TUSD’s culturally relevant courses received a mostly positive review after the Arizona Department of Education popped into classrooms at two campuses unannounced last week — a dramatic turnaround from the department’s evaluation of the old Mexican American Studies program.
Three ADE representatives — Deputy Superintendent Jennifer Johnson, Associate Superintendent Kathy Hrabluk and Deputy Associate Superintendent Sarah Galetti — conducted walk-throughs at Cholla and Pueblo high schools, both of which offer literature, government and U.S. history classes from Mexican-American and African-American perspectives. The classes have been designed to replace TUSD’s now defunct Mexican American Studies courses, which were declared in violation of state law.
While the Tucson Unified School District waits for a formal report from the ADE, a debriefing with department officials was positive, said Adrian Vega, TUSD’s deputy superintendent of teaching and learning.
“The visit was pretty unremarkable, and I took that to be a good thing,” said TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez. “Nothing they told us was cause for great alarm or an indication that we need to go in and change everything.”
Sanchez said several classes were visited for an average of about 30 minutes each in which students were observed debating and writing. This was the first time ADE officials have observed the classes since they were approved earlier this school year.
TUSD Governing Board member Michael Hicks, who has publicly opposed the cultural classes, was pleased to hear the district leadership perceived the visit as having gone well, but he said he is waiting to see the final report.
“I would be surprised to see rave reviews,” Hicks said, given how outspoken Arizona schools chief John Huppenthal has been about the courses. “But if that’s the case, that’s a good thing.”
Hicks has not visited a culturally relevant class, but he said his confidence level is higher in the teachers who are now delivering the content.
“I don’t believe it’s being taught in the same manner as it was,” Hicks said. “My hope is everything is on the up and up and the kids are getting a good education from it.”
Fellow board member Cam Juarez, a longtime supporter of the past and current programs, acknowledged that a valuable lesson has been learned from the dismantling of the previous curriculum and he is hopeful that message is clear to the state.
“This is obviously a very politically divisive issue,” Juarez said. “This has historically been somewhat of a platform for Huppenthal, so I understand if he’s a little suspect of what we’re trying to do.”
Though Juarez is pleased that ADE representatives provided positive feedback, he would like to see Huppenthal make a trip down to TUSD himself to see the work being done.
Juarez plans to observe most of the culturally relevant classes within the next few weeks.
Good, but not perfect
While the ADE feedback was mostly positive, there were a few concerns, Sanchez said.
Two posters hanging in classrooms — one supporting Native American identity and the other about Hispanic heritage or rights — were troubling to ADE officials, Sanchez said, although he personally saw no problem with the posters.
“I was an English teacher,” Sanchez said. “I put stuff up to get students talking and debating. It’s fine as long as you’re not offending people or telling them what to believe.”
The ADE representatives also noted they would be reviewing the level of alignment between the courses and the new Common Core standards, which Sanchez welcomes.
“That’s OK with us,” he said. “We’re looking at that for everything — math, English, reading, writing. It’s still really new, so we’ll take all of the suggestions and advice they give relative to aligning instruction.”
The Arizona Department of Education did not comment on the visit, saying it would be inappropriate to share information with the press before formally delivering it to the schools and the district.
Sanchez expects that the ADE will be back multiple times to review the courses in the future.