PHOTO: Fernanda Echavarri

The U.S. Justice Department just wrapped up a series of public meetings to hear from the community as an official writes a new desegregation plan for the Tucson Unified School District.

The public comment period for the plan ended with a meeting Wednesday night, and the issue most speakers at the meeting raised was the reinstatement of the defunct Mexican American Studies classes.

Willis Hawley, the federally appointed special master (a desegregation expert tasked with developing a desegregation plan), has been in Tucson since January collecting information--through public meetings, interviews with staff, and conversations with teachers--for a new desegregation or Unitary Status Plan.

This decades-long issue began in 1974, when parents of Mexican American and African American students sued the Tucson Unified School District for what they called discrimination against their children.

The parents were represented by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Mexican Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The federal government intervened in 1976 in what became known as the Fisher/Mendoza case.

A few years later, the parties reached a settlement requiring TUSD to go under a desegregation order monitored by the U.S. Justice Department’s Unitary Status Plan.

The 1978 desegregation order remained in effect until 2009, when TUSD filed a petition with a local district court to terminate federal oversight of the district.

"The court has acknowledged that the district will operate for the advocacy and equal advantage of every child," TUSD officials said at the time. But the plaintiffs in the original desegregation case appealed that decision and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district's status and appointing a special master to develop a new Unitary Status Plan.

The special master held a series of public meetings this week where representatives from the school district, the Justice Department, and the Fisher and Mendoza parties listened to hours of public comments about the proposed plan.

The newly proposed Unitary Status Plan aims to provide equal educational opportunities to African American and Latino students in TUSD in the areas of discipline, transportation, student assignment, family engagement, extracurricular activities and accountability.

“The test is not whether people have done something but it’s about whether they’ve done it well,” Hawley said. “The bottom line is that the students benefit from (the plan).”

Teachers, parents, students and community members spoke at the meetings, giving examples of how the MAS classes helped minority students.

PHOTO: Fernanda Echavarri
TUSD’s superintendent John Pedicone, with board members Adelita Grijalva, Michael Hicks, Mark Stegeman, Alexandre Sugiyama and Miguel Cuevas

In January, the district shut down those classes after the Arizona Department of Education said they violated a newly passed law known as HB2281. The proposed plan does not specifically name the Mexican American Studies classes, but says TUSD should have culturally relevant courses designed to reflect the history and culture of Latino communities. By next academic year, TUSD is to provide ethnically diverse perspectives in social studies and literature, according to the plan.

Many speakers told the panel that African American students in TUSD continue to fall behind.

“My whole concept is equality of education,” said Joann Thompson, the parent of an African American student. “The district has spent too much time and too much money talking about desegregation but not enough talking about implementation.”

All parties involved have one more chance to make changes to the proposed plan. The special master will give his final plan to the courts by Dec. 10.