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Defying Community, Split Tucson School Board Sacks Mexican American Studies Director Amid Confusion

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After more than two and half hours of a "call to audience" open mike, where passionate Tucson students, alumni, teachers, parents and community members exclusively praised the Mexican American Studies program's achievements, values and rootedness in the city and dressed down the Tucson Unified School District"s (TUSD) disconnection from the community, a bedraggled school board emerged from chanting and protests to quickly manipulate a 3-2 vote to dismiss the MAS director Sean Arce tonight.

Despite an exhausting 2-year-long witch hunt (dating back to 2006, in truth) against the acclaimed Mexican American Studies program by the Tea Party-led state legislature, tonight's school board meeting in Tucson was possibly one of the most bizarre and confusing in an already demoralized school district. Yet, not a single person, among scores of tireless speakers, spoke against the program. Nor did a single school board member opt to respond to any questions--including a local academic's query on why his own writing was banned from the District's classes, as part of the canceling of Mexican American Studies curriculum.

"I might as well be speaking to the wall," said one student. "But we're not going anywhere."

Then, as the chants erupted of "No justice, no peace, no racist TUSD," and students and community members cuffed themselves with hard plastic handcuffs, board president Mark Stegemen, who had deemed the Mexican American Studies a " cult" and served as one of the state's leading witnesses in a state administrative hearing last year, called for a recess. Within ten minutes, Stegemen and his board members re-emerged and managed to ram through an awkward vote over the chamber's mass confusion, with a rambling 25-year-old school board member Miguel Cuevas casting the deciding vote to deal the final blow to the nation's only high school Mexican American Studies program.

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Among numerous students who testified to the program's impact on their lives, alumni Selina Rodriguez recalled how Mexican American Studies had provided the academic and personal tools to go to college, obtain a master's degree, and now work as a youth counselor in Santa Monica, California, where the local California district is investigating ways of replicating Tucson's outlawed program. Tanya Alvarez, a mother of a TUSD student, spoke of her family's four generations of Chicano military veterans and the importance of recognizing her children's heritage. Alumni and current University of Arizona student Angelica Penaran reminded the board of Arce's beloved role as a mentor, teacher and father figure. Long-time educator, school board member and civil rights activist Sylvia Campoy detailed TUSD's violation of a federal desegregation order.

The dramatic protests inside and outside the chambers sought to advert the Tucson Unified School District's death knell of the Mexican American Studies program--the firing or refusal to renew the annual contract of director Sean Arce--only days after Arce was honored with a national award from the celebrated Zinn Education Project for leading "one of the most significant and successful public school initiatives on the teaching of history in the U.S."

Earlier today, the UNIDOS student organization, which carried out the historic occupation of the school board chambers last year, warned of the community's response to such a crackdown:

First they came for our classes. Then they came for our books. Now they’re coming for us—our teachers and staff, including program director Sean Arce. We will not comply, we will resist until Mexican-American Studies is put back in our schools.

We want (TUSD board member Michael) Hicks out. In fact, we want a new school board—one that will fight for our education and not squelch it. We want a school board that is representative of its students, that will regard its students as human beings and will no longer embarrass our community through ignorance and hate.

TUSD board members, in service of the AZ state government’s relentless attack on Ethnic Studies, have underestimated the stamina and fervor of MAS students and community before. They’ve seen what we’re capable of—but they haven’t seen anything yet.

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Michael Hicks poster at TUSD board meeting

Outraged by the blatantly racist overtones and embarrassing spectacle of TUSD board member Michael Hicks on the Daily Show last week, along with a growing national response to TUSD superintendent John Pedicone's increasingly repressive and indiscriminate book bans and confiscations, censorship and retributions, tonight's action marks a broader community effort to defend the Mexican American Studies program and the respected role of Arce, who has been with the district for 16 years. Pedicone drew wide condemnation last year for excessive police force, including ordering the arrest of elderly Chicano activists and educators.

Calling the board's move "irresponsible, unlawful and reflects yet another step in TUSD's descent into abysmal discrimination," Arce's attorney Richard Martinez warned in a letter today that the non-renewal notice sent to the former MAS director also failed to follow proper legal procedures. "The Pedicone era at TUSD," Martinez added, "has proven to be a complete disaster, one that has allowed racism to prevail over the educational needs and rights of our students."

In an unprecedented appeal today, key state legislators expressed their support for Arce and noted his dismissal "would be a tremendous disappointment and detriment to the students of TUSD, the people of Tucson, and the state of Arizona. We urge you to reconsider the impact Mr. Arce has made on many students’ lives in his work in TUSD and consider renewing his contract." Last week, US Rep. Raul Grijalva from Tucson lauded Arce for his national award and called the embattled director the "key to the success of the program and to the very necessary ongoing effort to save it. He has helped lead the program to a standard of excellence that we all continue to admire, and he will help lead it back to that same standard when these politically motivated attacks on students and education are just a bad memory."

Writing in Education Week, in fact, renowned scholar Christine Sleeter noted 5,726 Mexican American and 712 non-Latino students had been served under Arce's leadership, adding: “On Arizona’s achievement tests in reading, writing, and math, its students also outscore students of all racial and ethnic groups in the same schools but not in that program—a remarkable record. As schools nationwide struggle to close racial achievement gaps, Tucson’s Mexican-American studies program should be one from which we are learning.”

As stunned and demoralized Tucsonans filed out of the school board chambers amid the rings of police and aftermath of smoke bombs and protest, the TUSD board and superintendent John Pedicone made one thing clear: Closing the achievement gap and learning from the Mexican American Studies success will remain an endeavor for a different administration and school board to undertake in the future .