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Supporters see possibility of reviving Tucson district’s ethnic studies program

Lorenzo Lopez, a history teacher at Cholla High School in Tucson and a former Mexican American Studies teacher, said the new desegregation plan in Tucson Unified School District has the potential to restore the Mexican American Studies program. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Natasha Khan)

Lorenzo Lopez, a history teacher at Cholla High School in Tucson and a former Mexican American Studies teacher, said the new desegregation plan in Tucson Unified School District has the potential to restore the Mexican American Studies program. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Natasha Khan)

TUCSON – Supporters of the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies curriculum banned by a 2010 state law see potential for reviving the program or something similar in an update to a desegregation plan set for review by a federal court.

The plan stems from a 1978 settlement to a lawsuit alleging that the district discriminated against African-American and Mexican-American students. The draft update, filed Nov. 9 in U.S. District Court, is to a plan the district, plaintiffs, U.S. Justice Department and a court-appointed special master have offered to end court oversight and close the case.

It doesn’t cite Mexican American Studies classes directly but calls for the implementation of “socially and culturally relevant curriculum” focused on “the perspectives of African and Latino communities.”

“The way it’s written right now, it provides a great opportunity for the reinstatement of this department,” said Lorenzo Lopez, a history teacher at Cholla High School and a former Mexican American Studies teacher.

The Mexican American Studies program focused on the history and culture of Latinos in America with an emphasis on Mexican-American literature.

The program ended in January after the district unsuccessfully challenged the law, spearheaded by former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, currently the state’s attorney general. Horne accused teachers of politicizing classrooms and said the program segregated students.

The law bars public schools from teaching classes that promote “the overthrow” of the government, encourage “ethnic solidarity” or “promote resentment” toward other ethnic groups.

The end of the program sparked protests in the district, in which 61 percent of students are Latino. A separate lawsuit, filed by 13 Mexican American Studies teachers and two students, is awaiting a decision in state court.

The desegregation plan centers on equalizing the racial makeup of the district’s schools, enhancing the diversity of administrators and improving educational opportunities for black and Hispanic students. The draft update filed Nov. 9 is called a unitary status plan.

A public comment period on the draft ends Wednesday, Nov. 28. The final version is to be submitted to a federal judge on Dec. 10.

A November news release from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) said an essential part of the plan is the “restoration” of a Latino-focused curriculum.

Nancy Ramirez, an attorney from MALDEF, said although the plan doesn’t refer to the program specifically, the language is a strategy to improve educational outcomes of black and Latino students and close achievement gaps.

“The language in the unitary status plan provides a framework and a mandate for the district to provide culturally relevant curriculum with a Latino focus,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez said that if the proposed plan wins federal court approval, the state law banning the Mexican American Studies program wouldn’t apply to it.

“The state can object, just like anybody else who’s a member of the public,” Ramirez said. “It’s not a party to this action.”

Neither Horne nor current Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal returned telephone messages seeking comment by Monday afternoon.

If the plan wins court approval, it’s unclear how the district would implement its requirements in light of the state restrictions.

“It is a very contentious issue,” said Sam Brown, the district’s desegregation director.

Brown said there’s no question if the proposed plan is approved by a federal judge the “culturally relevant curriculum” would be implemented, but he said the important question is whether the program will be the same as before.

“Are you bringing back something that was here before or is it doing something different?” Brown said.

He said that will be decided by the district’s governing board.

Stephen Nuño, an associate professor at Northern Arizona University’s Department of Politics and International Affairs, said the language could create some kind of pathway to restore the Mexican American Studies program.

“It pretty much substantively looks similar to what we’ve had in the past,” Nuño said.

Nolan Cabrera, an assistant professor at University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, said the language in the plan leaves the door open for the classes but doesn’t mandate them. Cabrera conducted a study that found students who took Mexican American Studies courses graduated high school and fared better on the AIMS test than those who didn’t.

“In my interpretation, the wording allows for the possibility but is not an explicit directive to restore that which has been eliminated,” Cabrera said.

About the Mexican American Studies program:

• Began in the late 1990s in an effort to close the achievement gap of minority students in the Tucson Unified School District.
• Barred under a 2010 state law barring schools from teaching classes that promote “the overthrow” of the government, encourage “ethnic solidarity” or “promote resentment” toward other ethnic groups.
• The district’s governing board appealed the ban but lost the case in late 2011.
• Facing the loss of $14 million in state aid, the board voted to end the program as of January of this year.

Cronkite NewsWatch reporter Lesley Marin contributed to this story.

One comment

  1. Attorney General Tom Horne continues to be the perfect example of the disconnect that exists between public policy implementation and the interestests of the people those policies are meant to serve. It is shameful.

    As a National Board Certified Teacher with 15 years experience, I am proud to have been a faculty member of Cholla High Magnet School for 3 years, and know that the Ethnic Studies Program as well as the International Baccalaureate Diploma Progeramme are two of the most Socially Just and effective curricular models at play in TUSD. In short, these programs stregthen the district by helping it maintain credibility as well as keep up with the changing face (and role) of education. These programs support and facilitate the inclusion of often marginalized members of our coummunity and validates the valuable experienes these students bring with them to the classroom. Most importantly this then helps students connect their experience to the greater world; not just Latino students, but all students who are lucky enough to be involved in these programs.

    My hope for the students of TUSD is that Larry Lopez, Ms. Ramirez and everyone concerned with social justice in education continue to be vocal, fight the good fight and keep being the voice that EVERY TUSD student deserves.

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