Tucson Unified School District will offer culturally relevant literature classes in the fall to select high school juniors and seniors.

The TUSD Governing Board voted 3-2 to approve the curriculum for the courses Tuesday night. The courses are taught from the African American and Mexican American perspectives. Board Members Mark Stegeman and Michael Hicks dissented.

The classes will be offered for core credit through pilot programs at Cholla, Tucson and Pueblo high schools, and students will still have the option of taking traditional literature courses.

Topics covered by the literature courses will include race and privilege in America, the birth of the civil rights movement and the pursuit of the American dream, contemporary issues in the African American and Mexican American cultures, racial identity and other issues. Specific books and teaching materials are not identified, but will be drawn from works previously approved by the board and other selected works yet to be determined.

There will be a focus on how literature can serve as a vehicle for addressing issues related to race and racism; how literature reflects the social and political struggles of African Americans and Mexican Americans; and how literature helps readers to understand the human condition.

Debate over the culturally relevant courses has been heated, as some worry they will be too similar to Mexican American Studies classes, which were deemed illegal by the state, while others feel that the courses may be watered down to avoid similar scrutiny.

"This curriculum is political and racially motivated," one community member commented as part of an online curriculum review. Other critics questioned why the classes weren't being offered from other cultural perspectives like Asian American and Native American, or why one class couldn't cover all of the viewpoints.

On the other end, a commenter wrote the curriculum will expose students "to a variety of points of view, give them opportunities to develop critical thinking skills ... ." A teacher from New York also praised the curriculum, despite being "dismayed by what happened to the Mexican American Studies program." The unidentified teacher said the curriculum explored well-selected topics.

With all of the work that has gone into putting the classes together, former TUSD Deputy Superintendent Maria Menconi - who led the development of the curriculum - said she feels that the courses are strong.

"This curriculum has undergone intensive content and standards review," she said. "In addition to reviews by state and national content experts, the Arizona Department of Education has also been reviewing the classes to ensure alignment to the state's rigorous Common Core Standards.

"We anticipate that students will enjoy academic success in these classes and find them relevant and challenging."

The classes are required as part of Unitary Status Plan, a federal court order to ensure all students are provided equal access to quality educational opportunities.

The literature classes are only a portion of the culturally relevant curriculum. History and government courses that will be taught from the Mexican American and African American perspectives have also been under development and will go before the Governing Board on July 23. Classes resume Aug. 1.

Once approved, the Governing Board will have to decide whether to offer those courses starting the second semester the coming school year or hold off.

Even though the literature classes were approved long after student schedules were put together, there are students who expressed interest in the courses who were placed on a waiting list. Their schedules will be altered so they can take the culturally relevant version of the course instead.

Educators who voiced an interest in teaching the classes will be trained on instructional strategies appropriate for culturally relevant teaching.

other board decisions

In other business, the TUSD Governing Board:

• Agreed to lease nearly half of the now-closed Wakefield Middle School to two organizations - the Lapan Memorial Sunshine Foundation, which will serve TUSD students by providing college readiness programs and funds to support those who attend college, and Higher Ground, which will provide an after-school program with tutoring, sports, art and music for up to 400 TUSD students. Rents will be $1 per year. Higher Ground, which will occupy much of the space, will also cover utility expenses. The deal stands to save TUSD $30,000 to $50,000 in maintenance and operating costs.

• Voted to spend $1.6 million to replace 24 school buses that are about 20 years old. The industrial life span of a school bus is 15 years. Six new buses will be purchased outright for $379,930 with maintenance and operations funds. The remaining 18 will be a lease-purchase at an annual cost of $249,860 for five years, which will be paid for with desegregation funds. The replacement buses are all 30-passenger vehicles - smaller than the existing buses which can carry about 80 students. The decision to go smaller is based on an analysis from last year showing 50 routes where larger buses were used had fewer than 30 passengers. The smaller buses will reduce annual fuel costs by about $3,300 per vehicle. The district will keep seven or eight of the old buses as spares and sell the rest.

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@azstarnet.com or 573-4175. On Twitter @AlexisHuicochea