With Historic Desegregation Plan, Will Tucson Reinstate Mexican American Studies?

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Common Dreams

With Historic Desegregation Plan, Will Tucson Reinstate Mexican American Studies?

Interview with Co-Founder Sean Arce

Overshadowed by the ballot fallout in the recent elections in Arizona, a long-awaited and historic federal desegregation proposal was released earlier this month that could reinstate the Tucson Unified School District's nationally acclaimed but dismantled Mexican American Studies Program.

The next three days in Tucson could set the stage for one of the most important education revivals in the nation. And one nationally celebrated educator from Tucson--Mexican American Studies co-founder Sean Arce--should return to the forefront and stand out as its resilient helmsman.

As students, parents, educators and nationwide observers line up at three public forums in Tucson this week to offer their comments on the "Unitary Status Plan," a proposed agreement overseen by a federally appointed special master and negotiated by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and legal representatives for African American students, two facts remain: No other high school program in the nation has gone through such scrutiny, media abuse and disinformation as TUSD's Mexican American Studies program, and no other high school program has continually been vindicated by documented studies for its undeniable success in alleviating the achievement gap, graduating college-bound students, and inspiring community-engaged youth.

At the helm of the nation's flagship high school Ethnic Studies program, weathering the worst fallout and sacrifices, has been Sean Arce, the 16-year veteran and award-winning educator, who was shamelessly fired for his defense of the hugely successful program he co-founded last spring, and his fellow MAS teachers. (See an interview with MAS teacher Curtis Acosta here.)

Another fact remains: Once the dust settles in the bewildering Ethnic Studies witch hunt by transient Tea Party state officials and TUSD school administrators and board members, Arce's documented success and legacy will be vindicated and remain as enduring as his family's Tucson-founding roots.

In fact, only days after the release of the proposed desegregation plan and its call for the establishment of a Coordinator of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Instruction to implement core courses in social studies and literature that reflect the history, experiences and cultures of African American and Latino Communities, Arce was honored earlier this month at the National Council for the Social Studies Conference in Seattle with the Zinn Education Project's Myles Horton Award, recognizing "his instrumental role in nurturing one of the most significant and successful public school initiatives on the teaching of history in the United States."

Dr. Meira Levinson, in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, added:

"The Mexican American Studies program offered a profound example of what culturally relevant teaching can achieve at its very best: intellectually, emotionally, socially, and civically empowered young people. I have long admired Sean Arce's leadership and vision in co-founding MAS. He is an obvious choice as coordinator for the new Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Instruction program. Tucson would be well served by bringing him back into a leadership position."

I caught up with Arce last week and got his impressions on the Unitary Status Plan and recent TUSD school board elections, the role of the MAS teachers, and a new academic study documenting the beneficial impact of the MAS program on test scores and graduation rates.

Jeff Biggers: According to the proposed Unitary Status Plan, TUSD must hire (or designate) a Coordinator of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Instruction, and implement core courses in social studies and literature that reflect the history, experiences and cultures of African American and Latino Communities. What role should you, as the co-founder of MAS and former director-- and other MAS teachers-- play in shaping this new Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Instruction program?

Sean Arce: I believe that the former MAS teachers and myself to be the experts in the district in Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, Curriculum, and Instruction. Since 1998, we have been the teachers with the vision and the wherewithal to successfully deliver this pedagogy and curriculum in both social studies and literature even within a context of a hostile educational environment towards Latinas/os that the Tucson Unified School District had created. In short, the MAS teachers and I, as a collective, are the only cohesive unit within TUSD who can successfully implement what is called for in the Unitary Status Plan. Moreover, I believe that we are the only group of teachers who have the capacity to build upon the successful program that we had in MAS.

JB: Regarding the Unitary Status Plan, TUSD objected to such courses being called core or elective. Do you feel that there is a fundamental conflict between such a plan and the leadership of Superintendent John Pedicone and certain TUSD board members or do you think such a program could be developed without the Superintendent's support?

SA: The recent recommendations found in the Unitary Status Plan drafted by the Special Master to the TUSD Desegregation case, William Hawley, with the advocacy of the plaintiff's legal representatives, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), along with the U.S. Department of Justice, calls for "culturally relevant" core classes in social studies and language arts that reflect the history, culture and lived experiences of Latinos in all TUSD high schools beginning in the 2013-2014 school year. Not surprisingly, TUSD immediately filed an objection in the U.S. District Court to these recommendations, demonstrating a continued lack of "good faith" with the Latino community.

