Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Influential Latino Educator Will Be Featured on Stamp

Source: U.S. Postal Service

When an entire class of calculus students at a largely Hispanic, low-income East Los Angeles high school passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam in 1982, the Educational Testing Service suspected many of them had cheated.

When activists accused the testing service of ethnic bias, teacher Jaime Escalante encouraged his students to retake the test. Most of the students did; all passed (which means they scored high enough to earn credit at most colleges) and five of them earned high scores.

Thus, Escalante was hailed as a hero for transforming one of the lowest-performing schools in the country into a model for raising low-income student achievement, the story goes. The Washington Post called him “the most famous and influential American public-school teacher of his generation.” 

The Bolivian native, who died of cancer in 2010 at age 79, will be featured on a stamp rolled out by the United States Postal Service this year. The announcement released last week calls Escalante a “beloved and charismatic” educator who ”proved that students judged to be ‘unteachable’ could master even the most difficult subject.”

Though few expected anything from these Mexican-American inner-city kids, Escalante did, Eva-Marie Ayala of The Dallas Morning News points out in a recent blog post. Escalante once said in an interview, “There’s a tremendous amount of feeling that the Hispanic is incapable of handling higher math and science.”

He championed AP classes for all who promised to work hard — regardless of their GPA, and in 1987, 26 percent of all Mexican-American students in the U.S. who passed the AP Calculus exams attended Escalante’s high school. 

In 1988, Escalante’s story garnered national attention with Jay Matthews’ book “Escalante: The Best Teacher in America” and the film “Stand and Deliver,” inspiring teachers around the world with his methods — albeit, unconventional. 

Matthews gave some examples in a tribute to Esclante after his death. 

Escalante celebrated ‘ganas,’ a Spanish word that he said meant the urge to succeed. He was so convinced of the power of teaching that he lied to keep students with him. He said school rules forbade dropping his class. He told the parents of absent students that if he did not see their children in his classroom the next day, he would call the immigration authorities to check on their status.

The stamp of Escalante resembles an oil painting and is based on a 2005 photograph taken by Escalante’s son in a classroom where he once taught.