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Tips on How to Navigate Ethnic Studies

Whether you’re in a state like Texas where partisans battle over the mainstream curriculum standards, or in a district like Tucson whose policies are under attack by the state board, community groups and groups of students and of teachers, getting through an ideological fight between supporters and foes of ethnic studies can be a challenge.

? “Find and cultivate champions in the legislature to support your program,” advises Bernadette Kelley, chair of the Task Force on African American History in Florida. Apparently, supporters of Mexican-American studies in Tucson could have used some more champions in their state legislature in the spring of 2010.

? Have a champion in the district to sell the program. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho of Miami-Dade County Public Schools and Dennis Holt, supervisor of secondary school social studies at Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools, stress the importance of finding a classroom teacher in each school who will promote the agenda to other teachers and to students.

? Explain the situation to all groups in the community. Superintendent John Pedicone of the Tucson Unified School District does this often, and even in Florida school districts, where the culture wars are barely noticeable, superintendents are out there, talking to the public.

? Have credible proof of the effectiveness of the program in question. Pedicone inherited numbers justifying the Mexican-American studies program that, in the opinion of his staff statistician, overstated the success of the program at keeping kids on the academic path. The statistician adjusted the numbers, so now they show a less dramatic, but still worthy, disparity in graduation rates between students who take these classes and those who don’t.

? Be creative in financing. Carvalho set the bar high when he reduced administrative costs 52 percent and changed his district’s health plan. ? Connect ethnic studies—or almost any elective—to the back-to-basics movement. Holt has done this by emphasizing reading in the content. Electives should help advance the district’s fundamental goals, not compete against them.

? Make negotiations, not war. As demonstrated by the uncompromising stands of both sides in Arizona—and the fact that both are threatening the Tucson school district—this can be the hardest part. But ultimately, says Pedicone, “the district needs to be taking care of people, not being adversarial.”