Moving America Forward

How an Incredible Teacher Kept His Outlawed Ethnic Studies Classes Alive

May 7, 2014
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How an Incredible Teacher Kept His Outlawed Ethnic Studies Classes Alive
Kevin Moloney/Getty Images
Curtis Acosta and his students took on Arizona lawmakers and won. But the battle is far from over.

This is America. Why should we study about Mexico?

Well, because it brings attention to a part of America’s history that’s usually glazed over. Because it helps Mexican-American students identify with their roots. And most significantly, it allows Latino students to achieve tremendous academic success.

As Yes! Magazine reports, the Mexican American Studies (MAS) program in Tuscon, Arizona has bucked national trends since its founding in 1998. It brought about such positive change that by 2011, the high school dropout rate for MAS students in the city was a mere 2.5 percent (opposed to 56 percent for Latino students nationwide). Ninety-eight percent of these students did their homework and 66 percent went on to pursue higher education after high school.

But the political climate and tide of anti-immigration sentiment in Arizona did not favor these classes. Curtis Acosta, a leader in developing Tucson’s MAS program, saw the state legislature ban these studies in schools in 2010. The school district was forced to end the classes or lose $15 million in annual state aid.  As a New York Times editorial puts it, “It was a blunt-force victory for the Arizona school superintendent, John Huppenthal, who has spent years crusading against ethnic-studies programs he claims are ‘brainwashing’ children into thinking that Latinos have been victims of white oppression.”

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Not going down without a fight, Acosta, MAS students and other activists successfully restored the MAS program three years after the ban with a federal court order. (Sort of.) These classes are now known as “culturally relevant” classes that also include African American studies. This contentious battle was taken on in the 2011 documentary, Precious Knowledge. (Watch the trailer for this film below.)

Despite the victory, Acosta (who left his teaching position at Tucson High Magnet School to start the Acosta Latino Learning Partnership) says the fight and controversy is far from over — Arizona superintendent Huppenthal says the Tucson curriculum is still inappropriate.

“People need to understand this has been happening for years. This is what’s happening in Georgia, in Alabama, in Arizona. And it’s happening in a lot of other places,” Acosta told Yes! Magazine. “If we share knowledge, resources, and information, we can have a national response locally.”

“We’re right back to the civil rights movement, we’re right back to the Farm Workers’ movement for my people,” Acosta, who continues to advocate Latino-American studies through his organization, added. “We need to find new spaces to meet and organize as a community since our public institutions, such as schools, are limiting and banning us from their spaces….The students are the present-future.”

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