- Current third grade reading scores are being used to calculate future prison needs.
- Latino and African American males score lowest in third grade reading tests
- Latino high school dropout rates nationwide hover around 56 percent
- Roughly 24 percent of graduating Latinos go on to college
Tucson Unified School District's Ethnic Studies and Mexican American Studies programs have reversed the bad trends. The dropout rate in this program is 2.5 percent, as opposed to 56 percent nationally. Students in the program significantly outperform their peers on the state's standardized AIMS tests.
The programs work.
There are currently 43 sections of such classes serving 1500 students in six high schools at TUSD, and similar programs at the middle and elementary school levels. The classes are designed to be culturally relevant – to help the students see themselves in the curriculum and make them see why education is important for them. If they see themselves in the educational literature they find more reasons to read and write, to research and draw conclusions.
Students come to see themselves in the world around them, to compare that to the world their parents and grandparents lived in and to seek solutions for the problems of the future. They learn to question the rhetoric of the world and to take responsibility to build a better future for their communities.
What started as a grass roots effort in the late 1990s to reverse some disturbing educational trends among minority students in TUSD has blossomed into a highly successful national model documented over and over in educational peer review literature.
98 percent of the students say they do homework at night to keep up with the next day's class. 95 percent discuss what their learning with their parents. Students have given reports to the TUSD board, Pima County Board of Supervisors, the Arizona state legislature, the Black Congressional Caucus and the Hispanic Congressional Caucus.
“There's a big myth up there that these classes are about immigration”, says Augustine Romero, Director of Student Equity at TUSD. “It's actually about analyzing problems in the real world and addressing those problems by coming up with solutions.”
Middle school is a rough time for any kid. But when you walk past serious drug addicts and people involved in all manner of illegal activities every day on your way to school, that's a whole other thing.
Welcome to Wakefield Middle School. Wakefield is among the most segregated in the Tucson Unified School District, with around 98 percent Latinos and Native American students. The majority of these students are on the lower socioeconomic rungs of society. Many come to the school barely able to read at a second or third grade level.
In there on the side of the students is Mexican American studies teacher Alexandro “Salo” Escamilla. He had his share of identity issues growing up half Mexican and half Anglo. In his freshman year of high school he had a 1.6 grade point average, this despite having educator parents both of whom had PhDs. But somehow the universe hooked him up with friends in high school that introduced him to the literature that changed his life.
“One of the books that I read was Occupied America which is the one that (Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction) Tom Horne wants to prohibit people from reading in class,” Escamilla says. “I started reading all these books and it gave me an academic identity where I started seeing myself as a student. I started in my free time working to improve my reading and writing skills. It was through the interest in Chicano history and Mexican American history and Chicano literature that I found my own identity. I try to relate a lot of when I was going through growing up to the kids.”
Escamilla involves the kids in sports and learning to make them true student athletes. He gets involved with them personally when he spots troubled kids. He advocates within the Mexican American Studies department for the crucial need programs at the middle school level before kids give up. And he espouses the need for broader historical perspectives, social justice and free speech. “When you're growing up you need to see that it wasn't just Anglos who fought for justice and freedom and for the things we value and cherish today,” he says. “It was people of all ethnicities. History needs to be told the way that it was viewed from many different perspectives. If we start censoring people what's next? Are we going be get to the point where we're like the people in Iran who want to say that the holocaust never happened?”
Curtis Acosta is an unlikely leader in the Chicano Studies educational movement. He's half Swedish, half Mexican. He doesn't speak Spanish. And at the El Dorado Hills, California high school where he went to school he admittedly ran away from his ethnicity. But he shares a profound bond with the other 10 litigants in this historic case.
“Our styles are different, our intellectual curiosities go in deep ways but we are a community among ourselves,” Acosta says. “One thing we have is a deep, deep love of youth, for our country and wanting to make this world a better place.”
Acosta teaches at Tucson High Magnet School – a school older than the state of Arizona itself. The school is roughly 65 percent Chicano and 23 percent Anglo. It has been a historic school for Tucson's African American population. His course load includes three Latino literature classes and two freshman English classes. He aspires to make his classes as culturally relevant as possible, finding material for discussion in everything from Shakespeare's The Tempest to contemporary writer Luis Alberto Urrea's The Devil's Highway and Junot Diaz' Drown.
“I pick the literature to be provocative and it has to be beautiful,” he says. But his picks have also made him a lightning rod of controversy. “I have one of probably the most visited classrooms in America,” Acosta notes. “I've had the superintendent, assistant superintendent, CNN, and the LA Times just in my room alone. Education Weekly just left. Senator (John) Huppenthal has been here. So for someone to say there's no transparency or that we hide it every time somebody walks in is ludicrous.
