Freshmen at three TUSD high schools may be required to take a "culturally relevant" course in the fall as part of the district's effort to retain students.

The course, designed to replace the dismantled Mexican American Studies program, is called "Ninth Grade Culture, Identity and Transformation: A Culturally Relevant Viewpoint." It is supposed to be piloted at Rincon, Sahuaro and Santa Rita high schools in the coming school year and offered at all high schools in the 2015-2016 school year.

That came as a surprise to the TUSD Governing Board, which hasn't voted to make the class a requirement and hasn't approved the curriculum.

That's because the full curriculum has not been developed yet. Nevertheless, board members were told Tuesday that students are already being registered for the course.

District administrators will present an overview of the course along with important concepts it will cover at the May 7 Governing Board meeting. The full curriculum is expected to be unveiled at the May 28 meeting.

The mission of the one-semester course is to teach students to appreciate and value differences among people and the importance of sensitivity to other cultures, TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone said. There is also a focus on study, researching and presenting concepts in a way that moves students toward common core standards.

The course also is intended to serve as a bridge to connect students to school earlier in their high school careers than has been done before, Pedicone said.

Over the last seven years, 529 students, on average, have dropped out of TUSD schools annually.

TUSD Governing Board Member Mark Stegeman called Tuesday's announcement "very strange."

"I don't understand why you're saying this is coming to us for a vote and it's our decision but in fact it hasn't been our decision," he told administrators presenting the plan on Tuesday.

"I would be making exactly the same comment if we were coming up with a new ninth-grade arts course that we were pushing into students' crowded schedules, saying this is required and not having a board vote or a curriculum that parents can look at because no curriculum has been approved."

Although a lot of work has been done on the class, TUSD Deputy Superintendent Maria Menconi said nothing is set in stone until the board approves it.

"We have a clear understanding that in the end, this may not be the desire you have as a board," Menconi said. "But if we believe that a ninth-grade bridge course is appropriate, if we believe it improves students' chances to stay in school, then we need to pilot it the way we believe in it and that's where we went, and the final decision rests with you."

Governing Board Member Michael Hicks recently registered his daughter at one of the pilot schools and was not told the course may be on her freshman schedule, he said Tuesday.

Menconi acknowledged the process of enrolling students into a class that has not yet been approved is a bit backwards,but said the district is working under tight timelines. She said there is a backup plan to place students in elective courses if the board rejects the curriculum.

If the course is approved, it will be taught by teachers who show an interest in it. They will have to go through a training session this summer on the course content and instructional strategies that are expected.

Menconi could not say whether any of the teachers who formerly taught Mexican American Studies classes would teach the new curriculum.

If the board OKs offering the class in the fall, it will also have to consider whether the district will let some students opt out.

The curriculum has been under development since October and was recently being evaluated by national experts in multicultural curriculum and urban education. It has already been reviewed by academicians from the University of Arizona and Arizona State University.

The next phase is to submit the curriculum to the Governing Board, the public and the Arizona Department of Education for review.

The approval of the Education Department is key since it found TUSD's previous Mexican American Studies program in violation of a state law prohibiting courses that promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic race, advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals, and promote the overthrow of the U.S. government.

Pedicone said he believes including the state in the process will prevent that from happening again.

"By doing this in cooperation with the Department of Education, we won't run afoul of the law and find ourselves back in crosshairs," Pedicone said.

Board Members Cam Juarez and Kristel Foster expressed support for the concept, but had concerns about the process.

"I appreciate the research and the reasoning and that's what needs to drive our discussion," Foster said. "What I'm afraid of right now is for a really solid research-based important work failing because of the messaging of the word 'required.'"

Pedicone told the board the finished product will be "something that is of significance that is going to be a valid curriculum that will do what we believe it should do."

In addition to developing the ninth-grade course, the Tucson Unified School District has been putting together culturally relevant courses for 11th- and 12th-graders with a connection to English, U.S. government and U.S. history, as required by a federal court order designed to help the district bring its schools into racial balance.

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at or 573-4175. On Twitter @Alexis Huicochea