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jaime escalante

(1930 – 2010)

Jaime Alfonso Escalante-Gutierrez was a Bolivian educator known for teaching students calculus from 1974 to 1991 at Garfield High School, East Los Angeles, California. Escalante was the subject of the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver.”


In 1974, Escalante began teaching at Garfield High School with the idea of focusing on students in whom he could instill the concept of “ganas” (a burning desire to succeed). He started with 12 students willing to take an algebra class.


Determined to change the status quo, Escalante had to persuade the first few students who would listen to him that they could control their futures with the right education. He felt it was important to “show them the money” by asking them where the high-paying jobs were. The money was and still is in the STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics), fields and the language for these fields is mathematics.


Shortly after Escalante came to Garfield High its accreditation became threatened. Instead of gearing classes to poorly performing students, in 1978, Escalante offered Advanced Placement Calculus. He hoped that it could provide the leverage to improve lower-level math courses. To this end, Escalante recruited fellow teacher Ben Jiménez and taught calculus to five students, two of whom passed the AP calculus test. The following year, the class size increased to nine students, seven of whom passed the AP test. By 1981, the class had increased to 15 students, 14 of whom passed.


The school administration opposed Escalante frequently during his first few years. He was 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. He had also earned the criticism of an administrator who disapproved of his requiring the students to answer a homework question before being allowed into the classroom. "He told me to just get them inside," Escalante reported, "but I said, there is no teaching, no learning going on".


The Escalante Methodology

Escalante never felt that his approach depended upon his personality. He felt that keys included being able to maintain open communication and to be able to listen to students. Among his most useful ploys/tactics using humor, peppering the lecture with lots of jokes, and using toys to illustrate points.


Escalante’s thematic approach was to turn the learning process into a game. He saw his role as that of a coach and the students as a team, working together.

Escalante greatly admired the discipline of athletic teams and their devotion to practice and drilling. He often used NBA stars such as Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West as examples of successful self-discipline, outstanding performance, the will to win, persistence, and a commitment to the refinement of their skills. He reinforced this role-modeling by putting their posters on the walls of his classroom.


Before class, his AP team had “warm ups” hand clapping and foot stomping to the accompaniment of the tune “We Will Rock You.”  The students had satin team jackets, caps, and tee-shirts. Their “practice schedule” was modelled on that of a sports team.  Escalante made the exams into an “opponent” to personalize and focus his students on the challenge ahead. His students chanted; “De-fense, De-fense,” and “Beat ETS” (Educational Testing Service), as they headed to the room for their Advance Placement Examinations.


Escalante used language including terms from sports to create a sense of action, comradery and completion among his students. The AP calculus exam was referred to as the “Olympics.” When a student failed a test they were sent to the “ICU” (intensive care unit) which was a designated less desirable section of the classroom. As this was a demotion that all the other students in the class would see, the offenders were highly motivated to work their way out of the ICU.


To soften the occasionally imposing terminology of math, Escalante invented “Escalentese;”

  • “Face Mask” – a mistake at the problem’s beginning

  • “Secret Agent” – a minus sign in front of an expression in parentheses.

  • “Rifle Pass from Magic Johnson” – a straight line

  • “three-point shot” – a parabola

  • “Kareem’s Skyhook” – a parabola with a different coefficient

  • “Illegal Defense” – dividing by zero


This was all part of the effort to make math fun and present it as a team activity that represents a lively challenge.


Escalante’s course preparation was thorough and he demanded a lot from his students. His detractors expected that his students would be unable to perform at a high level due to the real problems of poverty, inequities and hopelessness. He felt that the students could rise to the occasion and that their performance would be profoundly impacted by the expectations of their parents and teachers.


In 1982, Escalante 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 suspicious because all of the students made exactly the same math error on problem #6. Fourteen of those who passed were asked to take the exam again. Twelve of the fourteen agreed to retake the test and all twelve did well enough to have their scores reinstated. In 1983, the number of students enrolling and passing the A.P. calculus test more than doubled. That year 33 students took the exam and 30 passed! 


In the 1980s, less than 2% of high school seniors sat for the AP Calculus exam. Of all Hispanics nationwide who sat for the exam 25%-30% came through Escalante’s program.