“All of us have glowing evaluations,” he says of his fellow Ethnic Studies educators. “Our students are a glowing evaluation. They're critical thinkers. They're comfortable in their identity and their beliefs. They're still forming their beliefs. We just provide the soil for them to grow in. We nurture them. So for anybody to want to dismantle something beautiful that has academic success, a track record of student achievement, of hard working professionals that have created something that's an anomaly within not only the no child left behind era but in TUSD and the state of Arizona itself, then they have another agenda.”
Feeling disillusioned, Dolores Carrion dropped out of college at Northern Arizona University and moved to Mexico on a quest to find her true identity. She stayed in Mexico City for seven years, studying anthropology and South American Studies at La Universidad Autónoma de Mexico, and art at the national school of the fine arts, La Esmeralda. There she met her husband, had her son and reconnected with who she is.
Born and raised in Pinal county, Carrion spoke very little English when she entered the Coolidge school system. “I was bilingual but Spanish was my main language,” she recalls. “I was quickly punished and reprimanded for speaking Spanish, so I never spoke it again. When I graduated from high school I didn't speak Spanish. After my freshman year of college I felt lost. I didn't know who I was. I looked more Mexican than the Mexicans and couldn't speak Spanish and didn't know anything about my culture.”
Until just before she entered kindergarten, the Coolidge schools system was segregated. Her Silverbell, Arizona born father was one of those who tore down that segregated system, insisting that he was a taxpayer and his kids deserved the same opportunity as others. Her mother, who was born in Torreón, Coahuila, Mexico, was a Buddhist, and was highly influenced by Asian culture. Her mother designed and Carrion's father built the home where Dolores was raised.
For 33 years – 26 of them at the 90 percent Latino Pueblo High School – Carrion has shared her passion for art with students from a broad range of cultural experiences. To her it's not the background but the path that makes the difference. “I try to tap into my students right brain because I think that our school system and our society is left brain dominant,” she says. “Our students respond to the aspects of creativity and that freedom that allow them to express themselves in a beautiful way. Things that they have deep inside of their soul, inside of their heart.” Beyond that Carrion helps them hone their skills to as high a level as possible in order to meet their creative vision.
“I have designated Chicano beginning and advanced art classes, but I find myself not doing anything differently because my premise is one of self discovery,” she says. “Whether they are African American, Chinese Americans, Chicano, Latino, Mexicano, this is about discovering who they are and expressing it through their art.”
Jose Gonzalez finds the misunderstandings of Chicano studies very taxing. “People think that we're teaching racism,” he says. “Some people think we teach hatred because we teach a realistic view of history – the good and the bad. They think we're anti-American. But at the same time, our students are amazing. They're beautiful and they have the right to see themselves reflected in that history book.”
Gonzalez' love of history began when he was a child, during family trips back to his parents home town in Mexico. His father, who was an avid reader of history, loved to tell Jose stories of how the mountains and arroyos of his former home in Sonora got their names. Part Seri, Mayo and Tohono O'odham, Gonzalez sees himself as an indigenous person, and he and his wife, Norma, are part of Tucson's Calpulli Teoxiacalli ceremonial group.
“Papa, you're lucky,” Jose Gonzalez' 10-year-old son, Joseph, tells him. “You love your job.” And he does. Gonzalez, who teaches American History through Chicano Studies at Rincon High, and English through Chicano Literature at Tucson High, says teaching is the art of communicating with human beings. It's sharing stories and learning from people.
Born at St. Mary's hospital on the west side, Gonzalez grew up in most of Tucson's barrios – Anita, Hollowood, Libre and Chicano. By his own admission, he was an average student. His identity revolved around sports. His regular teachers at Cholla High School never spoke to him as though he would amount to much. In fact one teacher told him he would and up in jail. Another read to the class from the history book like they were incapable of reading for themselves. But his baseball coach told him he could take things to the next level, and suggested he go on to college and study to be a teacher.
At Emporia State University Gonzalez studied history and political science, and played baseball. There he met another ball player – Augustine Romero – who would go on to become the director of Student Equity at the Tucson Unified School District, and one of the founders of the district's Ethnic Studies and Mexican American Studies programs. The two became close friends, taught together at Cholla High, and when Romero took the TUSD position, he soon recruited the like-minded Gonzalez. “It's my life,” Gonzalez says.
There's an African parable that Lorenzo Lopez relates each school year to his students at Cholla High. It tells of the hunt of a lion, and notes that the story is always told from the perspective of the hunters. Lopez asks if that's the whole story. Is the lion's perspective important, or that of the onlookers? They discuss the various perspectives, and swing that back around to frame how they will examine history for the rest of the year.
The approach is a world away from how it was when he himself was a Cholla student, and very different from how many of his students learned in the past. “Your class makes my head hurt,” his students complain. “We think too much.” But that's what Lopez wants.
