Edward James Olmos stars as Jaime Escalante, a new teacher at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. After the kids get used to him, they nickname him Kemo, short for Kemo Sabe which was used by Tonto for his friend and leader in The Lone Ranger.
Kemo must have felt like the Lone Ranger when he was battling against apathy, low morale, and low expectations. But he refused to give up on the kids. He wanted to raise everyone’s expectations so that the kids would accept the opportunity given to them. Some saw him as a relentless teacher, and some saw him as a hero. As he challenged his students, attitudes and perspectives changed. The kids could see their futures changing before their eyes – until they were accused of cheating.
Several young actors stood out as key figures in this fictional account of a true story. Lou Diamond Phillips played one of the students who had the courage to change his future. Phillips had just played Ritchie Valens in La Bamba in 1987 and would play Jose in Young Guns after Stand and Deliver.
The happy ending was enhanced by the testimonial statistics at the end that showed how the success started by Escalante and his students wasn’t a one-time fluke.