In 1988 a movie, Stand and Deliver, was released detailing the events of 1982. 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 shared with them: "The key to my success with youngsters is a very simple and time-honored tradition: hard work for teacher and student alike".


As the number of students enrolled in the program for calculus alone grew to 140-200 students, the other advance placement programs at Garfield expanded sharply. In 1989 the school administered 450 AP tests in 16 different subjects up from Escalante’s first year, 1978, when only 10 tests were administered, none of which was for calculus.


At the height of Escalante's influence, Garfield graduates were entering the University of Southern California in such great numbers that they outnumbered all the other high schools in the working-class East Los Angeles region combined.


Over the next few years Escalante's calculus program continued to grow but tensions that surfaced when his career began at Garfield escalated. In his final years at Garfield, Escalante frequently received threats and hate mail from various individuals.


By 1990, Escalante had lost the math department chairmanship. At this point Escalante's math enrichment program had grown to 400+ students. His class sizes had increased to over 50 students in some cases. This was far beyond the 35 student limit set by the teachers' union, which 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.


The Aftermath

Angelo Villavicencio: In 1983, I was teaching at Griffith Junior High, which fed all its students to Garfield High. One day, one of my ex-students — a Garfield student named Sara Sanchez — came to see me after school. Sara talked to me about Jaime Escalante, whom everyone called ’Kemo’. Sara said she wished I could meet Kemo, since she claimed that he and I taught in a similar way. I accepted Sara’s invitation, and she arranged for a meeting between us. When I went to see Mr. Escalante, we chatted for half an hour and — right on the spot — he told me that I had to come to Garfield and be part of his program.


I finally moved to Garfield in 1987. My involvement with Mr. Escalante and his program enabled me to see a world containing a wealth of educational possibilities which were accessible to all barrio kids.


Villavicencio felt that the most important factors that contributed to the success at Garfield were:

  • Academic flexibility with the curriculum;

  • Complete support from the administrators and staff;

  • A summer program in place to bring academic advancement;

  • And, most essential of all, educators who have the passion to teach, the required knowledge of the subject, and the caring and the commitment necessary to elevate their students to another level

  • With the proper administrative support, this kind of program could function well in any of the barrio or ghetto schools in this country.

  • It takes a team a long time to build up such a program, yet one administrator can demolish it in no time.


Villavicencio took the reins of the program after Escalante’s departure and taught the remaining 107 AP students in two classes for the next year. Sixty-seven of Villavicencio's students went on to take the AP exam and forty-seven passed.


Villavicencio had 110 calculus AP students in two classes. He requested the opening of a third class, so he could have smaller classes to achieve better connections with the students. He was fortunate to be able to take over Mr. Escalante’s classroom, which had 65 desks. Hence, he was able to have 50+ students per class.


Henry Gradillas, the then-principal of Garfield High, played a crucial role in the success of Escalante’s program. The school district replaced him with Maria Tostado. Ms. Tostado denied Villavicencio's request for a third class room. She assured Villavicencio that she did not want any of

Escalante’s legacy to remain at Garfield.


In June of 1992, Villavicencio left Garfield.


In just a few years, the number of AP calculus students at Garfield who passed their exams dropped by more than 80 percent.  In 2009, fifty-five students took the calculus exam and thirteen passed.


It is widely believed that Escalante’s time at Garfield was a “golden age” that has never been, and perhaps never could be, repeated.


“Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.” – Archimedes  



  1. “Angelo Villavicencio Interview | The Best Schools” -

  2. “Class Struggle - The irksome myth about Garfield after Escalante” -

  3. “Jaime Escalante” -

  4. “New Evidence That Summer Programs Can Make a Difference for Poor Children”, Emma Brown -

  5. “The Jaime Escalante Math Program,” Jaime Escalante, Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 59, No 3 (Summer 1990) -

  6. “TEACHER STORY, Jaime Escalante, California - End Teacher Abuse” –


“The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.” – Harry Truman



Thirty plus years, the new reality…


Schools That Work

By David Leonhardt, New York Times, 11/4/16


BOSTON - Alanna Clark still remembers the stress of third-grade reading time. When her class read books together aloud, Alanna would often become confused. She didn’t understand how her classmates could answer the teacher’s questions about the book so quickly. As they did, Alanna was still just trying to take in the words.


