By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
Only eight years after it was founded, the Mexican American Studies program at Tucson Unified School District began attracting negative attention from top education officials, even though it had proven effective in closing the achievement gap among Latinos — the largest ethnic minority in the district.
Soon after, Arizona state officials drafted legislation aimed at killing the program. After three years of lobbying, a law was approved in 2010 that would effectively dismantle Mexican American Studies, which had been established to rectify the detrimental effects of earlier segregationist efforts and which had proven very successful in improving graduation rates, attendance rates, discipline rates, and other traditional methods of measuring student success.
The program went away, but ethnic studies didn’t. Its former teachers, Sean Arce, José Gonzalez, Curtis Acosta, and Norma Gonzalez, teamed up with Prescott College Professor Anita Fernández to launch the Xicanx Institute for Teaching and Organizing. The institute, better known as XITO, is a consulting group to help educators draft their own ethnic studies curriculum, among other things. The educators travel throughout the United States for workshops and presentations, and they’ll be in Salinas on Friday and Saturday for a XITO conference organized by local educators.
“For the kids, there’s a lot of benefits” to learning about their culture, said Philip Tabera, a Hartnell College instructor and co-organizer of the conference. “For me, when I was a kid, it helped me. I got to have knowledge of myself and it motivated me to go to school. And if it motivated me to go to school, I’m thinking about all these other students.”
The other students Tabera is referring to are those who attend the Salinas Union High School District, where they will be required to have one semester of ethnic studies starting with the graduating class of 2024. Tabera pushed for this requirement for years as a member of the school board.
The benefits of ethnic studies classes have been documented by Stanford University, which in 2016 published “The Causal Effects of Cultural Relevance: Evidence from an Ethnic Studies Curriculum,” and by San Francisco State University, which last year announced that ethnic studies majors in general graduate at about 30 percentage points higher than non-ethnic studies majors.
But in spite of its documented successes — or perhaps because of them — ethnic studies remain a very controversial topic. A bill to make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement in California was delayed earlier this month after weeks of debate. Critics of the proposed curriculum complained because it did not include the experience of some groups such as Koreans and Jews. Some others slammed the curriculum as “propaganda.” The bill’s author, Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside, told the Los Angeles Times he remains committed to making ethnic studies a graduation requirement, but agreed to make it a two-year bill to iron out its wrinkles. California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond announced on Monday a plan to revamp the proposed curriculum and bring it to a vote next year.
California’s efforts will no doubt be part of the conversation that will take place this weekend at Hartnell College’s Alisal Campus, as Melissa Moreno of Woodland Community College and Teresa Montano of Cal State Northridge will talk about their own experiences as members of the statewide ethnic studies curriculum team.
Tabera attended a XITO conference in Tucson three years ago, along with his wife Hermelinda Rocha-Tabera and playwright and activist Luis Xago Juarez, all of them Hartnell College instructors. The experience motivated them to bring XITO to Salinas, and this is the second consecutive year they’re putting the conference together.
In the process, their team has grown. It now includes Alisal High teachers Carla Gonzales and Anna Gutierrez. They will be helping Salinas Union High School District draft their ethnic studies curriculum in the months to come, Tabera said.
Given the demographic changes happening in the country, XITO co-founder Anita Fernández believes teaching ethnic studies is critical.
“By 2040, Chicanx and Latinx youth will be the majority, and it’s happening sooner in certain states, and the drop-out rate or the push-out rates are still the highest,” she said. “In order for us to address the changing demographics, we also need to change (the curriculum). This methodology works by really reframing education to include perspectives from all young people, their lives, their ancestors. In the past, there have been colonial structures in which students don’t see themselves in the curriculum because they were not built for them.”
The conference will also include a presentation on the history of the Mexican American Studies program at Tucson and its demise, the lawsuit challenging the legislation that order its dismantling, and the ruling that declared said legislation unconstitutional.
“The ban planted a seed in a lot other places — Texas, Oregon, New Mexico,” Fernández said. “I do believe that out of all the damage, something beautiful has grown out. Hopefully this case will help support those states and cities that are going to adopt ethnic studies, that are going to be protected by this ruling.”
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