REGION : Math Workshop Makes the Grade

Three F’s in math in three weeks.

A South Gate High sophomore with otherwise above-average grades, Nancy Ventura never thought she would see the day when she would earn a passing grade on a test in her introductory algebra class.

She could hardly stand it.

So when the Jaime Escalante Math and Science Program began last month at East Los Angeles College’s Southeast Learning Center in Huntington Park, she was the first to sign up.

“Basically I didn’t know how to do anything in that class,” Ventura said, recalling the days before she joined the free 18-week tutoring program made famous by its namesake.

Three weeks into the program, it delivered--she got an A on an exam.

“She always had good grades in her other classes,” said Maricela Ventura, Nancy’s mother. “I didn’t understand why she had so much trouble with math. But after she went to this program, everything changed. Now she is at the top of her class in algebra.”

Through a partnership among the college, the office of Assemblywoman Martha S. Escutia (D-Huntington Park) and Kaiser Permanente, the program opened last month with scarcely four students and two instructors--one for each level of math.

But after just four weeks the number of students has climbed to about 40 in the algebra workshop. The calculus class has maintained a steady five students each session. The program, which has a capacity of 100 students per instructor, is open to youths from Bell, Bell Gardens, Fremont, Garfield, Huntington Park, Jordan and South Gate high schools.

Like Ventura, most students in the program have been referred by their teachers. The only requirement program instructors ask for is what Escalante calls ganas-- desire and ambition.

Made famous through its success at Garfield High in East Los Angeles and recounted in the popular film “Stand and Deliver,” Escalante’s style of teaching is used in the program, which he developed. It offers workshops on algebra, geometry and calculus on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4 to 6 p.m. at the center, 6529 Seville Ave.

After teaching 17 years at Garfield, Escalante left Los Angeles in 1991, amid criticism of his temperament, to teach at Sacramento’s Hiram Johnson High.

The Bolivian-born teacher often mixed Spanish and English and used humor and props such as hats and baseballs to teach complex concepts.

The learning center teachers, who were trained by Escalante, are not as flamboyant as him, but they share his enthusiasm for youths.

“Escalante has been a major source of inspiration,” said Dallas Russell, a teacher at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and a tutor at the learning center."Even though he is in Sacramento, the dream hasn’t died here. I feel like I’ve touched other people’s lives, which means I’m part of the legend.”

Russell’s All-American college football body is a hard target to miss in class. When there were few students in the program, Russell would walk to each individual in the class.

“When I started to come, the teacher used to take 15 to 20 minutes on each student,” said Alejandro Escovar, 17, a Huntington Park High junior whose grades improved from a C to an A in three weeks. “I don’t think my grades are going to drop; I just have to be more aggressive now to get his attention.”

Operating on a shoestring budget of $5,000 funded by Kaiser through Escutia’s office, program administrator George Campos said that without corporate sponsorship, the free tutoring program probably won’t survive after the 18-week period ends.

“That’s the only thing that’s a shame about it. It’s not going to close because of lack of students, but because of lack of funding,” Campos said. “If (the college) wasn’t in Huntington Park, we never would have been able to reach out to these students.”

Information: (213) 265-8684.