“It was frustrating, because I used to think, maybe I’m reading the wrong part,” she said. “But I wasn’t.”


Alanna had a reading disability, and she was falling behind. Her mother repeatedly asked the school for help, without success - and then began to fear that a pattern was repeating itself. Alanna’s sister, who was 12 years older, had also struggled in school. But schools kept promoting her, until she eventually made it to community college, where, unprepared, she flunked.


With this fear as a spur, Alanna’s mother entered her into the long-shot lotteries that allow Boston children to attend schools outside their neighborhood. Alanna won one of them, and today is a poised, soft-spoken 10th grader at a charter school called Match, housed in an old auto-parts store on Commonwealth Avenue.


Charter schools -  public schools that operate outside the normal system - have become a quarrelsome subject, of course, alternately hailed as saviors and criticized as an overrated fad. Away from the fights, however, social scientists have quietly spent years analyzing the outcomes of students who attend charter schools.


The findings are stark. And while they occasionally pop up in media coverage and political debates about charter schools, they do not get nearly enough attention. The studies should be at the center of any discussion of educational reform, because they offer by far the clearest evidence about which parts of it are working and which are not.


The briefest summary is this: Many charter schools fail to live up to their promise, but one type has repeatedly shown impressive results.


Hannah Larkin, the principal at Match, refers to such schools as “high expectations, high support” schools. They devote more of their resources to classroom teaching and less to almost everything else. They keep students in class for more hours. They set high standards for students and try to instill confidence in them. They focus on giving teachers feedback about their craft and helping them get better.


“My mother has been teaching forever. My father has been teaching for 10 years,” Christopher Perez, a physics teacher at Match, told me. “They don’t get observed. I get observed every week and have a meeting about it every week.”


While visiting Match, I was struck that teachers hardly seemed to notice when I ducked into their rooms, midclass, to watch them. They are obviously used to having observers. They welcome it, as a way to improve.


The latest batch of evidence about this approach is among the most rigorous. Professors at M.I.T., Columbia, Michigan and Berkeley have tracked thousands of charter-school applicants, through high school and beyond, in Boston, where most charters fit the “high expectations, high support” model.


Crucially, the researchers took several steps to make sure the findings were real. They compared lottery winners with losers, controlling for the fact that families who applied for the lotteries were different from families who didn’t. They also counted as charter students all those who enrolled, including any who later left.


Before entering a charter

Black students who enroll in 6th grade at a Boston charter school have much lower math scores than their white counterparts. That’s why so much more of the yellow curve, which shows white students’ scores, is on the right half of the chart.


When you talk to the professors about their findings, you hear a degree of excitement that’s uncommon for academic researchers. “Relative to other things that social scientists and education policy people have tried to boost performance “ class sizes, tracking, new buildings “ these schools are producing spectacular gains, said Joshua Angrist, an M.I.T. professor.


Students who go to Boston’s charter schools learn reading and math better and faster than students elsewhere. They are more likely to take A.P. tests and to do well on them. Their SAT scores are higher than for similar students elsewhere - an average of 51 points higher on the math SAT. Many more students attend a four-year college, suggesting that the benefits don’t disappear over time.


…and after 

When the black and white students finish 8th grade at a Boston charter school, their scores are very similar. By contrast, the black-white gap does not narrow at traditional schools.


The gains are large enough that some of Boston’s charters, despite enrolling mostly lower-income students, have test scores that resemble those of upper-middle-class public schools. The seventh graders at the Brooke Charter schools in East Boston and Roslindale fare as well on a state math test as students at the prestigious Boston Latin school, the country’s oldest public school and a school with an admissions exam.


A frequent criticism of charters is that they skim off the best students, but that’s not the case in Boston. Many groups that struggle academically “boys, African-Americans, Latinos, special-education students like Alanna - are among the biggest beneficiaries. On average, notes Parag Pathak, also of M.I.T., Boston’s charters eliminate between one-third and one-half of the white-black test-score gap in a single year.


When I spoke with Alanna, she told me she aspired to go to Johns Hopkins and become a surgeon. “Since people didn’t want to help me,” she said. I want to help others.”


