Raza unit survives under fire
Ethnic studies dept. could grow, reach younger kids
By Rhonda Bodfield
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/240683
Calls are heating up to kill the Tucson Unified School District's ethnic studies program — at the same time it becomes more likely that the district's most controversial department could expand to reach more, and younger, students.
Critics, from the state's schools chief to lawmakers to conservative talk-show hosts and columnists, have singled out Mexican-American/Raza Studies in particular, saying it's divisive and turns students into angry revolutionaries.
But supporters say the program's reach is too limited, given that it boosts student achievement by providing relevant and rigorous work to students all too often overlooked.
In a ruling last month that conditionally lifted the district's decades-old racial balance order, a federal judge noted that "it is unimaginable that the eight-staff Mexican American/Raza Studies department would be capable of serving the (district's) 30,118 Hispanic students."
TUSD's budget crisis is putting the kibosh on any new money for this coming school year, but Governing Board member Adelita Grijalva says she's committed to seeing the program grow the following year.
For now, she's asking for a discussion about equity within the ethnic studies' $2.3 million budget, given that African-American Studies gets more funding and staff in a district overwhelmingly Latino.
Raza Studies serves about 500 high school students, who take a four-course block of history, social justice and two Chicano literature classes.
The program should reach younger students, a 2006 outside audit said. Auditors recommended a feeder pipeline starting in the elementary schools.
Although they criticized the African-American, Pan-Asian and Native American departments for too few accountability measures, they lauded Raza Studies as the program's "flagship."
Inside the classroom
It's the end of the school year and Raza Studies students at Tucson High Magnet School are presenting research findings to their principal.
Their PowerPoint presentation is critical of policies toward English learners; some concerns hinge on whether students are funneled to vocational tracks, and some focus on inferior equipment.
Then comes an exploration of classroom décor, with photos of classroom items students consider culturally insensitive.
First up is a baseball poster, which they say should be soccer or rugby to validate other cultures. Next up flashes the Pledge of Allegiance and a patriotic poster featuring the Statue of Liberty, the American flag and an eagle.
"Most of the kids are from a different country, and this is showing them that this is the country that's the greatest and yours doesn't matter," a student maintains.
Principal Abel Morado tells the students he disagrees with their perspective. An initial role of public education was to mold a citizenry united under one democratic blanket, he says.
"It's in our DNA in public schools to be sure we're teaching you about being citizens of this nation," Morado says.
Morado says he considers the dialogue valuable because it's important to reflect that America does not have just one culture or value system.
Tom Horne, the state's superintendent of public instruction, considers the program's very premise grounds to publicly rail against it, and, if necessary, to ban it through legislation.
"One of the most basic American values is that we judge people as individuals based on what they know and what they can do and what their character is like — and not based on what ethnic group they happen to have been born into," Horne says. "I think it's profoundly wrong to divide students up by ethnicity."
Augustine Romero took over as head of ethnic studies two years ago, after running Raza Studies for four years. In his view, the system already divides students by ethnicity.
When he was a senior at Tucson High, his father asked school counselors to make military recruiters stop calling. His counselor couldn't believe Romero planned to go to college.
He proved the counselor wrong, and the 41-year-old just finished his doctorate. "Yes, there are examples of people who have made it, but we've made it by having to work harder than most people because we've had to endure the inequities of the system," he says.
Romero summons the work of Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire to explain the premise of the program, hauling out a dog-eared and extensively highlighted copy of "Pedagogy of the Oppressed." He points to a passage: "This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well."
If people don't like being called oppressors, Romero offers no apology. "We have to be able to be honest. If we have cancer, should we not name the cancer and overcome it? If oppression and subordination are our cancers, should we not name them?"
Anglos often don't see racism, he says, so it needs to be pointed out, even though it has led to accusations that he propagates reverse racism. "When you name racism, people think you're playing the race card and then they say, 'You don't like me because I'm white.' No, I don't like what was said. Because I'm one who names these things, some have the perception that I'm a racist and that I only care about children of color."
Those children clearly need advocates, Romero says. There are glaring performance disparities between white and minority students — even in this district, where whites are only 30 percent of the student body. The recent court ruling noted test scores for black and Hispanic students lagged 10 percent to 15 percent behind those of their white counterparts, and up to 21 percent for Native Americans.
A person can take two views on this, Romero says.
The first: Blame the students and say their ethnic heritage in some way is deficient.
The second: Acknowledge that the educational system perpetuates white privilege and is stacked against minorities. These students are not at-risk, he says. "The system created risk for them."
A program like Raza Studies can even the odds, he says. Raza students outperform peers on AIMS tests. Scores from the 2006 senior class show 95 percent of the students passed reading, 97 percent passed writing and 77 percent passed math. Five out of six on a recent survey said the program kept them in school.
Tucson High's Morado visits the classes and doesn't believe they're divisive. "They offer a sense of identity for students who have historically not found that within these walls."
