Tucson Unified School District administrators surprised the school board last week by revealing they want to require a ninth-grade multiculturalism course at three high schools - before the board has even seen or approved the curriculum.

But that was just one of the problems with the announced new course, called "9th-Grade Culture, Identity and Transformation: A Culturally Relevant Viewpoint."

The name gives away a bigger problem: What exactly is this required course supposed to be about?

The details are supposed to be unveiled at next week's TUSD board meeting. But it's clear from the board's reaction that the idea of requiring the course at Rincon, Sahuaro and Santa Rita high schools will be a hard sell.

"I don't think this will be a mandatory ninth-grade option for next year," board President Adelita Grijalva told me Tuesday.

Still, the idea raises issues the board will have to successfully wrestle with if it's to overcome last year's Mexican-American Studies catastrophe. In January 2012, amid angry debate, the board eliminated the district's Mexican-American Studies program after the state superintendent of schools ruled that it violated a new state law governing ethnic-studies courses.

One issue the proposed new course brings up is the difference between a multicultural curriculum and culturally relevant courses. The court-ordered desegregation plan under which the district is operating says the district must have both.

The multicultural curriculum is largely meant to bring Latino, African-American and other cultural perspectives into existing courses, and it was initially required by the board when it eliminated Mexican-American Studies in 2012.

The new "culturally relevant courses" are redesigned ethnic-studies courses, such as history or literature courses that emphasize the Mexican-American experience, newly required by court order.

The way administrators presented the new ninth-grade course at last week's board meeting, it looks like a forced combination of the two.

Superintendent John Pedicone, who was not available to talk with me Tuesday, told my colleague Alexis Huicochea that the course will teach students to appreciate and value differences among people as well as the importance of sensitivity to other cultures.

That sounds like the concept behind a multicultural curriculum pounded into the form of a semester-long class. And I can't imagine it deserving a dedicated semester of a ninth-grader's time.

"Making a class mandatory is a really big deal in high school, so I want to make sure it's going to cover a lot of information that would be helpful and beneficial throughout the year," Grijalva said Tuesday.

Augustine Romero, the administrator charged with creating the new courses in a hurry, defended the idea of requiring the ninth-grade course by saying it could help keep kids in school.

"If these are things we really believe in, if we're firmly grounded in these courses being that bridge, being that safety net … we can't wait to do these things anymore," Romero told the board last week.

His idea is that the ninth-grade course will keep some kids in school, and they can take new ethnic-studies courses for some of their core credits in later grades, preventing some students from dropping out.

It's hard for me to see how a cultural-sensitivity course is going to keep at-risk students in school.

Board members Mark Stegeman and Kristel Foster also told me Tuesday that the required course could exacerbate TUSD's perception problems.

"It's going to play into a lot of the bad images people have of public education, which is a bunch of squishy stuff that has become less focused on real practical skills that are going to help kids and more focused on things that people talk about in colleges of education," Stegeman said.

Foster noted that Mexican-American Studies "is an emotional topic in town."

"Saying the course is required raised everybody's red flags," she said.

The way forward is actually quite clear and mandated by court order: The board must embed existing courses with multicultural perspectives, and separately offer ethnic-studies courses that give students credit in core topics such as English, civics or social studies but don't violate state law.

By rejecting this course as a ninth-grade requirement, the board can assert control over these touchy issues in a way it didn't in 2011 and 2012.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter: @senyorreporter