Perhaps the most important thing about the Boston study, however, is that it fits a larger trend. Again and again, analyses of “high expectations, high support schools “ in Florida, Denver, New Orleans, New York, even Newark, despite other charter-school disappointments there “ have come to similar conclusions.


So why isn’t there a national consensus to create more of these schools?


Because the politics of education are messy [bolding added].


First, no school can cure poverty on its own. At Match, for example, only about 55 percent of students go on to graduate from a four-year college. That’s much higher than at most public schools, but I’ll confess I still find it a bit disappointing because it means some charter graduates still struggle. And when we journalists write about schools (or most anything else), we often emphasize the negative. We have paid more attention to controversies - like harsh suspension policies in some places - than to an overwhelming pattern of success.


Second, many people understandably worry that charters harm children who attend the rest of the public-school system. But there is good news here, too. Two recent analyses of multiple studies concluded that charters do not hurt outcomes at other schools “and may even help improve them, by creating competition.


Finally, no matter how successful charters may be, they undeniably make life uncomfortable for some people at traditional schools.


The best place to see this dynamic right now happens to be here in Massachusetts. On Tuesday, the state will vote on whether to allow charters to expand. Doing so would have enormous benefits: It would improve the lives of some of the 30,000 children who have lost lotteries and are now on waiting lists.


But it would also shrink traditional public schools, and many school boards and teachers unions around the state are fighting the ballot initiative. Elizabeth Warren, the state’s senior senator, opposes it, too. The critics argue that Massachusetts should instead focus on improving traditional public schools.


For anyone who sees some merit on both sides, I’d encourage listening to Susan Dynarski, one of the researchers who conducted the Boston study.


A University of Michigan professor (and Times contributor), Dynarski is a proudly progressive former union organizer. She told me that she had agonized over being on the opposite side of an issue as some of her friends and usual allies.


She wrote a Facebook post about why she hoped Massachusetts voters would approve the expansion. In the post, she acknowledged that some teachers would not want to work in charter schools. And if schools’ main function were to provide good jobs for adults, an expansion of charters might not make sense. Obviously, however, schools have another, larger mission.


“The gains to children in Massachusetts charters are enormous. They are larger than any I have seen in my career,” Dynarski wrote. “To me, it is immoral to deny children a better education because charters don’t meet some voters’ ideal of what a public school should be. Children don’t live in the long term. They need us to deliver now.”

Elmont Memorial High School

Just outside Queens, N.Y., in Nassau County, Elmont Memorial High School has been on a path of improvement for more than 20 years, which makes it a very special school indeed.

While New York state only graduates about 80 percent of its students — and significantly fewer low-income students and students of color — the percentage of all students Elmont consistently graduates is in the mid to high 90s, at a school where almost all students are African American or Latino.

But the school’s faculty isn’t satisfied to merely graduate their students — they work to ensure that they are ready for postsecondary work, and most graduates go on to enroll in college. Many graduates (44 percent in 2011) have an advanced designation on their diplomas, indicating accomplishment in more advanced math and other subjects.

Elmont’s improvement began in 1990 when Diane Scricca assumed the principalship. Looking back, she says, it was a “mediocre” school with graduation rates that hovered around 80 percent. Most of the African American and low-income students were in “modified,” or remedial classes taught at a very low level. With a lot of training of teachers in how to teach to all students, she eliminated the low-level classes. Today, all classes are either Regents-level (college preparatory) classes or advanced.

Since 2007, the school has been led by John Capozzi, who was originally hired by Scricca as a social studies teacher. He has maintained a focus on improving instruction through a careful system of classroom observation by leaders and teacher colleagues that focuses closely on whether lessons are engaging and interesting as well as pegged to rigorous standards. “You have to move the rock slowly,” he says, adding that the goal is always to ensure that every student graduates prepared for the next level.

Students respond to the high expectations with great pride. “The teachers really work hard to make sure that you graduate,” said one. “That’s why I really like this school.”

'Success is the norm': the unlikely school where students sweep the Ivy League

By Guardian UK Friday 8 April 2016

Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna isn’t the first student at Elmont Memorial high school to get into all eight Ivy League universities – what sets the school apart?

Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna says she’ll visit all of the schools by the end of the month and pick the one that makes her ‘feel right’.

