Profile in Courage: On Frontlines of Arizona Crisis, Mexican American Studies Director Sean Arce Teaches Nation an Enduring Lesson

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Profile in Courage: On Frontlines of Arizona Crisis, Mexican American Studies Director Sean Arce Teaches Nation an Enduring Lesson

As Tucson Unified School District students returned to the classroom yesterday, the towering role of one education innovator is being championed by a broad spectrum of local students, parents, teachers, community members and national scholars.

Over the past decade, Sean Arce, the esteemed director and co-founder of the district's Mexican American Studies program has rescued the floundering district's reputation from an embarrassing desegregation court order and No Child Left Behind mandates to close the high school achievement gap, created and instituted a nationally acclaimed curriculum with a host of other scholars that has reversed troubling drop-out rates among Latino students, and overseen one of the most successful academic programs in the state.

Despite the extraordinary stress and uncertainty over Arizona's controversial ban on Ethnic Studies, which Arce and his fellow Mexican American Studies teachers have challenged in a landmark case in federal court as a violation of constitutional rights, the famously calm program director remains an inspiring figure for educators across the country.

Even now, suddenly stripped of his supervisory duties in a unilateral and political decision by an assistant superintendent for the first time since the Mexican American Studies program was created in the late 1990s, Arce's national role as a cultural broker, education pioneer, scholar and respected mediator has taught his district a critical lesson on the frontlines of Arizona's Ethnic Studies crisis: Once the dust settles in the bewildering witch hunt by transient Tea Party state officials and school administrators, Arce's documented success and legacy will remain as enduring as his family's Tucson-founding roots.

"Mr. Arce has been in the business of saving lives for many years, whether he realizes it or not," said Jesus "Tito" Romero, a 2007 alumni of the Mexican American Studies program. "It wasn't until I had Sean Arce as a history teacher that I discovered what it meant to be as a student, and I soon realized that Mr. Arce had not only saved my life, but had changed and touched so many others."

In the tradition of Esteban Ochoa, the first Mexican American mayor of Tucson, who defied the Arizona territorial legislature in founding and funding the first public school in Tucson in the 1870s, Arce has drawn on his family's legacy and history in drawing national attention to Tucson's celebrated Mexican American Studies program. While he was raised in Oakland, both of Arce's parents and extended families grew up in historic Tucson barrios; his father helped a community endeavor that sent local music legend Lalo Guerrero, "the father of Chicano music," off to fame in California; his beloved mother served as a translator and mentor. Returning to Tucson to study at the University of Arizona, where he also played football, Arce soon replanted himself in the Tucson school system as a popular mentor and curriculum specialist. After a brief stint at the United Farm Workers, Arce helped to co-found Tucson Unified School District's (TUSD) Mexican American Studies (MAS) program.

"Mr. Arce has an exceptionally gifted intellect and is a highly competent administrator," noted Dr. Devon G. Peña, Past Chair of the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies. "Under his leadership, MAS-TUSD has become the nation's most innovative and successful academic and instructional program in Ethnic Studies at the secondary school level."

Over the last several years, Arce and a cross section of educators and scholars have designed scores of culturally relevant and rigorous curricula that serve as the foundation for today's Ethnic Studies/Mexican American Studies programs. Over 60 percent of TUSD's students share a Mexican American heritage. According to a recent audit commissioned by Arizona's state superintendent of public instruction, the MAS program was not only in full compliance with Arizona laws, but students in the MAS high school program "graduate in the very least at a rate of 5 percent more than their counterparts in 2005, and at the most, a rate of 11 percent more in 2010."

"Anyone who has visited classrooms run by the Mexican American Studies program in Tuscon would know that the goal is not to teach hate or sow division," said Dr. Pedro Noguera, Executive Director for the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University. "Under the leadership of Sean Arce, the program has paved the way in helping students and teachers make connections between the school curriculum and the student's history and culture. These efforts have produced heightened student engagement and deepened their motivation to learn. Those who are serious about finding ways to help schools reach all students should support such efforts and oppose the petty and punitive actions of Arizona's Attorney General."

Such success has not gone unnoticed by scholars and educators across the country, especially as the Ethnic Studies program has come under assault by Tea Party activists and extremist state officials, including Attorney General Tom Horne, State Superintendent John Huppenthal and disgraced Tea Party icon and state senate president Russell Pearce.

Dr. Sonia W. Soltero, in the College of Education at DePaul University, noted:

The political move by the state of Arizona to make the teaching of a social studies curriculum illegal is both draconian and anti-democratic. A curriculum that offers the often ignored histories, experiences, and contributions of the largest ethnic group in the U.S., and presents different perspectives in literature, expands the knowledge and understanding of both Mexican-American and non-Latinos students. Without any empirical evidence, detractors claim that the Ethnic Studies Program promotes antagonistic relations between Mexican-American youth and mainstream society. By contrast, advocates of the program can point to empirically-based record of increased academic outcomes and graduation rates for students who participate in the program.

In the face of the current teacher-bashing and anti-school climate, the actions taken by Sean Arce and the other 10 Tucson educators, show extraordinary courage and conviction. Defending the academic freedom and the rights of minority students to learn different perspectives of their own histories as well as legally challenging an entire state requires an enormous amount of energy, time, resources, and money. While the battle to reinstate the Ethnic Studies program is underway, Sean Arce and the other plaintiffs continue to teach their students, administer school programs, attend to their family responsibilities, and more. Add to this the real potential for retaliation and harassment toward these teachers and school administrators. Their efforts to stand up to the powerful conservative Arizona political machine and its large anti-immigrant constituents are indeed brave.

Dr. David Stovall, at the University of Chicago, added:

Sean's work is emblematic of a collective struggle to ensure the rights of students throughout TUSD to ask critical questions of themselves and society while making informed decisions based on such inquiry. By providing a model for young people to interrogate the disparities familiar to their conditions, they are simultaneously creating pathways to guarantee quality education for current and future students in the district. For these reasons (and countless others), their program should serve as a national model for Ethnic Studies initiatives in K-12 education.

"Mr. Arce greeted me like a neighborhood friend, and on the first day he immediately made the class room space something familiar and comfortable," 2008 MAS alumni Jacob Robles recalled. "It was easy to get us engaged. He made things funny, interesting, but also very serious. I had never had a teacher quite like this, and he had all of the goofballs in the class quiet and listening. I was interested right away and knew I was in the right place. I am forever grateful for having Sean Arce as a teacher for that semester, and enabling my whole life to change from teaching us about one word."

Last spring, Arce attended the standing-room-only premiere of the film documentary Precious Knowledge, which chronicles the inspiring role of Mexican American Studies in educating, transforming and empowering students in Tucson. Arce's father also attended the screening at the Fox Theatre in downtown Tucson, which had been segregated during his youth. The irony wasn't lost on Tucson's national education hero. As he watched the documentary on the role of transformative education alongside his father, who had been forced like all Mexican Americans, African Americans and Native Americans to view film screenings from the segregated balcony seats as a student, the historic role of Arce's work had come full cycle.

Just one more enduring lesson of hope to teach Tucson's incoming students.

Jeff Biggers

Jeff Biggers is the author of The United States of Appalachia, and more recently, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (The Nation/Basic Books). Follow him on twitter: @JeffRBiggers

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