Arizona: Banning Books, Canceling Classes, and Demonizing Teachers in the 21st Century (by Guest Writer Kelsey Robertson)

In an effort to combat the staggering 50% dropout rate of their Latino students, the Tucson Unified School District created a new program in their high schools, Mexican American Studies (MAS). The classes studied a combination of Mexican culture, American history, social action, and community studies. The classes quickly grew and the MAS community transformed into what many students described as family.

Fast forward a few years, and the program became an incredible success. Graduation rates of the students involved increased to 93%. Not only did this meet the school district’s original goal, but additionally, students were getting better grades in all of their classes and evolving into active members of the community.

So why were the classes canceled?

Meet Tom Horne, Arizona’s past Superintendent (now Attorney General). He spearheaded the effort to kick the MAS program out of Tucson schools. According to him, the classes violated Jan Brewer’s law HB2281 which prohibits classes that: “(1) promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, (2) promote resentment toward a race or class of people, (3) are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, and (4) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treating pupils as individuals.”

Horne and his supporters claim that the classes preach hatred and are promoting the greconquista,” or the overthrow of the U.S. Government and reestablishment of Mexican rule. They also  stated that reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Rodolfo Acuña’s Occupied America: A History of Chicanos creates social unrest and want to ban these books from the school system (believe it or not, Shakespeare’s The Tempest is included on this list). As ridiculous as it might seem, Horne had a wealth of support from the community and managed to kick ethnic studies courses out of schools.

Teachers, students, and supporters were completely taken aback. The classes were examining history from a different perspective, and weren’t afraid to look at it for what it really is. On top of teaching critical thinking, MAS taught about love of the community and respect for yourself, something that all students should learn. Fortunately, many educators across the US are denouncing the banning of ethnic studies. They want to emulate the program, not kick it out of schools.

Precious Knowledge

The documentary Precious Knowledge (the inspiration for this post) follows the students in the MAS program at Tucson High and their struggle to keep their classes. Included are interviews with teachers, opponents, and footage of protests held. It is incredible to see the students try and defend their classes. Isn’t it every teachers dream to see their students that excited and passionate about their education? Watching everything unfold in front of the camera is powerful, and it is impossible to walk away from this documentary without getting upset! For more information, see  http://www.preciousknowledgefilm.com/ .

A Question for Portlanders

Arizona is far from Portland, but there are examples of this type of thinking here in PPS. Verenice Gutierrez,  the principal at Harvey Scott Elementary, recently has come under fire for a drum club for boys of color, along with comments made about gracisth peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (see previous post Getting Upset Over a Racist Sandwichh and Missing the Point: Supporting Cultural Competency in Schools (and in Communities)). Will Portland follow in the footsteps of Arizona, or will we realize the value of these types of classes?

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