Understanding Ethnic Studies

Just to set the record straight: Sally Rusk is not encouraging her students to overthrow the United States government.

Instead, she's promoting active citizenship, delving into a curriculum that fights racism, and encouraging her students to give back to the community.

Rusk is one of the 11 Tucson Unified School District ethnic-studies teachers who are suing the state over HB 2281, which bans ethnic-studies classes.

"We feel attacked," Rusk said. "I still cannot believe this. We adore these classes and these students."

The law, pushed by current state Attorney General Tom Horne, bans classes that encourage "the overthrow of the United States government" or "the promotion of resentment toward a race or class of people," as well as "classes designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group" and classes "advocating ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."

"We have even been ... accused of keeping our class materials secret, when we go to great lengths to make it very open," Rusk said. "This really feels like some sort of strange personal vendetta at times."

Rusk teaches history courses at Pueblo Magnet High School. Her classes, typically filled with juniors, cover many angles of American history—and, yes, that includes Mexican-American history.

"Mexican-American history is American history," she explained. "It's no different than other regions focusing on their part of the country when it is relevant to the lesson plan."

The fact that TUSD ethnic-studies teachers and students feel singled out is disheartening, to say the least.

"My students are stressed, and they simply do not understand," Rusk said. "We have talked about the issue in class, and it just feels so arbitrary. All we are trying to do is teach our students their history and hope it helps them make the world a better place."

To Rusk and her colleagues, losing these classes would mean losing an appreciation for local culture and local history.

"The beautiful thing about history is that it doesn't just happen," Rusk said. "We are all a part of it."

In hopes of raising awareness about their lawsuit and the fight against HB 2281, Rusk and Curtis Acosta, of Tucson Magnet High School, will put on a presentation, presented by the Democrats of Oro Valley. The Monday, March 14, meeting aims to address the political tones at hand, and offer attendees opportunities to ask them questions.

"I would love for people to come and see what we are really all about," Rusk said. "We hope people will spread the word about local control and come to appreciate a multi-cultured perspective, and possibly contact the state on this issue."

Rusk said that if her students can appreciate the fact that their education has a purpose, perhaps the audience will as well. According to Rusk, many of her students have gained a passion for and an understanding of active citizenship—and she is proud of their desire to make a difference.

It is fitting that she is now following their lead.

"To all of us teachers, we think this law is just crazy," she said. "These are classes that are open to all students, and for many, it is the first time that they get a real chance to see their role in history. They come to appreciate the role of their ancestry and this region. We are all trying to promote active citizenship, not fight it."

If the teachers' lawsuit and other efforts to overturn HB 2281 fail, the state could take away 10 percent of state funds that go to TUSD.

"It sounds so cliché, but we have to keep hope right now," Rusk said. "If you don't have hope, you're not going to be active."

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