He spends a lot of time thinking himself. About why so many from his school days never made it to college, why some got into crime and drugs, and why others aren't around anymore entirely. About why the educational system emphasizes such a narrow band of the human experience, and why students aren't treated with respect, care and love.
Born in Bisbee, Arizona – the first in his family to be born in the United States – Lopez and his family moved to Tucson when he was a young boy. His dad was a copper miner. He almost followed in his father's boot steps. But after having kids of his own, he decided to go back to school. There he took the Chicano literature and history classes that changed his life. He was inspired to get his degree in education and return to Cholla High to make it a place that would reflect the backgrounds of all of its students. “We really are one people,” he says of all humans. “We share a common DNA. Cesar Chavez said having one's own culture does not mean disrespecting that of others. It's not one or the other.”
While he may not have seen himself or his culture in the history books of his youth, Lopez clearly sees the importance of what is being done now in the struggle to overturn Arizona HB 2281 and save the Ethnic Studies programs he and his comrades so lovingly created. “It's is an historic battle that I'm proud to be part of,” he says.
“They have a passion,” Maria Federico Brummer says of her students. They want to learn something and they want to teach something to their peers. That's amazing.”
Federico Brummer engages her students. She lets them lead the discussion and she insists they question what they're hearing. Sometimes the lesson plan goes out the window, eclipsed by the potent events of the world. But she knows her students will do the homework to pick that up too, and discuss all of it with their parents and friends. Her students are engaged in their community. They know who they are and where they come from. And they know how to build bridges to the rest of the world.
Some of her students don't have the easiest lives. Some are homeless. Some have been kicked out of their homes. Some have parents who are incarcerated Some have kids of their own. Some have been physically or sexually abused. All are cared about and respected by Maria Federico Brummer, and they know it. She nurtures their creativity, opens their minds and builds trust. She fans the flames of their love of learning and mentors the future generation of teachers.
“Our focus is on cultural identity,” she says. “The other part is critical thinking. Not accepting things at face value. Seeking the truth.”
Tucson- born and raised, Maria Federico Brummer teaches the American Government Ethnic Studies Social Justice Education Project to juniors at Tucson High School, plus American History from Mexican American Perspectives at Palo Verde High School.
“There's a human need to connect to your roots,” Norma Gonzalez insists. “It's what allows us to move forward because upon understanding our roots and where we have those ties, that gives the stability to move forward as human beings, to continue to grow, to develop to our full humanity. This type of curriculum allows us to find our connections as human beings, to recognize what each group has had to go through, and to make sure that it's not repeated. And if we don't connect with our roots then we buy into a manufactured identity and that leads to self hate. We don't develop properly emotionally or intellectually.”
Gonzalez is the Ethnic Studies equivalent of the teacher in the one room schoolhouse. At the top end she teaches Chicano literature at Tucson High and Rincon High. At Mansfield Middle School she is working on a mural project, while at Van Buskirk, Ochoa and Maldonado elementary schools she works with regular teachers to to infuse cultural relevancy into the traditional curriculum. She talks the talk, but also walks the walk, connecting to her indigenous roots through Tucson's Calpulli Teoxiacalli ceremonial group – as she describes it, a family of families involved in relearning such ceremonial rites as Aztec dance, sweat lodges and the reading of symbolic writing.
She introduces young students to ancient instruments of the Americas – the drum and the rattle. “For a lot of them, to hold and play a drum really feels like they've held it before,” she says. “My son is the drummer for our Aztec dance group.” At the high school level Gonzalez says she and her fellow teachers try to remain focused on how Chicano students are viewed. “We look at the history behind it and recognize that sadly they are treated as stereotypes, and then prove those stereotypes wrong. We work toward teaching our students critical thinking and how to become critically compassionate intellectual people. It's very liberating for them.”
There's a little-known chapter in American history. During the great depression large numbers of Mexican Americans – many of them citizens – were “repatriated” (forced to move) to Mexico.
“They're shocked because they've never heard about it before,” says Cholla High School Mexican American studies teacher Rene Martinez of his students' reaction to that dark tidbit of history. Martinez is not shocked. His grandfather, who was born in Los Angeles, was among those repatriated. He returned to the U.S. at age 17.
It's but one of many stories he and members of the Mexican American studies department include in their efforts to engage young Latino youth by making them see themselves in history. Each summer Martinez and his cohorts retreat to develop curriculum not found in traditional history books. A peer review determines if the material proposed for addition meets state standards for American History accreditation.
Martinez did not learn about much of what he teaches until he was in college. It made a profound impression on him, and he found himself recruited while in school to by then TUSD director of Mexican American Studies Augustine Romero to work in the program.
What keeps him in it is more than the discovery of new perspectives on history. It's the way students are treated. “We value student voices,” Martinez says. “We believe that every student is an asset. We use their life experiences in our curriculum. We're constantly in communication with our students and involved in their lives. It's being able to have a positive impact and help students reach their potential that keeps me going.”
