Escalante (Olmos) becomes a math teacher at James A. Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. The school is full of Hispanic students from working-class families who are far below their grade level in terms of academic skills and also have a lot of social problems. Escalante seeks to change the school culture to help the students excel in academics. He soon realizes the untapped potential of his class and sets a goal of having the students taking AP Calculus by their senior year. Escalante instructs his class under the philosophy of ganas, roughly translating to "desire" or "motivation."
The students begin taking summer classes in advanced mathematics with Escalante, who must withstand the cynicism of the other faculty, which feels that the students are not capable enough. As they struggle with the lower expectations that they face in society, Escalante helps them to overcome adversity and to pass the AP Calculus exams.
To his dismay, the Educational Testing Service questions the success of the students, insisting there is too much overlap in their errors and suggesting the students cheated. Escalante defends his students and feels that the allegations are based more on racial and economic perceptions. He offers to have the students retake the test months later, and the students all succeed in passing the test again, despite only a day to prepare, which ends all concerns of cheating. Edward James Olmos as Jaime EscalanteLou Diamond Phillips as Angel David GuzmanRosanna DeSoto as Fabiola EscalanteAndy García as Dr. RamirezIngrid Oliu as LupeWill Gotay as PanchoLydia Nicole as Rafaela FuentesVanessa Marquez as Ana DelgadoJames Victor as Mr. Delgado, Ana's fatherEstelle Harris as school secretary
Ten of the students agreed to sign waivers to allow the College Board their exam parts to Jay Mathews, the author of Escalante: The Best Teacher in America. Mathews found that nine of them had made "identical silly mistakes" on free response question 6. Mathews heard from two of the students that during the exam, a piece of paper had been passed around with that flawed solution. Twelve students, including the nine with the identical mistakes, retook the exam, and most of them received the top 4 and 5 scores. In 1987, 27% of all Mexican Americans who scored 3 or higher on the calculus AP exam were students at Garfield High. Mathews wrote in Los Angeles Times that the Ana Delgado character "was the only teenage character in the film based on a real person" and that her name had been changed.
Escalante first began teaching at Garfield High School in 1974 and taught his first AP Calculus course in 1978 with a group of 14 students. Only five students remained in the course at the end of the year, only two of whom passed the AP Calculus exam. Reason stated, "Unlike the students in the movie, the real Garfield students required years of solid preparation before they could take calculus. So Escalante established a program at East Los Angeles College where students could take those classes in intensive seven-week summer sessions. Escalante and [principal Henry] Gradillas were also instrumental in getting the feeder schools to offer algebra in the eighth and ninth grades.
Escalante himself described the film as "90% truth, 10% drama." He stated that several points were left out of the film. He pointed out that no student who did not know multiplication tables or fractions was ever taught calculus in a single year. Also, he suffered inflammation of the gall bladder, not a heart attack.
In December 2011, Stand and Deliver was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. The Registry said the film was "one of the most popular of a new wave of narrative feature films produced in the 1980s by Latino filmmakers" and that it "celebrates in a direct, approachable, and impactful way, values of self-betterment through hard work and power through knowledge."
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2003: AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains:Jaime A. Escalante – Nominated Hero2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – #86
The episode of South Park entitled "Eek, a Penis!" borrows heavily from the plot of Stand and Deliver, with Cartman assuming a similar role to that played by Edward James Olmos, but in the film, the students were falsely accused of cheating. In the episode, the students actually cheated and got away with it.
American senator Rand Paul (R-KY) was accused of plagiarizing near-verbatim portions of the plot summary from the Wikipedia article on Stand and Deliver in two speeches on immigration.