By Paul Aranda Jr., EGP Staff Writer | Eastside Sun / Northeast Sun / Mexican American Sun / Bell Gardens Sun / City Terrace Comet / Commerce Comet / Montebello Comet / Monterey Park Comet / ELA Brooklyn Belvedere Comet / Wyvernwood Chronicle / Vernon Sun
April 22, 2010 -- With the recent passing of Jaime Escalante, Garfield High School paused to honor its past as it finalizes reform efforts to capitalize on the momentum the famed calculus teacher brought to the school decades ago.
Escalante rose to prominence after developing a nationally recognized math department at a school known more for its poverty-riddled community than its academic programs.
Actor Edward James Olmos walks with a young girl during a procession from the Garfield High School campus to the ELAC football stadium. (EGP photo by Fred Zermeno)
The success Garfield once achieved serves as an example of the challenges faced at most inner city high schools, how to translate the accomplishments of a small group of high achievers to the larger student body.
When the Los Angeles Unified School District board voted to adopt a progressive reform initiative late last summer, much of the debate focused on the low scores of those schools on the State’s Annual Performance Index.
Garfield was often at the epicenter of contentious community meetings as the district implemented its Public School Choice initiative. Yolie Flores, Garfield’s board representative and initiative sponsor, received a harsh reception at a campus town hall in August 2009. Opponents of the initiative mislabeled it as a “privatization” of public schools. Flores was accused of being an absentee representative who focused on the school’s negative data to promote the initiative. Partly because its already low API score fell three points to 594 in 2009, Garfield became eligible for outside takeover under the initiative.
On February 23, the board rejected a Montebello Unified School District proposal to take over Garfield. The MUSD proposal was based on the success of its high schools that serve students of similar demographics.
Instead, a Garfield focus team comprised of administrators and faculty was allowed to maintain control of the school although the decision was made with reservations as the plan was returned for further revisions. An application to run a separate Green Architectural Design Academy already on campus was also approved.
Since the February vote, Jose Huerta has taken over as Garfield’s principal after its former top administrator, Michael Summer, resigned around the same time the school’s initial application was made public.
While much of the focus is placed on Garfield’s low API, there are signs of high achievement on campus.
Recent figures show the school’s performance on the Advance Placement exams are within range of the district average. The rate of Garfield students who took and received a passing grade on the AP exams mirrors those of a local school that annually scores much higher on the State’s API. According to State education data, in 2007-2008, the latest figures available, nearly 38 percent of AP exam takers at Garfield received a passing score. Of the 416 AP exams taken, 156 received a score of either a 4 or 5, the highest scores possible.
Those numbers are similar to those of Eagle Rock High School in northeast Los Angeles. With a 2009 API of 717, Eagle Rock is the highest-rated public school in the greater East Los Angeles region. According to the State’s 2007-2008 data, 39 percent of Eagle Rock’s AP exam takers received a passing score. Of the 471 AP exams taken, 186 received a score of either a 4 or 5. The districts passage rate is 44 percent. EGP was unable to find a statistical breakdown on the AP exams of public schools, compared to charter and magnet schools that can generally produce higher scores as a result of their campus enrichment programs.
In another example of success for some Garfield students, the school’s academic decathlon team reached the statewide competition in February for the ninth time in the past 13 years after it finished in a three-way tie for first in the district’s annual academic decathlon tournament. The young team featured only one returning student after seven seniors from the 2009 squad graduated. That team beat-out 47 other California schools to finish 13.
The school’s AP exam passage rates and the annual success of its decathlon team shows Garfield can still produces academic achievement comparable to its once nationally recognized AP Calculus program. Several fundamental changes create the potential to expand that achievement to the rest of the student body. Garfield’s student population is expected to drop from 4,500 in 2009-2010 to approximately 3,000 in 2010-2011 with the opening of the Esteban Torres Learning Center. As a result, Garfield will move from a three-track, year-around schedule to a traditional one-track schedule. Overcrowding has long been an issue of many inner city schools as they struggled to stretch thin resources to all its students. Furthermore, the Garfield reform plan calls for the school to be divided into six small learning centers designed to allow even more focus on individual students.
With changes for its future looming, the Garfield community gathered Saturday to remember its past at the East Los Angeles College football stadium. Hundreds of current students, alumni and school employees gathered to celebrate Escalante’s legacy with a public memorial on April 17. A stable of public officials took turns to not only praise Escalante for his success as a math instructor, but to rally support for all teachers.
Gov Arnold Schwarzenegger called Escalante a personal hero for his ability to inspire students beyond his classroom.
“He did not teach a subject,” Schwarzenegger said. “He made it a gift to create a curiosity to want to learn more.”
County Supervisor Gloria Molina urged all teachers and students to use Escalante’s legacy as motivation to improve the current state of education.
“It is the imprint of Jaime Escalante that we can do better,” Molina said. “We can move up to a standard and then move that standard further.
With so much of the current discussions on education focused on budget cuts and teacher layoffs, at least one former Garfield teacher called it an exciting time for educators. For one year, Norma De La Pena taught at Garfield alongside Escalante. She said the stories on the success of Escalante’s pupils serve as an example for today’s students.
Now a professor at Los Angeles Trade Tech College, De La Pena called the current era a positive one for those teachers motivated to pursue the kind of ideas that she advocated for years ago as a high school instructor.
“It’s a good time in terms of change,” De La Pena said. She called the inclusion of teachers in the School Choice initiative progress from her and Escalante’s era when they were only expected to carry out district-centered curriculums. A retired LAUSD teacher and former UTLA member, she credited the increase in charter schools as another educational option for both students and teachers.
“The charters are encouraging the system to acknowledge the need for change,” she said. With that she added that the district must be cautious as it moves forward on reforms concerning teacher accountability. “As a teacher, sometimes we are placed in a situation where we are limited to what we can do,” she said. “I am not in support of saying it’s just the teacher’s fault. We can’t just blame the teachers.”
For at least one Saturday morning, all teachers, along with Escalante, were publicly celebrated for their efforts to instill knowledge in the next generation.
“What we should do,” Schwarzenegger said, “is reach out and say thank you to any teacher you run into.”
Actor Edward James Olmos who portrayed Escalante in the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver” followed Schwarzenegger’s speech by repeatedly thanking Escalante’s family for their sacrifice. “We need to thank the families of all teachers,” Olmos said.
Prior to the memorial, Olmos told EGP that the young and future teachers should not see their role diminished based on the current education climate.
“Education has always been in turmoil,” Olmos said. “The most important people on this planet are teachers…I don’t know one president, one pope, one basketball player, astronaut or engineer who did it without a teacher.”