For the second year running, Elmont Memorial high school, a public school serving a small community of around 33,000 in Long Island, New York, has produced what few schools could ever dream of: a student who has gained admittance to all eight Ivy League schools. 

Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna, a 17-year-old Nigerian-American who has spent most of her life in Elmont has been offered a place in each one of the prestigious east coast institutions – Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Yale, Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania. She also was admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University and NYU.


Uwamanzu-Nna was at a badminton meetup when she got the news (she checked the application results on her phone). She started running, screaming with joy and crying, she says.

But Uwamanzu-Nna is not the only student from Elmont to accomplish this amazing feat. Last year, Harold Ekeh also swept the Ivies – and ended up opting for Yale. It is extremely rare for students to get into all eight Ivies – rarer still for two to do so from the same school. So what sets Elmont apart? Is there something in the water? The teaching methods?

David Spinnato, a first-year science research teacher at Elmont Memorial, who has been at the school for 14 years, says none of his students’ accomplishments should be credited to the teachers: “It’s not about us, it’s all about them.”

But even if Uwamanzu-Nna’s accomplishments are doubtlessly due to her own hard work and intellect, the public high school’s record is near immaculate. Elmont Memorial has been the subject of national awards and a case study for academics seeking to understand what makes public schools work well for years. It has a 98% graduation rate, with 98% of its students continuing their education post-high school, more than half of them in four-year colleges.

“We work very hard to make sure that every single student in here reaches their fullest potential,” explains Elmont Memorial’s principal, Kevin Dougherty. “Success is the norm here.”

Dougherty, who high-fives students and shakes their hand as he walks through the institution’s corridors (saying “good afternoon, Sir” to the students, not the other way round) says the high school’s student body is very “un-hierarchical”, meaning there are no set groups of athletes versus geeks – no cool kids not mixing with uncool kids. All students are taught to be supportive and curious of each other. “It’s OK to be involved in anything you want to be involved in.”

During last year’s beginning of school “pep rally”, the student crowd went wild when the marching band came on to the field, he recalls.

High-performing schools like Elmont are often found in affluent suburbs, such as New Trier in the Chicago suburbs, where the families are privileged and the student body is majority white. But that is not the case at Elmont

Elmont Memorial high school’s principal, Kevin Dougherty.

Out of a total student body of just under 2,000, 75% is African American, 12% is Hispanic, 8% is Asian and just 1% is white.


But Elmont’s demographics do not line up with the demographics of the community, where at least one-fifth of the population is white. This suggests that despite the high school’s performance, many of Elmont’s white children are choosing to attend private schools (Elmont is the only public school in the area). They may want to reconsider.

“When people look at the demographics of our school, they make assumptions about it, and about the community it is in. But this community doesn’t fit the stereotype. It is a hard-working community with a strong middle class,” Dougherty says, explaining he accepted the job at this school precisely because of how invested and committed parents and the community seemed to be in their local public education.


Still, not all of Elmont’s students fall into the middle class: 45% of the kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.


Dougherty highlights the advantages of being in a multicultural environment at school, thanks to the many different backgrounds of its pupils. “It is good they are not in a homogenous environment. We are preparing them to go out into a world that is very diverse.”


For Uwamanzu-Nna, whose father is a physical therapist who originally emigrated to the United States because of his work, coming into contact with teachers like Spinnato, and his science research teacher colleague Michelle Flannory, meant expanding her horizons and learning to “academically have an open mind”.


What she ended up being most passionate about was perhaps slightly unexpected. Cement and concrete have been the subject of her research for the last three years.




The question is; are they black immigrants’ children or really African Americans?
This girl's parents are Nigerian not African American. I noticed that children of black immigrants tend to perform better than children of African Americans. They are not yet locked into a cycle of poverty.


Parents are the #1 factor in success but schools can do wonders as well.


I would have liked to hear more about the research component in this school's curriculum. I did not have any science research teachers at my high school or any research opportunities whatsoever. Seems like the key to these students' success, aside from their brilliance, is that they can show the Ivies that they have already done research and will not need to be walked through the process during their first couple of years.


"says the high school’s student body is very “un-hierarchical”, meaning there are no set groups of athletes versus geeks – no cool kids not mixing with uncool kids. All students are taught to be supportive and curious of each other." - I don't think this is it. The kids seem to want to form "cool” groups all on their own without any encouragement. I am not sure how a school could counter that.


