Tucson's largest school district has revamped its controversial Mexican American Studies department, giving it a new name and a new focus.
And as of this month, the department, now known as Mexican American Student Services, has a new person in charge - Maria Figueroa.
Figueroa, a long-time principal and teacher with a passion for reading and bilingual education, likes to describe herself as a "problem solver, not a problem maker."
Still settling into her new role - Figueroa has yet to fully move into her office - she has big ideas on how best to support Tucson Unified's Hispanic population, made up of more than 31,000 students.
In a way, Figueroa's new post - which comes with an annual salary of $89,633 - has brought her full circle, having had a hand in designing what was originally referred to as TUSD's Hispanic Studies Department in the late 1990s.
More than a decade ago, Figueroa served on the department's advisory committee for curriculum, encouraging the use of Chicano literature to teach Mexican-American students and setting up professional-development programs for teachers who administered the lessons.
Over time, the curriculum and the literature used in the courses changed. And now, after being found in violation of state law, the classes have been dismantled.
The TUSD Governing Board decided earlier this year not to renew the contract of the former MAS director, Sean Arce.
Rather than offering classes on the contributions of Mexican Americans to society, the new department will be focused on student services and eliminating disparities for Hispanic students in the areas of achievement, discipline, special-education placement, grade retention and placement in special programs.
Q: What is your primary objective as director of Mexican American Student Services?
A: Providing interventions to help schools by helping our students go forward in terms of wanting to be a part of the school, staying in school and accessing the resources they need, such as tutoring and mentoring.
Q: Are you concerned about taking over a department that has faced so much scrutiny over the years?
A: No, because I want to help our students. I don't get into the politics. I'm pretty much focusing on student services right now.
Q: Do you believe the Mexican American Studies courses were in violation of state law?
A: All I know is we have to do what board members say, and we have to be in compliance with the state. . . . I do stand firm in knowing and understanding that children need to read literature that is relevant to them and know the contributions they've made to society. I think that's where our teachers were coming from.
Q: Did you face any backlash from the Mexican American Studies community or Latinos in general for taking this position?
A: I have not received any negative feedback or complaints from the community that supports the previous TUSD Mexican American Studies Department. . . . The feedback has been nothing but positive, really.
Q: Can you work with the Mexican American Studies supporters who are unhappy with the changes in the department?
A: I am certain I can work with all members from the Latino community. We in the Latino community have one thing in common - we want what is best for our students.
Q: Why was this position appealing to you?
A: The fact that there's a glimpse of hope that the curriculum aspect will someday be reinstated; and seeing that a second tier of intervention is needed.
The first tier of intervention is what students are getting directly in the classroom - what the teachers are producing. The second tier is those intervention strategies such as mentoring and tutoring for our struggling students who need more.
Q: What kind of strategies will you use to help struggling students?
A: Mentoring from community members and students; tutoring - not necessarily homework help because that may not be the level of support needed, but filling in the gaps for math and reading comprehension; monitoring the programs and students and their success or lack thereof; and connecting students and families to existing resources.
Q: How will your past experiences help you in your new role?
A: My experiences with reading, my connections to the community, to parents, to students, and my experiences as a teacher and principal will really help me in being able to diagnose a problem and identifying what students need now to be successful.
Maria Figueroa grew up in Los Angeles and came to Tucson in the early 1980s.
She attended the University of Arizona and initially majored in computer science, but decided to switch things up after being exposed to the world of bilingual education.
Over the years she has earned a bachelor's degree in bilingual and elementary education; two master's degrees - in reading and education administration; and her doctoral degree in education leadership.
Before being named director of Mexican American Student Services, Figueroa served as principal of Tolson Elementary School on the west side for 12 years.
Some of the professional organizations she is affiliated with include the League of United Latin American Citizens; Educational Leaders Inc.; the Arizona Hispanic School Administrators Association; and Derechos Humanos.
Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at email@example.com or 573-4175.