Sally Rusk may be Anglo by birth but she's custom made to be part of the Mexican American Studies team. She was born in Sierra Leone in West Africa where her teacher parents were on assignment in the Peace Corps. She spent her early years in Uganda before the family moved back to Tucson when she was 5½. Recognizing that Tucson was a bi-cultural city, they insisted that both she and her sister learn Spanish. And they indoctrinated in her an appreciation for the unique place she grew up in.
When she was approached about teaching a Mexican Studies class, Rusk jumped at the chance. “I am so grateful,” she says. “It's given me a community of like minded people.”
Rusk teaches at Pueblo High School – a south side institution with a student body roughly 90 percent Latino and 4 percent Native American. She teaches two bilingual world history classes, two American History through Chicano perspectives classes and an American Government Social Justice Education Project class. The American History classes are blocked back-to-back with similar literature classes covering matching material.
“I don't see myself so much as a teacher but as a facilitator,” she says. “We want our students to be critical learners and gain confidence so that they can feel that they are part of our country, but also that they're agents for social justice and change. Especially that they get beyond thinking that history is something from the past and see that they are part of history.”She insists that she learns from and is continually inspired by the honesty, curiosity and creativity of her students. In their artistic projects, their metaphors and the way they connect things she would not have connected, Rusk feels that they teach her as much or more than she does them.
Tucson Unified School District Director of Mexican American Studies Sean Arce comes by his passions honestly. His father was a glazer and iron worker whose union struggles gave Sean his first taste for social justice. His mother worked as a translator, giving voice to those unable to speak English as they navigated the American legal and financial worlds. Both instilled a sense of service to others in him.
After playing football at San Jose State, Arce came to the University of Arizona. At his wife's suggestion he began to take Mexican American studies classes, and his world changed. “It was highly engaging for me,” he says. “I began to make connections and to establish a greater understanding of my history. It really inspired me, along with a lot of my peers who were at UA at the time. We were Mexican American Studies majors but we were also part of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) and we began planning for this thing.”
In short time they created the current Ethnic Studies program at Tucson Unified School District at the K-12 levels. “The actual planning took place with university students and community folks,” he notes. “We created this understanding of why it's so important to have culturally and historically relevant education in Tucson. We understood the dropout rate, and the abysmal history of Mexican American education. I heard stories from my parents about their Amercanization. Students names were Anglicized, they were hit for speaking Spanish, and there was a tracking system (a practice where children of color are put in classes that are not college bound, such as industrial arts), so they didn't have the same educational opportunities I had.”
At its essence it was a grass roots effort accompanied by a very solid academic plan. Arce and the framers of the program did the research as to how to make the material age appropriate and highly engaging for the students in order to make it work and for students to achieve academically. Since Arce started in 1999, the program has grown from a single American History Mexican American Perspective class to some 44 high school level classes throughout TUSD, and more at the k-12 level. “This program is unique – the only one that's come to fruition as a k-12 Mexican American studies program,” Arce says with pride. “It's been a challenge but also very gratifying to see it go from the planning of a department to its current exponential growth.”
On her first day as an English major at the University of Arizona, Yolanda Sotelo's teacher read off a list of great books and asked how many had read them. She had not read one. She felt embarrassed and shortchanged by the education she'd gotten in high school. And she vowed that no student of hers would feel so unprepared.
For 28 years, Sotelo has taught English at the largely-Latino Pueblo High School, the last 10 co-teaching Chicano literature classes with Sally Rusk. Their students get the foundations in Chaucer, Beowulf and everything forward, but they also get the great modern works of such Chicano authors as Pat Mora, Luis Alberto Urrea, Rudolfo Anaya and Tomas Rivera.
Just recently Phoenix author Stella Pope Duarte came to talk to her class. “The kids are excited about meeting her,” Sotelo said before the visit. “They've been reading her book and enjoying it. Kids need to see that a writer can write about La Llorana (the weeping woman) and make it interesting and analytical. They can break it down and figure it out.”
When she's not teaching classical and Chicano English literature classes, Sotelo leads Pueblo's Road Warriors in preparing for the El Tour de Tucson marathon bicycle race. “I took 4 different groups of students to participate in Close Up for New Americans in Washington, D.C.,” she recalls. “These outside experiences are something they'll remember for the rest of their lives.”
While by no means a radical, Sotelo expresses frustration at Tom Horne and the supporters of HB 2281. “It's frustrating to see someone who doesn't have a background in education setting education policy,” she says. “The voters don't see that. I couldn't become a police commissioner and set police policy. It saddens me that this has become a racial issue. That's what it is. They don't see the quality of writing that these Chicano and Chicana authors are producing. We can talk about the characters and conflicts and everything else in these books just as well as we can Beowulf or Chaucer.”