In my experience high expectations produce better results everything else being equal.

Sadly, the Ivy League is heavily biased towards ethnic and other visible minorities. My son got 97th percentile on the SAT, and has an incredible resume of achievement and volunteer service. He was rejected by all Ivy League schools. He knows people that got 59%-68% on the same SAT test, with no achievement of note. They got in. The difference? They are Native American and black - and he is white. We have extreme, horrifying, reverse discrimination against white males and it is just as wrong as discrimination against any other group.


That might be partly accurate but, more significantly, universities are looking at much more than test scores when they consider people and that's really fantastic because test scores aren't a good metric for intelligence or success.

Race/ethnicity isn't any kind of metric of intelligence or success. So why have so many universities decided to treat it as a critical factor in admissions?


Elmont is in Nassau County where the property taxes are among the highest in the state in order to adequately fund the schools. Most folks move out there for the schools and don't mind paying. You get what you pay for.


I remember years ago, a mediocre state college in upstate NY, where I worked in support services, hired a new president. Rain, snow or shine, she would walk the campus mingling with students, faculty and other personnel. She was not afraid to fire incompetent workers and praise others. Worked long hours, made sure students benefiting from remedial help got it and troublemakers were basically forced to leave. 20 years later this is among the best colleges in the vast SUNY system, thanks to this unselfish, dedicated woman.  Management makes the difference. True of every institution.

The revival of Foster High: School filled with refugees makes a comeback

The Seattle Times - January 2, 2016

By Ben Stocking: 206-464-2225 or Seattle Times education reporter


Just four years ago, Foster High’s test scores were low and morale lower. But in a dramatic turnaround, achievement now is way up, especially in math.

On his very first calculus exam, Sergey Pristupa got a big, fat F. On the ceiling above his bed, he taped his grade — a measly 54 percent — and stared at it each night before drifting off to sleep. And he vowed to do better, showing up at 6:30 a.m. for extra help from a teacher who was at his desk before sunrise.

His grades went up. He never got another below 85 percent.


Pristupa’s classroom trajectory mirrors that of his school, Foster High in Tukwila, one of the nation’s most diverse schools. Seventy-five percent of the students are immigrants and refugees, from virtually every strife-torn corner of the globe.


A few years ago, Foster High was a chaotic place with dizzying staff turnover and students getting kicked out left and right. The school’s math scores were dismal, with fewer than one-fifth of students passing the state algebra test.


But over the past four years, the school has made a striking turnaround after major changes in staff, leadership, atmosphere and curriculum.

From 2012 until 2014, it made a greater leap in math than any other high school in Washington but one. Last year, the AP calculus kids outscored their peers around the state and nation. And graduation rates jumped from 55 to 70 percent — still below the state average of 77 percent, but vastly improved.


The list of changes made by Foster’s staff is long. To illustrate, Principal Pat Larson produced a spreadsheet with three columns and dozens of items in each, ranging from new discipline policies to improved internal communications to doubled enrollment in college-level Advanced Placement classes.


Stable leadership was crucial, too, which the school achieved two-and-a-half years ago, when Larson arrived with her strong listening skills and a deep commitment to the school. She graduated from Foster, as did her children, her parents and her grandparents.


Foster still lags behind other state schools in some indicators, particularly reading. But morale is high. And the occasional fistfight notwithstanding, peace reigns in corridors filled with kids from countries torn by clan warfare, religious conflict and civil strife.


The students come from 51 countries and speak 44 languages. At a recent meeting of the hip-hop club, Justine Palacio, a 4’10’’ Filipina firecracker, taught her latest choreography to a Muslim girl in a hijab, a Christian girl from Iran, and kids from Burma, Laos, Mexico, Guam, Japan, Vietnam and Cambodia.


The Dawg Squad is Foster High School’s hip hop dance club, started by Justine Palacio in 2014. Watch as the students prepare choreography and perform it two weeks later. (Mike Siegel and Corinne Chin / The Seattle Times)

Larson and Foster teachers have a hard time putting their finger on any one change as key. The story of Foster’s rise may be as simple — and hard — as figuring out what their students need — English lessons, extra math help, a warm jacket or a quiet room — and finding a way to get it.


