Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Precious Progress

For prints, see WildNatureImages
We spent the first four years of my doctoral program enjoying the vibrant, desert life of Tucson. That program took eight years, which is why we are not as much fans of the university as we are of the city. At the time Tucson was a less-sprawly, somewhat more progressive version of Phoenix, closer to the border and with a lot more wild lands nearby.

We have been very distressed, therefore, to learn that the always severe politics of the state had become downright vicious, with many measures echoing the kinds of social control that have constrained Palestinians or South Africans. I have written about my distress in a series of posts, beginning a couple of years ago with Just Like Arlo and Human Sieve, which focus on the ways in which border "security" measures attempt to disembody cheap labor.

Curtis Acosta
This year, I have written about a number of developments, starting with a Tucson Teach-in that we held in February, in which we discussed how the state-wide political movements were having very specific impacts on students in the Mexican-American Studies program in Tucson. (See all of my Arizona posts for more details.) We centered that discussion on a viewing of Precious Knowledge, one of whose heroes is Curtis Acosta. A decade ago, when the School Board of the Tucson Unified School District wanted to narrow the gap in achievement and engagement of Mexican-American students, Mr. Acosta was part of a team that implemented a remedy that actually worked by establishing just one course in Mexican-American Studies. Students excelled not only in this more relevant course, but in their other studies as well.

Instead of getting awards, though, the teachers and students were attacked for introducing race into what many outsiders asserted had been a race-free setting. Of course, race had been a factor all along, and the work of these teachers actually allowed for some important and constructive discussions that freed students to do some real learning. The film documents the pressure on this and similar programs, at both the state and district level, and the eventual success of the curriculum's opponents. It was clear that just as one arm of a radical political movement worked to strip away civil rights for many Arizonans, another arm was determined to shut down any critical thinking about such measures. In the view of some activists on the right, schools were to be used to indoctrinate students that they were not experiencing discrimination.

The film ends grimly, but the story did not end with the film. When I was in Tucson, I was part of winning a few civil-rights battles, and apparently the ability to work together on matters of justice is still alive and well in Tucson. The work I did had very little to do with trying to elect particular candidates, because my preferred candidates never had a chance of winning. So in those days we got a lot done by working with whatever officeholders were in place. In this case, however, it was clear that more attention needed to be paid to the composition of the school board. Three individuals were undoing a major, successful initiative of an earlier board, and undermining the education of thousands of students in the process.

Juarez, Foster, and Grijalva, TUSD
School board elections really matter!
This fall, Camy Juarez and Kristel Foster were endorsed by teachers, and were elected to join Adelita Grijalva, who continues to serve and who had been the sole advocate for Mexican-American Studies on the most recent configuration of the board. Two members remain who had worked to dismantle Mexican-American Studies, but they will no longer have the votes to sustain such destructive measures.

All of this is by way of background for some very positive recent developments, reported by David Safier on Blog for Arizona. As a result of litigation that predates the above-mentioned drama -- and has been going on since before we arrived in Tucson in 1990 -- a court-mandated desegregation plan is near final approval. It includes a lot components that one would expect in such a plan, related to the location of attendance boundaries and the relationships among feeder schools.

It also mandates that "culturally relevant courses of instruction designed to reflect the history, experiences and culture of African American and Latino communities" be included as core courses at the high school level. In fact, implementation of this requirement will include similar components at the middle and elementary levels, as explained in Safier's overview of the plan. The plan does not necessarily require the return of the specific program described in Precious Knowledge, but in extended comments submitted to the blog, teacher Curtis Acosta expresses genuine optimism.

Wade Davis, quoted by Trying God's Patience/FB
The good news from Tucson came just as I noticed this online poster, which I have dubbed "Most succinct geography lesson." It is a lesson, sadly, that those running education in Tucson for political purposes in recent years have not yet learned.

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