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When a Teacher’s Ethnic Studies Classes Were Banned, His Students Took the District to Court — and Won

Curtis Acosta's classes in Mexican American Studies gave kids pride in their heritage—until the Arizona Legislature canceled them.

The Mexican American Studies (MAS) program in Tucson, Ariz., began in 1998 as a few courses and grew to 43 classes serving 1,500 students in six high schools, with similar programs in middle and elementary schools.

MAS was founded with the aim of reversing some disturbing academic trends for Chicano students in Tucson. It worked. In 2011, the high school dropout rate for MAS students in Tucson was 2.5 percent, as opposed to 56 percent for Latino students nationally. A study by Tucson United School District (TUSD) found that 98 percent of MAS students reported they did homework, and 66 percent went on to college. The program was widely regarded as helping Latino youth feel empowered and achieve their full academic and human potential.

Immigration and cultural diversity are particularly controversial in Arizona. A politically motivated campaign against the MAS program culminated in a 2010 law banning Arizona state schools from teaching ethnic studies classes, described in the law as courses that advocated "the overthrow of the United States government" and "ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals." Eventually, the school district had to stop offering MAS or lose $15 million in annual state aid.

Teachers, parents, and students filed a legal challenge to the law and lost the case. They appealed that ruling, and three years after the ban, in July 2013, a federal court ordered TUSD to reinstate high school Mexican American Studies and add African American studies. The courses are now known as "culturally relevant" classes.

The documentary Precious Knowledge tells the story of the high school seniors who became activists to save Tucson's ethnic studies classes. Among other teachers, the film features Curtis Acosta, a leader in developing Tucson's MAS program. He talked to YES! Education Outreach Manager Jing Fong about being an activist teacher, and his current role as a national advocate for rehumanizing education.

In Lak 'ech

Tú eres mi otro yo / You are my other me
Si te hago daño a ti, / If I do harm to you,
Me hago daño a mi mismo / I do harm to myself.
Si te amo y respeto, / If I love and respect you,
Me amo y respeto yo / I love and respect myself

—Mayan precept quoted by poet Luís Valdez

Jing Fong: Take me inside your classroom. What were your Mexican American Studies classes like on the first day of school?

Curtis Acosta: On the first day, you walk into a very sterile room filled with unbelievably vibrant young people. But I think that teachers sometimes put walls up and they're afraid to get close to the students. Or they're afraid to give up the hierarchical power. We should be able to look at students and see ourselves. And not infantilize them and think, "they're so young, and I know so much." Or, "It's your job and I'm your boss." None of those paradigms should be in a person's mind as a teacher. You should see your job as cultivating this group of folks into moving forward.

The first day...I would say the whole In Lak' ech thing, but I wouldn't explain it to them. I would just do it. I would clap, and recite In Lak' ech and look in their eyes. Sometimes I would clap by myself and the little Chicanitas would feel sorry for me, "Oh look at that old man clapping. Let's clap with him." It's true, they would do that, and I loved them for it.

When our students come in, and they're too cool or hard, that's because they've been hurt. They're injured. They don't always do bad things, schools, but they have. These are institutions, and people have to survive in them.

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