Ethnic Studies Equals Politically Conscious Latino Students -- Which is Exactly Why Its Enemies Want to Kill It


Enemies of the Tucson Unified School District's ethnic studies program would have the public believe that a cabal of commie educators are teaching revolution in TUSD's classrooms.

The reality is not quite as sexy as this vision of young Patty Hearsts, Huey Newtons, and Bernardine Dohrns getting groomed with lessons on Marxism and Chairman Mao.

Indeed, to listen to the likes of former state Schools Superintendent and current Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, the primary pusher of the ethnic studies ban signed into law last year by Governor Jan Brewer, you'd think Tucson high school kids are learning how to hate whitey and make pipe bombs.

This is also the general line, BTW, that the Arizona Republic's official crotchety old white man, Doug MacEachern, who — like a lot of mean, ornery, tea-bagger-esque ofays — is genuinely terrified of young, intelligent Latinos, armed with facts and logic.

God forbid these young people ever grow up, go to college, and become Horne and MacEachern's worst nightmares: members of a new political establishment that will condemn theirs to a timely grave.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit a Mexican American Studies class, something Horne has never done, despite his signing a "finding" that calls for the program's elimination.

TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone rejected my request to observe such a class in action. Via e-mail, his assistant cited "distractions, controversy, and end-of-year issues."

This is a new policy, instituted by Pedicone, who officially became superintendent this year. And it is part of a climate of fear that pervades the ethnic-studies teaching ranks. TUSD teachers told me that they're being closely watched by administrators, who are looking for any excuse to investigate them and retaliate. All on Pedicone's orders.

Which is why I will not tell you the name of the teacher whose class I sat in on or what school the teacher works in. I even have to be vague about the specifics of what was taught, because that would identify the class and the instructor.

I can tell you that MacEachern, Horne, and current state Schools Superintendent John Huppenthal, who campaigned, in part, on a platform opposed to the 13-year-old courses, would have been deeply disappointed.

Essentially, the students read a passage by a Hispanic-American author. The subject was self-empowerment, not the "victimization" that Horne and others believe is preached.

A writing assignment centered on this theme. Current events concerning the effort by some on the TUSD school board to make ethnic studies an elective were discussed. Several students expressed that if this were to happen, they would not be able to fit the class into their course load. The program would probably then whither away.

The teacher led the discussion but did not force an opinion on the teenagers. Other than the text and the subject matter, the class could have been any social studies or literature class anywhere in America.

Why do these classes exist? To answer this question, you need only look around the campuses and observe. More than 60 percent of TUSD's students are Hispanic. One middle school in TUSD is 92 percent Latino. In one high school, 71 percent of attendees are Latino. Another high school is 89 percent Latino students.

These are shocking numbers, and evidence that the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education, which held that separate educational facilities for students of different races are "inherently unequal," has been effectively undermined by white flight and the rise of charter schools.

Tucson's ethnic-studies classes were the result of a desegregation lawsuit brought in the 1970s. There are also African-American and Native American courses, but Mexican American Studies is the largest of these disciplines.

MAS was created to address the disparity between dropout rates and low test scores of Latinos versus other students. The idea behind it is to engage at-risk students with history and literature that speaks to them and their experiences.

"The students see themselves in the curriculum," Sean Arce, director of the program, told me during my last trek to Tucson. "They see themselves as part of the American experience, as contributors to society."

Arce, who helped develop the courses along with the teachers involved, explained that the subject matter is the "hook" educators use to motivate the kids and get them reading and writing. Many of these students may otherwise have ended up flunking their courses or dropping out.

"The majority of our kids qualify for free or reduced lunch. So, they're at poverty level," Arce said. "According to the AIMS data that the district released, it demonstrates that they're the lowest academically achieving students coming into our classes. By the time they leave our classes, they close that achievement gap."

Even Pedicone, who was not available for an interview by press time, has conceded that the classes have resulted in higher AIMS test scores, a higher graduation rate, and a higher rate of matriculation to college.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons