Dear white educators,

If you’ve ever taught at a low-income school with a lot of black or brown kids, I’d bet you’ve shown the movie “Stand and Deliver.

Commentary - in-story logo Recently, educators in San Diego have had the movie on their minds, and have even used it as a shield to protect them from backlash.

First, San Diego Unified school board trustee John Lee Evans brought up the movie as a way to call into question VOSD’s reporting on the district’s graduation rate. Then, Southwest Middle School teacher Keith Ballard brought it up in a conversation about his experience creating a music program in a low-income school.

“In 2010, when Ballard was brought in by then-Superintendent Jesus Gandara to turn the program around, he said he felt like Edward James Olmos’ character in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver. The odds seemed like they were stacked against him,” the Union-Tribune reported.

We get it. You love that movie. But on behalf of all students of color everywhere, please stop. It’s old, cliché and downright offensive.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Since 1988, you’ve used the real-life story of a group of Latino students at an East Los Angeles high school who — under the tough but loving guidance of their math teacher, Jaime Escalante — beat the odds and passed an Advanced Placement calculus exam.

Although I think everyone, not just Latino students, should see the movie at least once, it’s clear that you depend on the movie to calm your own nerves about teaching kids who have been labeled violent, poor or even dumb their entire lives.

It’s a classic white-savior complex — the idea that you’ll swoop in and transform the lives of students of color. And by showing this movie, it confirms your students’ worst fears: that their teacher thinks less of them and defines them by the struggles they face.

I understand the well-meaning if misguided logic behind promoting the movie: If they did it, there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t.


I know, because I lived through it. For years, the west side of Chula Vista was seen as a tough place to live. More than 80 percent of the students at my school were Latino. Sixty-five percent qualified for free and reduced lunch. About 40 percent were still learning English.

I vividly remember the days police officers disrupted my classes at Castle Park Middle School to search for drugs. They’d line us up against the wall as a police dog came around sniffing for anything suspicious.

The first teacher who made us watch “Stand and Deliver” was a math instructor with a dry sense of humor. He was also very fond of district data and often showed us where we ranked compared with other schools. When it came to academic performance, we were always at the bottom.

I guess this, along with making us watch “Stand and Deliver,” was supposed to inspire us to surpass all the challenges we faced, but it just confirmed what we all knew: Everyone thinks we’re dumb.

From then on, the movie became a substitute teacher. Teachers would pop “Stand and Deliver” on the VCR and grade papers, while the rest of us tried to stay awake.

I eventually ended up transferring to a new school on the east side of Chula Vista, where I hoped to never watch “Stand and Deliver” again.

My wish came true. Sort of.

Nobody showed us “Stand and Deliver.” Instead, teachers showed “Freedom Writers,” which is essentially the same movie, only with a white woman playing the role of the hero-teacher instead of Edward James Olmos.

One day, after most of my classmates and I had failed our first geometry test of the year, our teacher made sure she voiced her anger loud and clear.

“You know what this is?!?! This is a ‘fuck you’ to me!” she screamed.

Clearly, this teacher had seen “Freedom Writers.”

Now, I understand that being a white educator working at a school where students of color are the majority may be a bit unsettling, but showing “Stand and Deliver” or “Freedom Writers” isn’t the right way to gain your students’ trust or motivate them to do better. Here’s how that translates to them:

Hey, I don’t know you or situation, but this movie tells me that kids like you have it rough. And, if you listen to me and just work hard, you can also have the same success.

Don’t do that. Students will see right through you. Not to mention, “Stand and Deliver” conveniently sidesteps some of the bigger reasons students struggle, like being labeled as English-learners.

English-learners are put in separate classrooms, forced to focus on learning English while their classmates take college-prep classes. Studies show English-learners learn better when they can take advantage of the skills they already have from their home language — some of which can be accomplished through bilingual education.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of your students probably didn’t have access to bilingual classes, thanks in part to the fact the teacher who inspired “Stand and Deliver” fought alongside those on the conservative right to keep bilingual education out of California schools.

That was Escalante, who continues to be depicted as hero. No thanks.

Challenges like these can’t be ignored or fixed by having students watch a movie that they probably don’t relate to as much as you assume.

And most importantly, don’t do what Evans, the San Diego Unified school board trustee, did after the district’s high graduation rates were called into question. Evans implied that reporting on the district’s graduation rate was tinged with assumptions that students of color couldn’t achieve high standards.

“How is it possible with an urban district with such a diverse population could produce this level of graduation? I’m reminded of the movie that some of you may have seen, ‘Stand and Deliver,’” he said at a recent school board meeting.