While MAS, the most scrutinized K-12 public education program in the nation that has gone through two independent rigorous analyses, has demonstrated an increase in academic achievement and graduation rates for its students who have taken these classes, it is tragic that the district continues to object to the reinstatement of the MASD classes.

There exists a fundamental conflict between the proposed plan and John Pedicone and his inability to successfully lead a majority Latina/o student school district. Pedicone is not only culturally incompetent and lacking the necessary skill set to implement a district wide culturally responsive pedagogy and curriculum; but in fact, he does not truly believe in such a program because of his fear of authentic Latina/o youth empowerment. Evidence that Pedicone does not believe in Latina/o Youth empowerment are numerous, but one incident in particular stands out with his patronizing commentary about the student resistance to institutional racism and the elimination of MASD wherein he referred to students as "being used as pawns to serve a political agenda that threatens our district and community" for simply standing up for their educational well-being that MAS provided to them.

Essentially, with or without Pedicone's support, the former MAS teachers and the majority of the Mexican American / Latino community in Tucson are hopeful that the newly elected pro-MAS Governing Board majority will direct him to do so.

JB: A new majority will take over the TUSD school board in January, 2013, that could ostensibly reinstate the MAS program, if they so desired. Have you been contacted by any board members or board members-elected, and have you or any of the other MAS teachers been included in the recently appointed "multicultural education" curriculum discussion? If not, do you feel that any exclusion of former MAS personnel will negatively affect any realistic implementation of such a "multicultural education" or culturally relevant curriculum?

SA: I am optimistic, as are all of my former MAS colleagues, that justice for Latino students, staff and community in TUSD will prevail. The newly elected board, which will take over the district leadership in January 2013, is now a 3-2 majority in favor of MASD. I am hopeful that the "new majority" pro-MASD Governing Board, specifically Adelita Grijalva, Cam Juarez, and Kristel Foster, will go down in history as correcting the grave injustices that have been placed upon Latino students, MAS personnel and MAS familias by immediately and fully re-instituting the highly effective MASD and all of its former staff. Moreover, I am hopeful that the new Governing Board will demonstrate the moral fortitude of undoing the racist resolution of January 10th, 2012 (The Hicks Resolution to Eliminate MAS) and return the MAS program and personnel that will allow the necessary healing within our community to begin.

I personally have not been contacted by any board member or newly elected board members as to the "multicultural education" or culturally relevant curriculum implementation. Although, a select few of our teachers have been contacted as to these discussions, revealing the thinly veiled attempt by TUSD to engage in divide and conquer tactics. All of the former MAS teachers and myself warned individuals within TUSD that implementing a "multicultural education" on top of the grave of the highly effective MAS would eventually materialize.

The very objection to the Unitary Status Plan by TUSD is based upon the false premise that the District does not need the return of MAS because "There is no legal or factual basis in this case for requiring the District to offer specific classes or courses. Even a requirement for the District to incorporate multiculturalism into its general social studies curriculum is not supported legally in this case. However, the District does not object to that provision and is already in the process of revising its social studies curriculum to include multicultural perspectives." The position that the District is taking with regard to the reinstitution of MAS classes will definitely negatively affect any type of implementation of such a "multicultural curriculum." Nonetheless, we are hopeful that the new Governing Board that will take over the District leadership for force John Pedicone and TUSD administration to fully reinstate the MAS program.

JB: A newly released study by UA academics on the effects of MAS participation on student achievement suggests "there is a consistent, significant, positive relationship between MAS participation and student academic performance," especially in areas of AIM testing and graduation. How do you see this assessment vindicating your leadership over the success of the MAS program, and essentially underscores the need to reinstate MAS instead of replacing it?

SA: I find it interesting that the naysayers, specifically the TUSD Leadership to include John Pedicone and Governing Board member Mark Stegeman, have been silent since this study has emerged. The former MAS teachers and my experiences with these two have been that they were always attempting to minimize or denounce the efficacy of MAS classes and their positive impact on student achievement as well as the development of positive cultural and ethnic identities within our students.

This latest study, a rigorous quantitative analysis that controlled for numerous factors, again has demonstrated the positive impact that MAS classes on our students. The former MAS teachers and I knew this all along, but this latest study that demonstrated statistical significance for increase in academic achievement and increase in graduation rates, speaks directly to the fact that the former MAS teachers and myself worked tirelessly and collectively to have this positive impact on our students.

Moreover, this latest study absolutely vindicates and should serve as a message to TUSD leadership that if they are truly about data-driven results, they should immediately reinstate MAS and its entire former staff instead of replacing it.

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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