Josh Brodesky: Schools chief Horne can't win this fight

2010-12-12T00:00:00Z Josh Brodesky: Schools chief Horne can't win this fightJosh Brodesky Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
December 12, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Poor Tom Horne, picking a fight he can't win. He may very well succeed in shutting down TUSD's Mexican American Studies department, but he can't regulate the burden of our history.

His stance may play well in the polls, as he moves from being the state's schools chief to its top prosecutor in January. But even if he wins his war on Raza Studies, and what he calls "ethnic chauvinism," all he'll succeed in doing is martyring a program he yearns to kill.

These teachers went out and sold education to kids our schools traditionally fail. They get results. But instead of celebrating, Horne's castigating.

"I think the elimination of the course is a step forward," he said. "These teachers believe that it's part of their role to propagandize the kids."

Blame this view on Dolores Huerta, the Chicana activist who proclaimed "Republicans hate Latinos" back in 2006 during a speech at Tucson High. That put the spotlight on the program, and then the kids didn't help themselves, either. When Horne brought in deputy superintendent Margaret Garcia Dugan to talk about being Republican and Hispanic, students stood in silence with tape over their mouths. So much for open minds.

It's a fine line between critical thinking and pumping out the ideology. Certainly, those two events suggest the program has crossed that line at times. Whatever the case, though, the fallout has been one big distraction and a whole lot of reaction.

It's too bad because, in many ways, this small group of teachers in Tucson Unified's Mexican American Studies Department has done everything we've asked of them.

They inspired kids, mostly Hispanic, who haven't always found inspiration in our school system. They hooked them on school and raised their test scores and grade-point averages. They encouraged their students to think big and dream. In our Mexican-American heritage - if you live in Tucson, it's ours - they offered a rudder to navigate the world.

If these classes were offered when I was a student at Tucson High or Pistor Middle School, way out near South Cardinal Avenue and West Irvington Road on the southwest side, I probably would have taken them. Because during those years, as a white kid growing up on the west side, I saw a lot of faces in the crowd fade away. The faces were of all colors, but more often than not, they were brown. School just wasn't for them, right? Maybe this way, it is.

I wish Tom Horne had been there for my interview with Curtis Acosta, the Chicano-lit teacher at Tucson High. Because if he had, he would have heard this:

"We wanted to make education intoxicating to our students, so they could develop an academic identity and see school as their home, " Acosta said. "Because regardless of all the rhetoric, if you just go and ask stories about our parents and grandparents, you will find that a lot of hopes and dreams were crushed because of a lack of equal opportunity or educational opportunity."

I always liked Curtis Acosta. He was starting as a teacher when I graduated from Tucson High in 1996. And what set him apart was his contagious energy and enthusiasm. He made you want to stick around.

Fourteen years later, Acosta still projects that energy and enthusiasm. And that's why - along with the pressure of a final project - a lot of his students were in his classroom before the first bell last week. They wanted to be there.

Time will tell if they get to stay. Horne's law, HB 2281, goes into effect Dec. 31. It bans classes that promote either the overthrow of the U.S. government or resentment toward a race of people. It also bans classes that are designed for a particular race, or advocate for ethnic solidarity at the expense of individuality. The stakes are high. If a course is found in violation of this law, the district loses 10 percent of its state funding.

I didn't see any of that in Acosta's classroom last week. There were kids of all races there, and they talked with respect and love for one another. The presentations mixed literary analysis with monologues and interviews about race here in Tucson. Sometimes the brush strokes got a little broad. More assumptions could have been challenged, and I wondered if a conservative kid could feel comfortable in the class. But a law won't fix those things. Only true conversations will.

"If anything, through taking these classes, I feel more aware and more accepting and open to different ethnicities, different ways of life and different traditions," said Krysta Diaz, 17, who plans to major in computer science at the University of Arizona. "I am learning how to respect others."

Horne doesn't understand how this is possible. The whole idea blows his mind.

"If the course is teaching about La Raza, how is that developing respect for other ethnicities?" he asked.

That's a good question. Maybe instead of shutting down the program, it's time for Horne to sit down with kids like Diaz to find out.

Contact Josh Brodesky at 573-4242 or jbrodesky@azstarnet.com

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