest in a string of distractions as they attempt to prepare for next Friday’s all-important advanced placement calculus test--the toughest high school math exam in the country, and the vehicle for Garfield High’s rise to national prominence. While the film has brought glory to this predominantly Latino high school, it also has brought interruptions--too many of them, some of his most studious pupils say.
And with the glory has come some pain, notably jealousy from other teachers whose efforts have not garnered as much attention. Escalante “is like king of the school,” one student observed, “and other teachers want to overthrow him.”
The object of all the attention said he is overwhelmed by the intense public interest.
“It never entered my mind that I would have this kind of interruption and (so many) people wanting to know the secret formula for (my) success,” said Escalante during an interview this week. “It’s distracting, and the kids are paying for it.”
‘We Didn’t Do Anything’
Shortly after “Stand and Deliver” was released, “cameras were here all the time, (and) for two weeks, we didn’t do anything,” said calculus student Mando Chavez, 18.
During his visit Thursday, Bush apologized for the inconvenience caused by the heavy security. And Alixe Glen, deputy press secretary, stressed that the vice president was not aware that his visit might have been ill-timed.
“He wanted to see the techniques Jaime uses with students and their goals and hurdles,” said Glen, adding that the faculty invited Bush to Escalante’s class. She said, “Jaime made (Bush 1634624544welcome.”
The movie about Garfield’s stunning performance in 1982 on the calculus test established it as an exemplary inner-city school. Beset by gang problems and low expectations for students, and in danger of losing its accreditation six years ago, Garfield now sends 70% of its seniors to college and has the fifth-highest pass rate in the nation--73%--on the advance placement calculus test. Since 1979, the number of students enrolled in calculus has grown from five to 120. This year, Garfield is administering 504 advance placement tests--which enable high school students to earn college credit before they graduate. In all, 17 subjects will be covered, placing Garfield among the most academically rigorous high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which includes such schools as Pacific Palisades and Marshall high schools. Some students will be taking as many as five exams over the next few weeks.
“Garfield is getting the recognition it deserves,” said Mario Calderon, 18, a USC-bound senior and one of Escalante’s advanced calculus students. “I’m glad (Bush) came here, because it adds to the image that Garfield is a success.”
The publicity also has been financially rewarding. Fund-raising efforts tied to the movie and organized by a Los Angeles education foundation have brought in about $30,000, which was divided between a school-wide scholarship fund and the calculus program. In addition, Escalante earned a hefty fee--described as “in the six figures” by a spokesman for Warner Bros., the movie’s distributor--for acting as a consultant to the film makers.
Since the March 10 release of the film, however, the paunchy, bespectacled Escalante has been besieged by news media people and visiting educators who, in this period of national alarm over the quality of public schools, come seeking guidance from the master. Students, meanwhile, have reacted to the attention with a mixture of pride, resentment and reaction to extraordinary pressure.
“It’s good that visitors come and see that we can do math,” said Juan Tovar, a junior taking pre-calculus from Escalante. “But when they take the teacher away to go talk, it takes him away from us.”
And, the movie has heightened already high expectations, adding to the students’ anxiety over doing well on the test and preserving Escalante’s and Garfield’s reputation. “There’s a demand for performance,” Calderon said. “People are saying, ‘Let’s see if (Escalante) really is a miracle worker.’ ”
‘We’re Not Perfect’
Moreover, Garfield Principal Maria Tostado is concerned that the movie may give a lopsided view of Garfield. “We’re not perfect here,” she said. Many students are in need of remedial help, and dropouts and truants are a problem. A tragic reminder of this occurred earlier this week when a student who had ditched class was killed in a motorcycle accident across from the campus during school hours.
In recent weeks, Escalante has been in perpetual motion, traveling to Washington to lunch with President Reagan, to San Diego to accept an award, to UC Berkeley to speak to future teachers, all while he tries to teach five classes, hold after-school study sessions and teach night school twice a week.
His office telephone rings incessantly, adding to the 4-inch stack of unreturned messages on his desk bearing requests of all kinds--for lunch, dinner, interviews, lectures, award ceremonies. It has gotten so bad that, between classes one morning this week, he agreed to videotape a short inspirational message to be shown at an upcoming UC Davis gathering for high school students that he does not have time to attend.
