Two recent events put the best and worst of public education in sharp relief. The first was the death of America’s best known schoolteacher, Jaime Escalante, made famous in the 1988 film, “Stand and Deliver.” In that movie, Edward James Olmos brought to life Escalante’s inspiring story of his firm belief in the abilities of his inner city students at Garfield High School. He did what our best teachers do–he stood up for students, challenging them to strive. Escalante, 79, had bladder cancer.
The second event is a figurative cancer, the inexplicable and disgraceful inaction of an unknown number of teachers and administrators at a public high school in South Hadley, Massachusetts, who were—according to the district attorney–aware of the harsh bullying of a 15-year-old girl by a handful of students and yet did nothing. Multiple felony indictments of nine teenagers were announced last week, all classmates of Phoebe Prince, who hung herself in January. No adults were charged.
Jaime Escalante gained national prominence in the aftermath of a 1982 scandal surrounding 14 of his Garfield High School students who, after they passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam, were accused of cheating. As Elaine Woo wrote in the LA Times, “The story of their eventual triumph — and of Escalante’s battle to raise standards at a struggling campus of working-class, largely Mexican American students — became the subject of the movie, which turned the balding, middle-aged Bolivian immigrant into the most famous teacher in America.” Mr. Olmos, who helped raise money to defray the teacher’s medical costs, said, “Jaime didn’t just teach math. Like all great teachers, he changed lives’.
The teachers and administrators in South Hadley also changed lives, one permanently. Continue reading