For Latino students to succeed, they need teachers who believe in them. Jaime Escalante understood that, but not all teachers do. The legendary high school teacher is to be honored with a postage stamp in 2016, something our whole community can take pride in.
We should also take this moment to take responsibility for our children’s future and demand excellent teachers in every classroom.
To most people, Escalante is the teacher who inspired the movie Stand and Deliver, but to those of us in the Latino community, he’s the embodiment of “con ganas”—proof that if you give it all you’ve got, you can inspire excellence.
The film’s subject is Escalante’s Garfield High School class that did so well on the AP calculus exam that they were accused of cheating. Forced to retake it, they all passed again, which showed the world that given a great instructor, Latino students can succeed as well as anyone else.
Escalante had been a teacher before he emigrated from Bolivia. After finding work as a mechanic here, he taught himself English and then, at 33, went to Pasadena Community College and was able to return to the classroom. His life is a reminder that potentially excellent teachers are walking among us.
How do we grow more teachers like him? How do we ensure that Latino teachers, including men, are supported enough to excel in the classroom? How do we ensure that Latino students are encouraged to pursue learning and to excel at the highest levels? What are we doing to make sure that students are being prepared to aim for the top in every aspect of their lives?
What do Latino students need from our schools?
A recent parent poll published by Education Post showed that the vast majority of Latino parents, 75 percent, want their children to go to college. Yet almost the same number are either “only somewhat satisfied” or “not satisfied” with their children’s educational experience. Their dreams and expectations are not in line with what they are experiencing in their children’s schools.
When asked what their educational priorities were, a whopping 88 percent of Latino parents said their first priority was “giving teachers the respect, support and resources they need to be effective.” And 85 percent of Latino parents said their second priority was “removing ineffective teachers from the classroom.”
Clearly Latino parents believe the best way to align what they want for their children’s education with what their children experience is through teachers.
Escalante’s legacy includes students like Eileen Miranda Jimenez, graduate of Wellesley College and the first Latina elected to the West Covina Unified School Board, a suburban school district, where she advocates for excellence for all students, International Baccalaureate-level programs, charter schools, and true parent participation.
And Jaime Escalante wasn’t the only teacher at Garfield who set a standard of educational excellence. Marcella L. Contreras, an English teacher, established California’s first scholarship for English-language learners and undocumented students, the Scholarship Association for ESL Students.
When teachers have the “ganas” or deep-seated will and love to serve students, anything is possible.
At Huntington Park High, I had too many teachers tell me and the boys I grew up with, “I don’t care if you don’t do your homework. I don’t care if you graduate. I’ll get paid whether or not you do well.”
Now that I am old enough to have friends who are teachers, they tell me they still see those type of teachers. Even today. This could help explain why only 11 percent of California Latinos are college graduates according to the Campaign for College Opportunity.
The most honorable thing we can do is to respect and uplift the teachers who are absolutely dedicated to our kids and escort the others out. Who could disagree with that?
There’s a Mexican saying: “Children are our message to the future.” Educators touch their students’ futures in many ways. Escalante died of cancer in 2010 and never got to see Eileen Miranda Jimenez elected. But his life inspired hers, and her life and career will inspire others. That’s the chain that we need to strengthen.
Latino parents have spoken: We need more excellent teachers in front of Latino children. Jaime Escalante’s story proves how important it can be to students if those teachers are Latino. The best way to ensure that more Latino students become teachers is for schools to fulfill the dreams Latino parents have for their children and never settle for less.