Guest Commentary

TUSD should embrace the demographic shift, not fear it

For the past five years, the Tucson Unified School District—mirroring patterns at other urban public school districts throughout the nation—has experienced a demographic shift in its student population.

In that time frame, the majority Latina/Latino student population has increased by 6.7 percent, while the minority white student population has decreased by 6.5 percent. Unfortunately, many within TUSD—namely Superintendent John Pedicone and governing-board members Mark Stegeman, Michael Hicks, Alexandre Sugiyama and Miguel Cuevas—have interpreted this demographic shift as a threat.

Rather than embrace the inevitable shift and utilize the immense cultural wealth that Latino students bring with them into our classrooms to engage students and increase their academic achievement—as was done with the former Mexican American Studies Department—the district has not only attempted to deny this shift, but has perpetuated TUSD's ugly legacy of discrimination, according to the U.S. District Court.

The recent recommendations in the unitary status plan drafted by the special master to the TUSD desegregation case, Willis Hawley—with the advocacy of the plaintiff's legal representatives and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, along with the U.S. Department of Justice—include "culturally relevant" core classes in social studies and language arts that reflect the history, culture and lives of Latinos in all TUSD high schools beginning in the 2013-2014 school year. Not surprisingly, TUSD immediately filed an objection.

Mexican-American studies, the most-scrutinized K-12 public education program in the nation, has gone through two independent rigorous analyses and has demonstrated increases in academic achievement and graduation rates for students taking the classes. It is tragic that the district continues to object to the reinstatement of the classes.

At major universities including Harvard, Stanford, Brown, Columbia, Wesleyan, Amherst College, UCLA, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Texas at Austin, I was invited to speak on the implementation of pedagogy and curriculum that effectively engages Latino/Latina youth, as well as on TUSD's Mexican-American studies, which remains in the national spotlight. At all of these engagements, Pedicone and the TUSD Governing Board were viewed as bringing shame to TUSD through their enforcement of racist policies and practices.

Pedicone's inability to effectively lead a majority Latino/Latina urban district was solidified in his patronizing commentary about the student resistance to institutional racism and the elimination of the Mexican American Studies Department. He referred to students "being used as pawns to serve a political agenda that threatens our district and community" when they were simply standing up for their education. In the end, not only were the classes taken away from students; the books used in the classes are banned to this day in TUSD classrooms.

The disparate treatment and discriminatory retaliation through the firing of former teacher Rene Martinez and me, for speaking out and contesting TUSD's elimination of Mexican-American studies, illustrates Pedicone's absence of moral character. Pedicone's failure to view resistance as a cultural strength of the Latino community further shows he is threatened by Chicanos who speak out.

I am optimistic, as are all of my former MAS colleagues, that justice in TUSD will prevail. The newly elected board, which will take over in January, is now a 3-2 majority in favor of Mexican-American studies. I am hopeful that the new board majority—specifically Adelita Grijalva, Cam Juarez and Kristel Foster—will go down in history as correcting the grave injustices by immediately and fully reinstituting the highly effective MAS and all of its former staff.

We in the TUSD community must remind ourselves that it was the personnel and students who made the MAS program effective. Undoing the racist resolution of Jan. 10, 2012, and returning the MAS program and personnel is the only way to allow healing within our community to begin.

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