by David Safier
"They were speaking her language, and she understood what they said."
At Monday night's public forum on the proposed desegregation plan for TUSD, there was no shortage of excellent, eloquent speakers. But the line above, from a woman who is a TUSD grad, currently a licensed counselor and a mother whose daughter was in the Mexican American Studies program, is the one that stuck with me. I've expended thousands of words trying to explain the value of the MAS program, and she succeeded in just 11 words. If you want to reach students who feel alienated from their school-based education and see no reason to apply themselves, no reason to care, you have to find a way to make the education relevant to their lives. There's no one strategy that works. But somehow you have to find a way to get past their defenses, often erected to fend off their feelings of failure. You have to find a way in. And one way is to "speak their language" so they understand what you're saying.
In the case of MAS, that means talking about the world from a perspective the students understand, teaching about history from a different viewpoint, reading literature that has the cadences and experiences students can relate to, shaking things up so the barriers reluctant students create to protect themselves from investing too much of themselves in their educations are broken down. Get students to care about what's going on in class, and they're going to benefit, sometimes in remarkable ways.
For a summary of the ideas presented to the Special Master and others who listened to the speakers, keep reading below the fold.
Sitting on the stage Monday night were Special Master Willis Hawley — the man who has been designated by the federal court to put together a new deseg plan — the lawyers representing the sides in the original suit and a number of people representing the Federal Department of Justice and the Civil Rights division. Monday was the first of three consecutive nights of forums (Here are the times and places of the next two) where people are given about 3 minutes each to present their views.
Four themes were repeated by many of the speakers.
The dominant theme was, the Mexican American Studies program should be brought back to TUSD more-or-less intact. The teachers who were part of the program before it was dismantled should be the primary teachers and, some speakers added, Sean Arce, whose contract was not renewed, should be brought back to administrate the program.
The second theme was the success of the MAS program. There were plenty of people who spoke anecdotally about the value of the courses, everyone from UA profs to former MAS teachers to parents whose children took the courses to recent TUSD grads and current students. This wasn't the kind of hard data that appeals to number crunchers. In many ways, however, it was far more persuasive. All attempts to quantify the value of education are approximate at best. While people's direct and indirect experiences with the program aren't "proof" of its value, the experiences related and the ideas expressed were powerful arguments that the program has changed many lives for the better.
The "Cabrera Report" was mentioned by many speakers as offering hard data about the value of MAS. This is a recent statistical study out of UA that crunches numbers to arrive at the conclusion that the MAS curriculum boosted achievement and raised the graduation rate of its students. (You can read the study here.) The study isn't posted on the TUSD website even though the website includes the proposed deseg plan. Speakers accused the District of trying to ignore the findings of the report because they undercut the District's reticence to reinstate the program. At least one speaker criticized the people who put out the proposed deseg plan for not including the Cabrera Report in its supplementary materials.
The third theme was that the deseg plan, while it moves in the right direction, states its recommendations too generally, without the teeth needed for strong implementation of its ideas. Lots of speakers expressed the hope the plan would state directly that the MAS program be reinstated, fearing that the vague wording would let the District reinterpret the ruling in its weakest form.
The final theme brought up by a number of speakers is that the current state-mandated ELL program with its four hour block that pulls non-English speakers out of standard classrooms for most of the day must be eliminated and replaced by a more inclusive form of ELL instruction. Speakers wanted the return of bilingual education for ELL students and the reintroduction of dual language classes where subject matter is taught in both English and Spanish.
It seems to me that the people sitting on stage listening to the speakers would be both moved and persuaded by what they heard and it would influence the final version of the deseg plan. Then again, the three day listening tour may turn out to be more about theater than substance, a chance to let the speakers feel like they have an impact on the final version of the plan without their words resulting in any substantive changes. Two things I know for sure, however: the energy and commitment of the people who fought for the MAS program hasn't lessened, and the TUSD School Board that begins meeting in January will have a very different mix of members, one that favors many of the ideas presented at Monday's forum.