His family and co-workers are concerned that he not overdo it; in 1982, he suffered a heart attack in the midst of helping his students prepare for a calculus exam.
Escalante seems genuinely puzzled by the attention he has received. “People say, ‘You must have some kind of secret.’ But no, it’s nothing. It’s just building confidence (in students). No secret formula. Anybody can do what I do.
‘Attract Their Attention’
“You have to find out what (students) like to do . . . and attract their attention.”
Those who have observed Escalante disagree over whether the kind of talent he displays can be taught to other teachers or is a gift one is born with. The best teachers, experts say, have charisma, love the subject they teach, and are masters of the science and art of teaching. One can be charismatic and not be a good teacher, or one can be a fine teacher but less of a showman.
“The secret is in the teacher,” said Principal Tostado. “Jaime is a master . . . and what Jaime does can be done by other teachers. However, it cannot be done by teachers who look at the clock--not by the 8-to-5 teacher. Jaime is 7 to 7. He is always calling students at home, (asking) why he hasn’t seen them in class. He is always talking to parents. He has a deep sense of true caring. His students know he really does care for them. They say they are working hard not for Jaime but because they want to.”
At the same time, Tostado said, Escalante excels because “he’s worked hard at it. You don’t hit your peak of teaching until after 10 or 11 or 12 years of doing it. Teachers need to do that.”
Tostado, meanwhile, plays down problems of jealousy among colleagues toward Garfield’s star teacher. “It is a very small percentage (of the teachers),” she said. “Out of 172 teachers, five or 10 feel an awful lot of attention has been given to Jaime. It does not reflect the majority of the staff. Ninety-five percent of my teachers are very supportive of Jaime and what he has done for Garfield.”
Make Life Valuable
Alice Petrossian, chairwoman of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which certifies teachers, said what distinguishes Escalante is “a level of communication. What Jaime says to his students is, ‘What I have to say is important for you, not for me. What you do with the information I share with you will help you make something valuable of your life.’ ”
A visit to his classroom provides ample evidence of the Escalante approach.
His lessons are laced with basketball metaphors--a perfect parabola, for instance, is like a sky hook by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Explanations are often followed by gentle repetitions of “Got it? Got it?” to individual students. He often totes a small red velvet pillow around the classroom to deliver a playful sock to students who are not paying attention or who give an incorrect answer. His classroom is decorated with motivational messages, some of which are conveyed in sly ways. For example, he often turns the stereo way up in his office (a favorite song is “We are the Champions” by Queen), which draws students’ attention to the signs hiding the loud speakers. The signs read, “I’ll Be a Success.”
For Bush’s visit, he literally pulled out his bag of tricks, trying on several funny hats, much to the amusement of his students, the vice president and Mrs. Bush. Then, dangling a stick with a yellow string that magically retracted, he asked them what tenet of mathematics this illustrated.
“Slope! Slope! Slope!” they chanted, referring to the trigonometric concept of calculating how much a straight line slants.
“You got it!,” Escalante answered. “You’re the best.”
Later, Bush pronounced his admiration for the students. “If (Escalante) asked me any of the questions he asked you, I wouldn’t have known the answer,” Bush said.
Escalante thrives on the Socratic method of firing questions at his pupils.
Midway through the morning one day earlier this week, he locked one of the classroom doors, muttering something about how it was “going to get bloody” out there. Then Escalante crossed th1696625263storming in.
His students knew the routine: Line up, wait for his questions and pray they knew the answer.
How do you find the area of a parabola? What is the mean value theorem? What is the integration of second squared x? If they gave the wrong answer, they were sent back to the end of the line. If right, he gave them a smile, a playful punch in the arm or a brightly whispered “Ole!” and permission to enter and be seated.
It was Escalante’s way of saying “good morning"--and a good tension-breaker in this most anxious time.
“He knows what he’s doing,” said student Mando Chavez, “and he knows why he does it. When the pressure is on, he tries to balance it, release it, by joking around. He knows we’ll get the work done.”