“We adjusted our program to meet the needs of our kids, and they have really flowered,” said math teacher Brian Seigel.


Staff turnover

Andrea Gamboa, a social-studies teacher, remembers the bad old days at Foster all too well. “By my eighth year, I was on my tenth principal,” she said. “It was a nightmare.”


In one year, nearly half the teachers left. In another, African-American staffers filed a civil-rights lawsuit against the black ex-superintendent, with one claiming she referred to him as “J. Darky.”


“It was really hard to work here,” Gamboa said. “I’m sure it was hard to go to school here, too.”


Gamboa stuck it out for one simple reason: She loves the challenge of working with students from all over the world.


“We have kids who come to Foster who have never flipped a light switch and some who arrive speaking British English. Working here has been the best education I’ve ever had.”


The new kids started arriving in the mid-1990s, transforming what had been an overwhelmingly white school. That’s when the International Rescue Committee, which has an office less than a mile away, began settling refugees in Tukwila, where cheap housing was widely available.

First came the Bosnians and the Serbs, as well as Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians. Then came Somalis and Ethiopians and Eritreans. The most recent wave has brought Burmese, Nepalese, Iranians and Iraqis.


Jeewan Poudel, a Foster junior, grew up in a Nepali refugee camp in a ramshackle house with dirt floors, a tin roof and no plumbing. He waited in line for two and a half hours to fill the family’s water jugs before lugging them back home.


When he arrived in Seattle five years ago, his incomprehension of American culture was as vast as his English vocabulary was tiny. In his first days here, he figured he could follow Alaska Street straight to Anchorage, a memory that now makes him laugh.

Many Foster students are coping with the aftermath of trauma, and school counselors have had training to help with that.


“I have seen a lot of dead bodies and a lot of people killing each other,” said Hamza Abdullahi, a junior who came to Tukwila three years ago from a Kenyan refugee camp after his parents fled Ethiopia, their homeland.

One day, Abdullahi was walking home when he saw a man with a small bag of groceries fleeing an angry mob run toward him. Poor and desperate, he had apparently stolen the food to feed his family.

The man tripped and fell at Abdullahi’s feet. Two men stepped forward and shot him in the chest in front of his daughter, who looked to be 5 or 6 years old. She leaned down and hugged him. “Daddy, I love you,” she cried.


“I had nightmares for three months after that,” Abdullahi said.


Abdullahi is thriving at Foster, where he just organized an intramural soccer league. He works weekends at a Whole Foods because, he said, “I don’t want to ask anyone for anything. I want to help other people.”

New approach to math.


Foster’s transformation first took root in the math department, where a strong corps of teachers has bonded in the years since all the staff turmoil.

Among them is Seigel, who arrived in 2008, after six of seven department members quit. A former Peace Corps volunteer, he saw the grim situation as an opportunity. “We had nowhere to go but up.”

In his second year, Seigel became the department chair. He and his colleagues promptly threw out a curriculum based on small-group discussions — not the best fit for kids still learning English. And they replaced a textbook that posed word problems such as American football yardage to kids who only knew soccer and the metric system.

They developed a culturally appropriate, in-house curriculum and found a more traditional textbook with fewer confusing word problems.


Meanwhile, the staff consulted with their counterparts at the local middle school, examining the grades and test scores of entering freshmen. And they added a class for ninth-graders who weren’t ready for algebra.

In 2010, Foster students scored 25 points below the state average on their end-of-year exam. Over the next four years, they were an average of 11 points ahead.

And after Jeff Lewis took over the calculus classes three years ago, those scores also surged. In the five previous years, just 21 percent of the students passed the Advanced Placement exam. Two years ago, that figure shot up to 59 percent, and last year hit 73 percent — above the state and national average.

On a recent morning, Lewis stood in front of his class in shorts, white sneakers and a Hawaiian-style shirt, dispensing a blend of cornball humor and explication that has proved effective. He described “extrema” — the maximum or minimum value of a function.


“I think I’m going to go to a rave tonight and take some extrema,” he deadpanned. “Actually, I don’t even know what a rave is, but whenever I say it, adolescents laugh.”


