The release last week of a postage stamp honoring Jaime Escalante was celebrated at a dedication ceremony Saturday morning at Garfield High School –the East Los Angeles school where the math teacher made history, by helping his Mexican American students master advanced calculus.

The Los Angeles Times reported that about 100 “friends, former students and fans” of Escalante attended the ceremony. When a blown-up reproduction of the stamp was unveiled, several attendees snapped photos with their cell-phones.

“I can never talk about Mr. Jaime Escalante without tears,” Elsa Bolado told the paper. Bolado, who took math with Escalante in 1982, is now a principal at an elementary school in South Los Angeles.

Scandal and notoriety

A Bolivian immigrant, Escalante gained national notoriety that year when 14 of his students who took and passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam –an unprecedented feat for an inner-city school– were accused of cheating. Twelve of the 14 retook a different exam and passed it.

The Forever stamp honoring Jaime Escalante went on sale July 13.

The scandal and Escalante’s push to raise standards at the barrio school were the basis of the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver,” which starred actor Edward James Olmos.

Olmos attended a Washington D.C. ceremony on July 13 when the Forever stamp was officially launched by the U.S. Postal Service. The stamp shows Escalante wearing his signature flat cap, standing against a chalkboard on which calculus symbols can be seen. It is based on a 2005 photograph taken by Escalante’s son, Jaime W. Escalante.

“We celebrate Mr. Escalante today for his charmed ability to create calm within a landscape of calamity,” said the Postal Service’s Robert Cintrón in a release. “As a result of staying committed to his belief that all students can learn, kids who had been written off as undisciplined, uninterested, unmanageable and unruly were given a real opportunity at learning. In return his students showed the world that one opportunity was really all that they needed.”

Tainted legacy

But the release of the stamp has revived controversy over Escalante’s legacy. Some disregard the teacher, who left Garfield in 1991, because of his conservative views and his stance against bilingual education. In 1997 Escalante joined English for Children, a campaign begun by Republican conservative leader Ron Unz that led to the successful 1998 English in Public Schools initiative, which wiped out most bilingual education programs in the state.

Escalante’s story “is a story of selling-out to the highest bidder and hurting the very children and communities where he made his fame,” wrote an activist who goes by the name Chola con Cello on Facebook.

Escalante died of cancer in 2010.

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Boyle Heights Beat

Boyle Heights Beat is a bilingual community newspaper produced by its youth "por y para la comunidad". The newspaper and its sister website serve an immigrant neighborhood in East Los Angeles of just under...

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