/ Modified oct 2, 2017 9:11 a.m.

Supporters of TUSD Mexican American Studies See New Hope in Ruling

Advocates want to see the reimplementation of the core concepts of the banned program.

TUSD MAS books spotlight Books used in TUSD's now-banned Mexican American Studies classes. (PHOTO: Fernanda Echavarri, AZPM)

Teachers and students of Tucson Unified School District’s former Mexican American Studies program said they felt vindicated after a U.S. district court judge declared the program was shut down because of “racial animus.”

MAS supporters said they won’t have complete justice, though, until the district implements a new ethnic studies policy, among other things.

Alexei Marques, a coordinator of service for student governance and programs at the University of Arizona, took MAS classes her senior year at Tucson High School. And while she was an undergrad at the UA, she was the MAS program’s first — and only —  student teacher.

She wants MAS to come back as it was when she learned and taught it.

“It’s funny that when we have the numbers as scholars to support what we’re doing, the pedagogies that we have, the teachings that we have, the curriculum that we establish — when we had the numbers to support it, and they weren’t honored, it’s like, wait,” Marques said.

“We’re learning to function within this mechanism that you established. We’re learning to navigate the system, and now you’re saying ‘no’?”

Marques said the MAS program offered its pupils — who were usually Mexican Americans, themselves — a learning environment unlike any they had ever experienced before: one where their ancestors’ histories weren’t “whitewashed.”

She said Mexican-American students could see themselves in their MAS lessons, which allowed them to better relate to their studies.

“We’re learning to function within this mechanism that you established. We’re learning to navigate the system, and now you’re saying ‘no’?”

“Students found their purpose, they found their identity, and they essentially found hope in what they were as scholars and academics,” Marques said. “They’re at a real crucial time when they’re trying to develop their identity, find their intersectionality, and they’re many times in a space where that doesn’t happen.”

Nolan Cabrera, the former MAS programmatic evaluator and an expert witness in the program’s lawsuit, said students who were at risk of not graduating their freshman and sophomore years began to excel academically after they took MAS classes their junior and senior years.

“So we wanted to see if there was a relationship between taking MAS [classes] and student academic achievement — in particular, passing the AIMS [standardized] test after initial failure and graduating from high school,” Cabrera said. “We found there was a surprisingly strong relationship between taking these classes and the likelihood of those outcomes occurring. These students actually graduated at some of the highest levels in the entire district.”

For that reason, Cabrera said he thinks “any person who cares about student achievement” should support bringing back MAS curriculum, or classes modeled after the program.

One supporter said the MAS program offered its pupils — who were usually Mexican Americans, themselves — a learning environment unlike any they had ever experienced before: one where their ancestors’ histories weren’t “whitewashed.”

Leo Herrera, a youth facilitator at the grassroots activist organization UNIDOS, took MAS classes before they were shut down. He agrees with Cabrera that TUSD should bring back the principles MAS teachers utilized in their classes, whether that’s through starting a whole new MAS department, or updating TUSD’s current “culturally relevant curriculum” classes.

“The core concepts that were used in the classrooms — whether it be discussing critical race theory, even in regards to the literature that was being used and was banned — we want to see that come back,” he said.

Herrera said it’s also important — if not, most important — that Judge A. Wallace Tashima, the district court judge deciding the program’s case, acknowledges it was institutional racism that shut down MAS.

“To go even deeper an acknowledge this is systematic and it’s not just two racist old white guys that came up with this,” he said. “They obviously had the support of the senate, they obviously had the support of people working really close to education. So I’d like for him to say it was just another systematic attack on brown — particularly, Mexican — folks from the state of Arizona.

Another UNIDOS organizer, Jessica Torres Alcaraz, said Tashima’s racial-animus ruling itself brings a new hope to the Tucson community, regardless of what happens with MAS in the future.

“Everybody is experiencing such racial trauma — [the ruling shows] the city of Tucson and all those who are facing such issues, that we’re not going to stand for the constant racism that we face in our communities. Our community can heal from the trauma that was placed, not only by the ban, but what had taken place during that time, as well.”

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