He shows up at 6 a.m. to help students like Pristupa — the guy with the 54 percent plastered above his bed — and holds Saturday classes when exams are approaching.


“He’s the best teacher in the school,” said Pristupa, who ultimately passed the AP exam last year.


In 2012 and 2014, Foster scored all tens on the 10-point scale the state Office of Public Instruction uses to measure math improvement.


“That is quite an accomplishment,” said Andrew Parr, a statistician in the state’s education department. “For any school to have all tens like that is very unusual.”

Breaking a cycle

When Larson arrived in 2013, she undertook a systemic review of the school’s approach to instruction, its structure and its culture. Did the curriculum meet the needs of all students? Did the school have coherent communications systems? Did the faculty, students and staff treat one another with respect?

The answer, she found, was a resounding no. The teachers were angry and resentful at the administration. Students were missing class. Those who fell behind had no way to catch up.

“If you have a dysfunctional culture, people are at each other,” Larson said. “And when you have a cycle of failure in place, it causes a hopeless feeling for everybody.”

She spent her first year mending the administration’s broken relationship with the staff. She started by holding two days of rolling staff meetings, inviting teachers to share their thoughts about the school’s successes and failures.


Despite all the anger, Larson emerged from the meetings feeling hopeful. She had been at schools where the staff believed their students were incapable of learning. At Foster, no one was ready to consign their students to failure.


“One hundred percent of our teachers said they were invested in these kids,” Larson said. “And if you’ve got teachers who are invested in the kids, all you have to do is wrap everything else around that.”


Many of the first changes she implemented were organizational — a master schedule for the entire school, a staff newsletter and calendar that kept everyone on the same page.


Improving the dismal graduation rate — then just 55 percent — was a priority. But Larson wanted to improve education for all kids, not just those at the bottom.


Advanced Placement classes were opened up to anyone who wanted to enroll. The counselors interviewed each student one-on-one to make sure they didn’t overcommit. And Larson found money for an AP boot camp each summer to prepare students for the hard work to come.

Meanwhile, the school took steps to help struggling students graduate. That meant long conversations persuading the district to change its discipline policy, which had forbidden suspended students from making up missed homework. Staffers scoured achievement data to see which kids were in danger of failing, and the school hired a staff member to help students find online credit recovery classes and other supports.


Larson has also boosted the school’s commitment to the AVID program, which seeks out students in the middle — kids who have the potential to thrive at college but need an extra push to get there.​​


Even with all the improvements, many Foster students need extra help. It’s hard to be a student when your parents have little education, money is tight, and your house is tiny — assuming you’re lucky enough to have one.

The school’s guidance counselors serve as de-facto social workers, fielding requests for help with utility bills and eviction notices — even dealing with bedbugs and moldy apartments.

“We come in and hear hard, hard stories,” said Laura Linde, Foster’s chief guidance counselor. “We don’t always have the resources to help.”


They usually find a way.

They found bedding for the family of Tavaesina Maiava, a Foster senior known to her classmates as “T.” Her large Pacific Islander family had lived in various homeless shelters before arriving in Tukwila. They now stay in a two-bedroom apartment donated by the Riverton Park United Methodist Church, where T’s father plays piano.

For a long time, T kept her situation a secret. But in her sophomore year, her language-arts teacher assigned an essay and told the class to make it pack an emotional punch.

“My family was homeless,” T wrote.

She read the essay to the class. She read it to the Pacific Islander Club. Each time, she cried.

Finally, she read it to the entire school at Foster’s Homecoming, a massive cultural celebration with a parade of flags, international dances and lots of spicy food.

“I knew I wasn’t the only one going through that kind of struggle,” T said. “I didn’t want people to be voiceless.”

She also wanted to show that homeless kids could succeed at school. A senior, she sings in the choir, is president of the Pacific Islander club, and takes two advanced-placement classes.

To T and her classmates, two Foster teachers recently published a letter in the school newspaper, reassuring them in the aftermath of world events that have stirred a backlash against immigrants.


“The experiences that you have lived, the lens through which you view the world, the voice you bring to our community — these are all vital parts of the chapter that you bring to our collective story,” they wrote. “Know this: whoever you are, whatever your story — you are and always will be important to us and to Foster.”

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