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Maybe it’s about time that society stopped looking toward the sports world or Hollywood for heroes for our young people. Maybe it’s about time we looked a little closer to home, like maybe the elementary or high school in our own town. In nearly every town, there are unselfish, dedicated individuals who devote untold energy to making sure our children are nurtured, encouraged and prodded to a achieve a better life. Teachers like the remarkable, driven teacher, Jamie Escalante.
Many great teachers possess a special clairvoyance, have the ability to see the future. They can look at a class of disheveled, sloven, apathetic youngsters and see, not the image the youth are trying to project, but what they can become, not what society sees but the successful individuals they can eventually become. Jamie Escalante was the immigrant teacher from Bolivia who, like many great teachers, believed he had a calling to use education to improve students’ lives. Jamie was a remarkable teacher who used math to transform the lives of gang students and other “unteachables” in an East LA high school during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. In fact, he achieved unprecedented success teaching Advanced Placement calculus to these “troubled” students. His success was so incredible that the national AP board could not believe “those students” could score so well so they assumed they must have cheated. The students were forced to re-take the test and then they scored just as well.
If his story sounds somewhat familiar, you may have recognized it from “Stand and Deliver,” a popular movie more than 20 years ago. Through hard work and commitment, Jamie posted an incredible 25-year record of strengthening academic achievement of students from some of the worst economic and social environments. In fact, he set records for the number of these “unteachable” students who passed one of the most difficult tests in public education. Mr. Escalante’s work was not without recognition. He earned several teaching awards including the Presidential Medal for Excellence in Education, the Andres Bello Prize from the Organization of American States and the Free Spirit Award from the Freedom Forum. He was also inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame in 1999.
But his greatest accomplishment can’t be measured by a multiple choice test. Like great teachers everywhere, he believed in his students even when the students didn’t believe in themselves and his conviction, eventually, made the students believe in themselves. It is only appropriate that we take time to recognize Jamie Escalante and all the heroic teachers who support our students everyday.
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