Determination, discipline and hard work

The following interview of Jaime Escalante was by the BBC World Service and took place on 3 June 2003.

BBC World Service (3 June 2003).

Bolivian-born math teacher Jaime Escalante became one of America's most famous educators, and his success with Latino students at Garfield High School in California inspired a movie about his life ("Stand and Deliver").

Back in his native country, Escalante spoke with BBC Mundo about education in the US, and the problems facing the Latino community.

What is the reason for the high dropout rate among the Latino community in the US?

It is due to an important factor, which is the handicap (disadvantage) of the language. Many of these young people come without knowledge of the language and then they cannot take classes that are in English and are limited to taking a mathematics class if they have not achieved the appropriate level of English, so they are put in a course at a lower level. They are made to repeat things that they have learned many times, and then the student becomes lazy.

Another factor is the advancement of technology. When these young people arrive in the United States, the first thing they do is integrate into American society, so they want to live as the American likes to live, a simple thing, which is within their reach. What they first learn is to play with the computer and they love it, then they neglect the other subjects where work is required. They don't like to do homework, they want to do simple things. Apart from this, the teachers do not demand much.

Outside of this is the issue of the Internet. Although it helps in the field of research, business, etc., these young people like it because they show a lot of pornography there. And over that there is no control.

When you were teaching in California, how did you deal with the language barrier?

At first I believed a lot in the bilingual system because I believed that the students had to be taught in the language they understood, but in the field of science, special languages must be learned, then I saw that the students had to be taught in the English language if they were to be successful.

What do you think of the elimination of bilingual education in 1998 in the state of California?

I have been part of that and I have seen that the language in which the student will be successful is English. Unfortunately everything, be it job applications or interviews, came in one language. The student had to have command of that language.

The university entrance aptitude tests (S.A.T.) were only in English, as were all the texts that were used, even in bilingual schools. So when we had tests that the district asked for, we always ranked last because that test came in English and the student had to be fluent in order to be successful.

However, many people criticise the elimination of bilingual education because they consider that Latino students fall behind in other subjects, such as mathematics, while they study English intensively.

I have statistical data from Sacramento that shows that the quality of Latino students has improved tremendously and there are many more who go to college and have no problems.

Then, in subjects such as mathematics, chemistry or physics, there are many opportunities in any school, especially in California - I am a product of it - so that the students who want to be bilingual can study the subject that they want in Spanish. The language department teaches classes in various languages.

It is the student's function not to be delayed, they have to put in a little effort to integrate into another society.

Do you think then that the dropout figures will go down?

Of course, but it all depends on the student, you cannot expect a violent change to come overnight. The student has to emphasise the language that they need and has to choose what to do, they have to have an orientation. When they are in the second or third year of secondary school, they have to have defined their vocation, and emphasise the classes that they need.

In the US there are many classes that are available to cater for the student's specialty, but our Latino students do not have that orientation, they take the easier classes. And another thing that influences them a lot: they see the dollar and they start working in any company selling hamburgers or whatever, and then that takes away all the time they have to study. Many families have more than three, four, five, seven siblings so the father and mother cannot provide enough to support them, and the young people have to contribute.

The role of parents

What should the role of parents be in the education of their children?

The special role of parents is to guide. The first school you have is your home. And parents don't realise, they don't take on that responsibility. Every time we had a parents' meeting, only the mother would appear, and the father never appeared. If you do a study you will see that only 2% of parents have an interest in their children's education. The one who bears all the responsibility in the Latino household is the mother.

The mother comes with all the children, she listens - sometimes she doesn't understand the language either and someone is translating for her - and she can't do anything. The student who learns a little English takes control and says to her mother: "You don't know what they're saying, don't worry. I know what I'm doing." And the boy begins to choose subjects that are easy. And the counsellors, who guide this, don't care and give them the classes they want.

Then they repeat classes, or they dedicate themselves more to sports, or they are more interested in being in the marching band, the school music band, and they dedicate themselves more to practicing that than to books.

Do you think this easy-going attitude is stronger within the Hispanic community than within other communities?

Evidently. It is much stronger than in the community for example of Vietnam or Laos. These gentlemen, wherever I worked at the Sacramento school, asked that the establishment be available to them on Saturday and they would raise their flag and that of the United States, sing the two hymns, and emphasise mathematics and English, especially the latter.

But in the Latin environment it is not like that, they like parties more, the show. Let the boy or girl be in the marching band, and be ahead. They look for where the money is to have the uniform and the father and mother help with that.

Is it important for parents to be able to speak English?

It is not so important that the father can speak English, because he has already reached an age where he cannot assimilate much. The important thing is that he helps his son or daughter to get ahead.

When I was teaching in the US, to get parental support I would call them and hold my own meeting. And I would tell them: "every time you talk to your son speak with affection and love and understand that this son belongs to you"; second: "every time you talk to him you have to help him and discipline him in a way that is correct without using violent words, because discipline is an important part for this young man to be successful." And at the end: "every time you talk to your child you are going to pay attention to them and you are going to respond as if they were a person. You are not going to say 'maybe', because that does not mean more than a promise that it can be tomorrow or another day. Talk to them like the're a responsible person."

So the obligation of the parents was to help me so that these young people are successful.

The role of teachers

And what is the role of teachers in Hispanic education in the US?

The role of teachers is to see that in the class we have three-speed students: one who learns easily from the first explanation, the second who has a slow movement and needs a little help, and the third who is lazy. We have to focus a little more on those who are lazy. It is not that they cannot, but they do not want to follow the instructions, they do not have the determination to be something and to accept the teacher's instructions with discipline.

So the teacher has to have a little patience, especially if they are Latino, because the Latino has a different type of reaction compared to the student who is Afro-American or Anglo.

And how is the capable Latino student who faces difficulties to make himself become inspired so that they do not drop out of school?

I spoke with the parents and told them: "this child has this weak point, you have to help me with this deficiency." I was in constant communication with the parents. And we also had class meetings where they brought their children and we had speakers who spoke the two languages and they explained: the doctor does this, the lawyer does this, the engineer does this, so that the student decides what to do, what they like best, and once we have decided on their vocation then with that we have advanced halfway.

And aside, the student could not miss school if there was no direct justification from the parents. Because what happens is that when the drugs start, the students do not appear or appear only when they want to, and the American teacher does not care about that. He takes roll, sends those absent, those present, and does not worry why the student has been absent.

Now that you are teaching again in Bolivia, what experience do you get from the US?

The United States is the place of opportunities for the student to do something positive in social life. What we need is that the parents collaborate with the teacher so that there is a work team. It doesn't take long, once you have the student in your pocket for the first two years they walk on their own.

In the US the student has the opportunity to be what they want as long as they have determination, discipline and hard work. Otherwise you cannot. There they will not give them the title on a platter, no. They have to work hard, there are no favourites.

Last Updated March 2022