Arizona's Dirty Lessons: Is Tucson School District Dismantling Ethnic Studies to Appease Tea Party?

In one of the most disturbing developments in the long-brewing Ethnic Studies debacle, a broad alliance of Mexican American Studies supporters is charging that Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) administrators have taken several covert measures to intentionally undermine the nationally acclaimed program and gut its enrollment numbers.

Citing a campaign of misinformation, sudden administrative policies that ban teachers from student and parent outreach, increasing obstacles to program enrollment, changing staff decisions, and the reversal of a highly praised ten-year policy of supervision, Tucson education advocates are wondering if the TUSD administration led by Oro Valley-based Superintendent John Pedicone, whose orchestration of excessive police force and the arrest of elderly Latino leaders last May shattered trust among Tucson's diverse communities, has placed the largely unfounded demands of the Tea Party-driven state politicians over the needs of his own students, teachers and district.

Like a public relations train wreck in the making, faced with the renewal of an embarrassing desegregation order, the increasingly isolated TUSD administrators seem to be teetering on the edge of their own appeal of Tea Party state superintendent John Huppenthal's Ethnic Studies ban and a backdoor downsizing effort to dismantle the Mexican American Studies (MAS) program without any public discussion or school board approval.

"There is no doubt in my mind that since registration began for this year's classes," Save Ethnic Studies attorney Richard Martinez said, "there were internal efforts made to discourage enrollment. It is now made much broader the fact that supervision and control of MAS is now being done by Dr. Lupita Cavazos-Garcia per Dr. Pedicone's instruction. The MAS class load has been reduced drastically and it is clear that TUSD under Dr. Pedicone's instruction is systematically dismantling the MAS program. Other factors that are meant to discourage students from taking the classes include Dr. Stegeman's efforts to make the classes electives. This discourages students from taking the courses if they need the credits to graduate."

Background: Despite a state-commissioned audit released in June that found the MAS program to be fully in compliance with Arizona's controversial Ethnic Studies ban, lauded the Mexican American Studies program for its extraordinary success rate and recommended that the program be maintained as part of the core curriculum for high school courses, the extremist Tea Party State Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal has threatened to withhold $15 million of state funding from TUSD if it fails to adhere to his Orwellian demands.

The end game in this school lesson on dirty politics?

Over the past several months, Pedicone and his administrators have clearly demoralized and disenfranchised the Mexican American Studies program and refused to attend three public forums in Tucson, which drew large crowds and featured panels of distinguished education experts on the program's decade-long mandate and documented success in alleviating the achievement gap for district students. The blatant rejection of any community engagement by TUSD administrators appeared to confirm the concerns of MAS supporters and teachers, who called for Pedicone's resignation at a press conference in June, citing his failure to respond to nine letters seeking dialogue and clarification and his lack of honesty, genuineness, connection to community, leadership and overall performance.

Without any public discussion or school board approval, in fact, Dr. Cavazos-Garcia recently reassigned MAS teachers--including Tucson High School history teacher Jose Gonzales, who was featured in the award-winning film documentary Precious Knowledge--to traditional courses and reversed a nearly 10-year policy of MAS program supervision over the MAS teachers.

Such a drastic move of stripping MAS supervision and teaching responsibilities flies in the face of the recent Cambium Learning audit, which concluded:

"The auditors observed well-orchestrated lessons as evidenced by indicators within the Arizona Department of Education's document of Standards and Rubics for School Improvement and the Closing the Achievement Gap (CTAG) protocol created by Cambium Learning.

Teachers and MASD curriculum specialists created lessons where learning experiences were aligned with the state standards and incorporated targeted performance objectives within multidisciplinary units for real life applications. The curriculum auditors observed teachers using researched-based instructional strategies that were developmentally appropriate and provided students with assignments that required the use of higher-order and critical thinking skills. Every classroom demonstrated all students actively engaged, and when asked to work together, they all worked collaboratively with each other across various socicultural backgrounds and academic abilities."

This graph shows the higher graduation rates for Mexican American Studies program students:

In an email statement, Cavazos-Garcia cited declining MAS enrollment ranks for the shift of teaching duties, and noted that she made the unilateral decision of changing supervision on the basis that "MAS teachers have now been brought in line with all other staff members and evaluated by campus principals as required by board policy."

The Assistant Superintendent failed to explain, however, why MAS teachers reassigned to traditional courses would still be paid under the MAS budget.

Cavazos-Garcia also dismissed accusations that MAS teachers had been prevented from taking part in any education outreach and information sharing with new students and parents. She noted: "All TUSD employees strongly encouraged to do outreach for each other, the community and their students. Every campus has a learning supports coordinator to help remove barriers to learning for students and barriers to teaching for all teachers."

According to Tucson High School MAS literature teacher Curtis Acosta, however, a number of obstacles accounted for this year's lower enrollment, including an explicit mandate to deny MAS teachers a long-time opportunity to contact any students or parents about available classes and course changes. Acosta said that the year's unusually early registration process, along with unmade staffing decisions, and a shift to automated and computerized registration instead of the traditional student-to-teacher registrations in the school arena also contributed to declining MAS enrollment.

Last May, aware of the mounting problems, Acosta requested permission to send a letter to students and parents.

"The letter home was to inform parents and students of key staffing changes that were not known until later in the spring, months after the registration process," he said. "It's not something I ever had to do before when we were able to get information to students. However, regular communication with parents is something that we have always done and have been encouraged to do. This resistance was a massive change."

Despite the need for the update, Acosta was denied permission.

"We had always been encouraged to create bonds with our students and parents," said Acosta, a long-time teacher in the district. "This marked a change in policy and the denial clearly had come from the administration."

Cavazos-Garcia also denied accounts from numerous students across the district that school counselors had openly discouraged students from enrolling in MAS courses, citing staffing and program uncertainties. This sort of confusion, according to MAS supporters, is also compounded by the conflicting messages from TUSD school board president Mark Stegemen over the program's future.

"I oversee the counseling program and counselors have never been told to discourage students from taking these classes," Cavazos-Garcia said in an email statement. "Students enroll in their classes every spring through a computer based master schedule program. All students are advised to make choices that will best prepare them to be college and career ready."

A number of high school students and alumni, however, all of whom preferred to remain unnamed, have cited a common experience among counselors, who informed them that the uncertain and volatile future of the MAS program was cause for enrollment in other courses.

One thing is certain: As state school superintendent Huppenthal throws his support to notorious "Tea Party President" Russell Pearce, the first state senate president in American history to be recalled, the political leadership in the state continues to oversee draconian cuts and the dismantling of effective education programs like the Mexican American Studies program. Huppenthal recently offered this endorsement of Pearce in the upcoming recall election: "Russell has consistently supported accountability in the classroom and school choice. He is a great supporter of education and making sure each child receives a quality education."

Last month, a columnist in Tucson's Arizona Daily Star declared: "Audit of TUSD program never mattered - game is rigged."

Last April and May, however, MAS students and community supporters reminded the Tucson school board in a series of dramatic protests that this sort of political corruption had no place in education.

As students and teachers return next week for the new school year, the nation will be watching TUSD administrators and their district students and parents to see if such a lesson in dirty politics will pass or fail.

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