Jaime Escalante was born in La Paz, Bolivia. While living in Bolivia he taught physics and mathematics for 14 years. In 1964 he decided to move to the United States. To prepare himself he started studying science and mathematics at University of Puerto Rico. Upon moving from Puerto Rico to California Jaime still could not speak English, and had no valid American teaching credentials. To rectify this he studied at night at Pasadena City College to earn a degree in electronics. At this point he took a day job at a computer corporation, while continuing his schooling at night to earn a mathematics degree at Cal State Los Angeles where he studied calculus under the noted professor Louis Leithold.
In 1974 he began teaching at Garfield High School, in East Los Angeles in Los Angeles County, California. Initially Escalante was so disheartened by the lack of preparation in his students that he called his former employer and asked for his old job back. Jaime eventually changed his mind about returning to work when he found 12 students willing to take an algebra class.
The school administration opposed Escalante frequently during his first few years. He was even threatened with dismissal by an assistant principal because he was coming in too early, leaving too late, and failing to get administrative permission to raise funds to pay for his students' Advanced Placement tests. This opposition changed with arrival of a new principal, Henry Gradillas. Gradillas overhauled the academic curriculum at Garfield, reducing the number of basic math classes and requiring that those taking basic math had to concurrently take algebra. He denied extracurricular activities to students who failed to maintain a C average and new students who failed basic skill tests.
Escalante continued to teach at Garfield but it was not until 1979 that Escalante would actually instruct his first calculus class. Escalante did this in the hopes that it could provide the leverage to improve lower level math courses. To this end Escalante recruited fellow teacher Ben Jimenez and taught calculus to 5 students, 2 of whom passed the A.P. calculus test. The following year the class had increased in size to 9 students, 7 of whom passed the A.P. calculus test. By 1981 the class had increased to 15 students, 14 of whom passed.
In 1982 he came into the national spotlight when 18 of his students passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam. The Educational Testing Service found these scores to be suspect and asked 14 of those who passed to take the exam again. Twelve of the 14 agreed to retake the test and did well enough to have their scores reinstated.
In 1983 the number of students enrolling and passing the A.P. calculus test increased over 100 percent. That year 33 students took the exam and 30 passed. That year Escalante also started teaching calculus at East Los Angeles College.
By 1987 the program had escalated to the point where 73 students passed the A.P. calculus AB exam and another 12 students passed the BC version of the test. This was the peak for the calculus program. The same year Gradillas went on sabbatical to finish his doctorate with hopes that he could be reinstated as principal at Garfield or a similar school with similar programs upon his return. Gradillas’s replacement, Maria Elena Tostado, did not share his views on education. Due to this, the relationship between the administration and Escalante became strained.
1988 saw the release of a book Escalante: The Best Teacher in America by Jay Mathews (ISBN 0-8050-1195-1) and a movie Stand and Deliver detailing the events of 1982. During this time teachers and other interested observers asked to sit in on his classes. Jaime also received visits from political leaders and celebrities, including then President George Bush and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Escalante has described the film as "90% truth, 10% drama". He stated that several points were left out of the film:
- It took him several years to achieve the kind of success shown in the film.
- In no case was a student who didn't know multiplication tables or fractions taught calculus in a single year.
- Escalante suffered a gall-bladder attack, not a heart attack. This distinction was clouded in the movie.
Over the next few years Escalante’s calculus program continued to grow but not without its own price. Tensions that surfaced when his career began at Garfield escalated. In his final years at Garfield, Escalante received threats and hate mail from various individuals.
By 1990 he had lost the math department chairmanship. At this point Escalante’s math enrichment program had grown to 400+ students. Jaime’s class sizes had increased to over 50 students in some cases. This was far beyond the 35 student limit set by the teachers' union and in turn increased criticism of Escalante’s work.
In 1991, the number of Garfield students taking advanced placement examinations in math and other subjects jumped to 570. That same year, citing faculty politics and petty jealousies Escalante left Garfield with Ben Jimenez. Escalante found immediate employment from the Sacramento, California school system. Angelo Villavicencio took the reins of the program after their departure and taught the remaining 107 A.P. students in 2 classes for the next year. 67 of Villavicencio’s students went on to take the A.P. exam, and 47 passed. Villavicencio’s request for a third class due to class size was denied and the following spring he followed Escalante and quit Garfield.
The math program's decline at Garfield became immediately apparent following the departure of Escalante and other teachers associated with its inception and development. In the space of just a few years, Garfield experienced a sevenfold drop in the number of A.P. calculus students passing their exams. In 1996, Angelo Villavicencio contacted Garfield’s new principal, Tony Garcia, and offered to come back to help revive the dying calculus program. His offer was politely rejected.
In 2001, after many years of preparing teenagers for the AP calculus exam, Escalante returned to his native Bolivia. He lives in his wife’s hometown, Cochabamba, and teaches part time at the local university. He returns to the United States frequently to visit his children.