"All this notoriety, it helps," says Ben Jimenez, a Garfield High School math teacher for 13 years.
The notoriety is the thundering wave of publicity that has come in the wake of "Stand and Deliver," the 1988 film that gave the East Los Angeles high school celebrity status and made another Garfield math teacher, Jaime Escalante, a national hero.
The help has taken a variety of forms. Garfield's success has brought presidential acclaim for the school's dedicated faculty, especially Escalante. It has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate and private foundation funds, primarily for innovative extracurricular programs directed by Escalante. And, not least important to Jimenez and his colleagues, an ever-growing number of Garfield students are clamoring to enroll in the school's college-level advanced placement courses.
The film chronicles Escalante's extraordinary success in teaching college-level calculus in the barrio school and his 18 students' steely grace under pressure when, in 1982, the New Jersey-based Educational Testing Service, which administers the exams nationally, suspected 14 of Escalante's students of cheating.
The students were vindicated by excellent performances on a second test, taken by 12 of them on short notice during the summer. All 12 passed. The other two had already left Southern California, one for Columbia University and one for the Air Force.
According to faculty members, the movie boosted community pride in the 99% Latino school, many of whose students come from low-income families for whom English is not a first language. But, they say, teacher and student morale on campus had been climbing for years before "Stand and Deliver" hit the screen.
Although the film may have implied that Escalante single-handedly blazed the trail to Garfield's advanced placement glory, John Bennett, the school's advanced placement director since 1977, says, "The basic program was in motion. Escalante was a very valuable spark. He lit the fuel that was already there."
Other teachers agree with Bennett and say that the school was--and is still--transforming itself. Last year, for example, 119 students sat for advanced placement calculus exams. And 443 advanced placement exams, which can earn students college credit, were given in 13 subjects to 298 students--impressive numbers for any school.
Despite the spectacular achievements it has gained in teaching college-level courses and giving advanced placement exams to record numbers of minority students, Garfield must continue to fight a high dropout rate and other problems that plague inner-city schools.
In 1975, the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges declared the gang-ridden, academically impoverished institution the worst high school in the district and threatened it with loss of accreditation.
Today, in addition to enjoying a safe and attractive campus, Garfield has much to boast about.
Last year the school had a greater proportion of seniors complete the basic curriculum requirements demanded by the University of California than did 71% of all schools statewide, according to the state Department of Education. In completion of those requirements, Garfield ranked in the top 10% of schools with student bodies of comparable socioeconomic status. And, according to principal Maria Elena Tostado, 80% of last year's graduating class entered a college or university.
The advanced placement program is clearly the jewel in Garfield's academic crown.
According to Tostado, "The whole AP program has become a cult here. It happens to be the tool that was chosen by our teachers to measure academic growth."
The change in attitude that enabled the growth to occur, many say, was inspired by Henry Gradillas, Garfield's principal from 1981 to 1986.
"He identified the strong teachers in all the departments and asked, 'What do you need from me?' " says Carlos Jimenez, a teacher of government and Mexican-American literature. In most cases, they got it, says Bennett, the advanced placement program coordinator who also teaches history and government.
Many teachers believe that Gradillas in a sense gave them permission to have high expectations of their students.
Gradillas recalls that before the faculty and students adjusted to academic achievement as the norm, "everyone came up with reasons why our kids couldn't go to college: too many kids in the family, no quiet place to study, no encyclopedias in the home--they gave me a list. Everyone--kids, parents, teachers--believed it was because the kids were Latino.
"The fact was we weren't giving the upper-level classes, like physics and chemistry, that the best Anglo schools were giving. I knew we had a faculty that could change the curriculum, but they hadn't been given a chance."
Escalante, for one, seized the chance by training his "team" of students for the ultimate competition: the advanced placement calculus exam. "Many American students are not prepared for college life," Escalante says. "They pick the easy classes. They skip the challenge. And we, the teachers, accept that.
"You must emphasize academics," Escalante stresses, pounding away at his favorite theme, "or you're not preparing these kids for the future."
Gradillas approves of Escalante's maverick teaching methods, and he is equally quick to laud others for their innovation and devotion to teaching.
He praises a team-teaching technique devised by history teacher Tom Woessner and English teacher Dennis Campagna that honed verbal skills and boosted advanced placement history scores from a lackluster 53% to a near-70% passing rate in a year.
And Gradillas staunchly defends his emphasis on advanced placement classes and exams. Taking the exams in competition with students nationwide means full participation in the American system, he insists.
Unfortunately, teachers acknowledge, only about 10% of Garfield's students participate in the growing academic program that leads to advanced placement course work.
Woessner, the history teacher, says, "If you're talking about the average student, the school hasn't changed much." He cites this year's California Assessment Program test scores in reading and math, which place Garfield students in the bottom 7% in the state, a problem that has not improved substantially in recent years.
According to the state Department of Education, Garfield loses close to 40% of its students over a three-year period--a grim statistic that has remained static in recent years.
Tostado hopes to lower that number. She reports that an experimental program funded by Coca Cola has been 100% successful in keeping a group of 350 students, identified early in 10th grade as likely dropouts, at Garfield through graduation.
"For the problems that we face, we do well," Woessner said.
Bennett believes that quality education for average Garfield students can develop the same way that the advanced placement program did.
"We should get the teachers together and brainstorm," Bennett said. "With AP, teachers made the program. There's a core of dedicated teachers here. Escalante's one of them. There are plenty of others."