Fitting Tribute to Math Teacher

Times Staff Writer

When Louis Leithold, an 80-year-old math instructor at Malibu High School, died of natural causes in April, just days before his class was to take the Advanced Placement calculus exam, his students were devastated.

But they vowed to make him proud, and the results were better than they or school officials could have imagined.

According to Malibu High Principal Mark Kelly, Leithold's 16 students in BC, or advanced, calculus attained an average score of 4.875 on the exam, which was administered May 4.

Fourteen students received 5s -- the highest possible score on a five-point scale -- while two earned 4s. A score of 3, 4 or 5 qualifies a student for college credit.

It was the best performance of any class taught by Leithold, who began teaching at Malibu High in 1998 when he was 72. The average score of his students usually far exceeded the national average of 3.01.

Leithold had spent most of his career teaching at the college level but joined the Malibu High faculty as a way to stay in touch with the users of his bestselling textbook, "The Calculus 7."

An exemplary teacher, he inspired students to juggle onerous homework loads, memorize complex theorems and give up weekends to study for the exam. He was known for his exuberant approach to the subject and wasn't afraid to use props -- such as cookies that bore the same name as the masters of calculus, Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz -- to keep his students engaged.

Leithold had been a legend in national AP circles, known for his workshops for AP calculus teachers. He also had been a mentor to one of the country's most famous calculus teachers, Jaime Escalante, a former Garfield High School instructor who gained renown for his success teaching the difficult subject to inner-city students. Escalante, who was played by Edward James Olmos in "Stand and Deliver," called Leithold "one of the great mathematicians."

Leithold "would have been overjoyed" to hear how his last class performed, said Matthew Mesher, who graduated from Malibu High in June and was one of Leithold's students who earned a 5.

"We came through for him," said Mesher, who will enroll at Stanford this fall as a math major. "It's the best tribute we could have made."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World