One recent Raza Studies research project highlighted the fact that minorities take too few Advanced Placement courses and too many remedial classes — something the administration has been trying to address.
"What those kids are talking about is the new civil rights movement of the 21st century," Morado says.
The program's critics range from elected state officials to high school students.
The campus Republicans at Tucson High circulated a petition in April to rein in the class after seeing a banner in a class window asking, "Who's the illegal alien, pilgrim?"
The petition, signed by 50 of the school's 2,900 students, was forwarded to a handful of state legislators, along with a note that maintained the department "is creating a hostile environment for non-Hispanic students and students who oppose creating a racially charged school environment."
John Ward taught in the department in the 2002-03 school year. Of Latino heritage despite his Anglo-sounding name, Ward was all for more thoroughly integrating the contributions of Mexican-Americans into U.S. history. But once he started teaching, he became concerned about the program's focus on victimization.
"They really wanted to identify the victimizer, which was the dominant group — in this case white America — and they wanted students to have a revolution against upper-class white America," says Ward, who now works as a state auditor.
"They had a clear message that political departments in the U.S. are arms of the dominant culture designed to keep minorities in the ghetto and to keep them downtrodden. They're teaching on the taxpayers' dime that police officers and teachers are trying to keep them down. What a perverse message to teach these kids."
Such messages, he says, won't be found in the program's textbooks, such as "Occupied America."
"The department doesn't look bad on paper. It's what happens verbally that moves the debate from benign to pernicious," Ward says.
The tone worried him: "The students had become very angry by the end of the year. I saw a marked change in them."
That anger was evident in a presentation director Romero gave at a social justice symposium at the University of Arizona in April. Exploring ways schools create racially hostile environments, the presentation flashed quotes from former Raza Studies students.
Nate Camacho complained that teachers actually encouraged students to fight each other.
Vanessa Aragón said students see violence differently from what school officials see. "For us, it is violence we face from our teachers, administrators and TPD (the Tucson Police Department) every single day," she said.
Kim Dominguez maintained she didn't feel valued because nothing in class reflected her life. "We don't really have a chance," she said.
Romero says anger is essential for transformation, but insists teachers work to transform that anger into something positive. "For me, there's a real fine line between anger and awareness," he says.
He chalks up the dispute with Ward to politics, saying Ward didn't fit in because he was a conservative while he and the teachers in the department are liberal.
Kristin Grijalva, 17, counts this last year as the most transformative of her school career. She was so shy as a young student that her teachers assumed she spoke only Spanish and put her in an English-learners class.
"Now I've gained so much confidence," says Grijalva, who plans to attend the University of Arizona to study medicine, with a minor in theater. "I have learned so much about myself that now I can talk and use my voice to inform people."
Raza Studies teachers push students hard, she says, but are so supportive that they share cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses and encourage students to text or call anytime.
Grijalva says that when she learned more about Christopher Columbus, she became angry that he remains a celebrated figure. But she was taught to use her anger to be a warrior, not a soldier. Soldiers do what they're told, she says. Warriors fight with their minds.
Grijalva acted like a warrior when a student asked her to sign the "pilgrim" petition. Before, she would have ripped up the paper, she says. Instead, she explained to the student that pilgrims from Europe seeking freedom weren't all that different from Mexicans coming here.
Her fellow students would be just as angry to hear a white person called a "cracker" as a Mexican person called a "beaner," Grijalva says.
"We realize it's not only Euro-Americans who are against our class. There are our own Chicanos and African-Americans against our class," she says. "It's what we call 'internal oppression.' When you hate your own race, you're basically hating yourself, but they're going with what they hear instead of what they see."
In class, students are encouraged to think critically and to defend their positions.
One day in early May, students analyzed a political cartoon to determine if the artist was liberal or conservative. With the newspaper required reading, they discussed the Democratic presidential nomination.
During a recent presentation, a student noted, "Even a game of chess can reflect the inequalities of our society. From way back, white always goes first."
Teacher Jose Gonzalez nodded approvingly. "That's deep. That's powerful."
Amy Rusk, Tucson High's chief librarian who taught Chicano literature in the department for three years, says that as a white woman, she finds white privilege is "very much embedded in the system and that's why we have to talk about it."
Kids need to read literature where the grandmother switches back and forth between English and Spanish, just like they hear at home, she says.
They need to name 10 important Hispanic and 10 important black figures in U.S. history.
And they need to know the system was set up to block minority achievement, she says.
"I think to pretend everything is fine is very unfair to the kids," Rusk says.
She says she's heard students say they can't do some academic work because they aren't white and they aren't smart. But not Raza Studies students; they come to her library more than their peers, and are more able to do independent research.
"This program has much more to do with figuring out ways to help kids succeed who have not had academic identities before," Rusk says. "And this system has let them not have those academic identities."
● Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 573-4118 or email@example.com.