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Jaime Escalante - a great teacher and man of principle

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Posted: Monday, April 5, 2010 12:00 am

I was saddened to hear of the death of Jaime Escalante last week.

He was a good man, a great teacher - and a man of principle.

Escalante was played by Edward James Olmos in the movie, "Stand and Deliver." He earned fame by teaching calculus to poor kids at Garfield High in East Los Angeles. Escalante believed in his students, believed in high standards, and believed in the power of inspirational teaching.

In 1987, 26 percent of all Mexican American students in the country who passed the AP calculus exam attended Garfield High, according to the Washington Post.

I interviewed Escalante for a series on bilingual education published in May 1998 for The Record. (I was working as Lodi bureau chief for The Record at that time.)

Escalante had moved to Sacramento from East LA and was teaching at Hiram Johnson high.

I sought him out because he had agreed to act as an honorary chairman for Proposition 227, a ballot measure to end bilingual education.

Why would the most famous Latino teacher in America want to stop bilingual education?

Simply put, he felt it hurt kids. When he moved his family to Southern California from Bolivia, he told me, his oldest son, Fernando, was placed in a bilingual class. His son was already quite fluent in Spanish.

"Can you imagine?" he said. "I come to America, and my son is put in class studying Spanish. I told the teachers: 'He could study Spanish in Bolivia. This is America. He came here to learn English.' "

Escalante rejected the view that bilingual education was needed to retain cultural identity.

"If you are an immigrant, you must integrate to succeed," he said. "English is the main tool of integration. Culture, that is beautiful, but it should be taught in the home. Here in school, we are preparing the kids for life."

It is fair to say Escalante was not always popular with his peers, many of whom believed in - and were getting paychecks related to - bilingual education. Jaime Escalante was no darling of the teachers' unions.

He was a maverick, in a way. But I came to believe he was right. Bilingual education was misguided. It deserved to be dismantled.

Proposition 227 passed. Escalante eventually moved back to Bolivia, where he died at age 79.

Like all great educators, his legacy endures in those lucky enough to have had him as a teacher.