The achievement of students of color is not to be used as a feather in your cap. The students are not there to shield you from honest questions about how you’re educating them. They’re not yours to “save” and they’re certainly not there to stroke the egos of educators who’ve never lived where they’ve lived or seen what they’ve seen.

So next time you’re tempted to pop in that inspirational movie and catch up on grading, try talking to your students instead. Engage them. Learn something more about them than their names and test scores. I guarantee they’ll be more willing to learn from you.


A recent college graduate who survived many screenings of “Stand and Deliver” during her time in Chula Vista schools.

    This article relates to: Commentary, Education, English-Learners, Must Reads

    Written by Adriana Heldiz

    Adriana Heldiz is Voice of San Diego’s Assistant Digital Manager. She makes videos and helps manage the organization’s online presence. Adriana can be reached at

    Walter Baranger
    Walter Baranger

    Castle Park High School, shown in the photo, is in the Sweetwater Unified School District -- not San Diego Unified.

    Gerald Sodomka
    Gerald Sodomka

    I hope the writer of this commentary saves a copy to read in 20 years.  The added maturity will be valuable in recognizing the unbalanced presentation of ideas.  The commentary contains youthful hubris and is tinged with latent racism.  I know it's trendy these days to believe that people of color cannot be racist. I suggest the writer take two years to travel and live overseas to gain a deeper appreciation of what this country has to offer in spite of all its deficiencies.  Sub-Saharan Africa  would be a great place to start.  The ethnic and class discrimination would be an eyeopener. 

    Fred Picasso
    Fred Picasso

    Good teachers are good teachers. Color of skin should not matter. Age should not matter. The disturbing reality emerging in Sweetwater High School District: It has become trendy to criticize white, older teachers. SUHSD ALLOWS THEIR VETERAN TEACHERS TO BE ABUSED,

    At Sweetwater Union High School District, the older a teacher gets, especially a female white teacher, the less respect they are given. Male Latino principals are openly racist to the older female teachers, moving them out of their classrooms, giving their classrooms to the younger, Latino teachers. Our kids suffer through this. Good teachers are lost, and nobody at SUHSD seems to care. Jaime Escalante was a good teacher. Being a teacher these days is deflating and depressing when everyone wants to criticize AND THERE IS NO SUPPORT. We need every good teacher we have, and we cannot afford to lose our teachers. Teachers need to be appreciated. Stop the rampant white-teacher abuse. Teachers get depressed from this abuse, Many teachers lose hope, get cancer, and die before they can retire. Teachers work hard, and have families and kids just like everyone else. Quit treating teachers like dirt. Quit the anti-white racism. This abuse is not good for any of us. We need ALL of our teachers.

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    Answer? Be real. To be utterly truthful, I do not have instant rapport with the over 12 group. I do have instant rapport with the under 12 group. The movies mentioned in this article are about Hollywood just like the "hood" flicks of Compton. Kids and families in those communities know what really goes on. And, what really goes on are real people trying to make it through the day. They know "whuz up". There is drama in every neighborhood in America. And, every American wants "it all". Who wouldn't like a paid for Maserati in a paid for house on Mulholland Drive with the rest of their life paid for? 

      It is extremely presumptuous on the part of, well, well meaning people that people, kids do not know "whuz up".  It is human nature to excel. And, it is the role of a teacher to exude a "can do" attitude. Because in the final analysis, each child in each classroom has a destiny, a passion, they want to fulfill.  To have high expectations by a mentor adequately defines that role. 

      Jaime Escalante just didn't understand bilingual education. He didn't really understand teaching. He understood only how to communicate what he knew to the children. Michael Jordan can't do that. Only a teacher can transmit to the new generation the basic truths. There are soccer teams with the best players in high school. But, only a teacher can convey the simplicity of what needs to be accomplished. And,hopefully, there is communal success. 

         Kids from the "hood" can't. Can't what? That just hurts. Robert F. Kennedy had to reinvent himself to understand that "can't" doesn't exist. 

         What "Stand and Deliver" did was focus on the struggles of kids with huge obstacles had to overcome. But, the reality is all kids come to some crucible in life. And, those with the inner strength, the support system, and the tenacity will succeed. 

          It's easy to look at a child and say "no". It's much harder to listen to that child and say "yes", making the Hollywood films inspirational,but kinda irrelevant. 

           I do understand the objection the children have to good, inspirational, but...really....irrelevant movies. 

            Some where over the a good mantra.