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Tucson Continues to Struggle with Desegregation Plans

After years of controversy, court battles, and a disbanded cultural studies program, the Tucson (Ariz.) Unified School District is turning to a new program to raise the achievement of Hispanic students.

It’s a new desegregation program, called Mexican American Student Services, for middle and high school students, that will offer tutoring and mentoring services, address behavioral issues, and facilitate students’ access to school services and community organizations, in hopes of increasing the academic achievement and graduation rates of the district’s struggling Hispanic students. In 2010, about 15 percent of Latino students nationwide dropped out of school, compared to only 5 percent of white students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The second-largest district in Arizona, Tucson USD enrolls over 50,000 students, roughly 32,000 of them Hispanic. For the past 30 years, the district has been under federal oversight, over a desegregation case brought by Hispanic and black parents and students. Under orders to correct the historic discrimination against students of color, the district created a program called Mexican American Studies in the late 1990s, which included literature classes from the Hispanic perspective.

But in 2010, a state law banned classes that fostered racial resentment and solidarity among members of a single ethnic group. And the Mexican American Studies program was deemed to do so by then-Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction and current State Attorney General Tom Horne. At the risk of losing a reported $15 million in state education funds, the district dismantled the program, suspending classes focused on race and identity and removing books from classrooms, including “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”

In its place, the district created the Mexican American Student Services program last July, providing tutoring services and mentoring through partnerships with local businesses and organizations, according to the program’s director, Maria Figueroa, a former school principal. The program is still in its early stages and growing. “Our goal is to raise the student achievement of Latino students, and advocate for them, their social well-being, and academic achievement,” Figueroa says.

In addition, last December, the Tucson USD Governing Board (the district’s school board) approved another new desegregation plan that would bring back culturally relevant high school literature and social studies courses, without mentioning the dismantled Mexican American Studies by name, as the law against the original program still stands. The federal court is expected to rule on the desegregation case in January, says Tucson USD communications director Cara Rene.

Because of the large numbers of Latino youth in Arizona, “the economic future of the state depends on how we educate our students,” Figueroa says.