Schools adapt to growing Latino population
Arizona Daily Star

Ethnic-specific classes can give students a boost

By George B. Sánchez and Nicole Santa Cruz

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

 With a growing population of Latino students and curriculum changes to accommodate them, local schools show how Tucson already is adapting to its booming Latino community.

In Tucson's two largest districts, Latinos comprise more than half the student body. Fifty-four percent of students in the Tucson Unified School District are Latino, according to the Arizona Department of Education. In the Sunnyside Unified School District, the city's second-largest school district, Latinos make up 88 percent of the student body.

In the Flowing Wells Unified School District, the Latino population hit 49 percent this year. Out of Tucson's nine major public school districts, Flowing Wells saw the largest growth — 19 percent — in Latino students from 2000 to 2007 and is the most recent district to see Latinos become the largest group of students.

When John Pedicone, the district's former superintendent, started at Flowing Wells more than 22 years ago, no minority group was larger than 11 percent of the district's population.

The demographic shift should be seen as an educational opportunity, he said.

For example, programs in the district that teach students about traditional Mexican culture have become more meaningful, Pedicone said. Also, as the district's arts program evolved, an after-school mariachi program has been integrated into schools..

Teachers and counselors started visiting students' homes more frequently, due to social differences and differing cultural expectations of schools, establishing relationships with students and parents.

By the mid-1990s, Flowing Wells started collaborating with New Mexico State University to recruit minority teachers.

Students need to see people like themselves in leadership positions so they feel comfortable and know what they can aspire to, Pedicone said.

In the Catalina Foothills School District, elementary students receive 30 minutes of Spanish instruction daily. Of its 4,800 students, nearly 600 — about 12 percent — are Latino, an increase of about 200 students, or 4 percentage points, from 2000.

"We want to develop culturally competent, globally aware students," said Superintendent Mary Kamerzell. "We believe that multilingualism is important. Spanish as part of the language mix makes sense to us in light of its growing prominence across America."

The influence of Latinos goes even further elsewhere. TUSD's Mexican-American/Raza Studies program is the most obvious example. About 1,400 students participate in the program, said Augustine Romero, coordinator of the district's ethnic-studies department.

An unscientific survey of 229 students conducted by the Daily Star found 68 percent of respondents support ethnic-specific classes and education, such as Mexican-American/ Raza Studies and African-American studies. Fifty-nine percent of students surveyed also were supportive of ethnic-based clubs, such as Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, or MEChA.

Achievement studies show Mexican-American/Raza Studies students outperform peers on state and federal reading, writing and math tests.

Cholla High Magnet School graduate Kim Dominguez, 23, said the classes aren't strictly for Latinos and offer critical perspectives of identity and history. The lessons taught her to connect with people she'd never considered before that.

"Mr. Romero would say Chicano does not mean brown," she said. "JFK was Chicano. Chicano is about struggle."

In its 10th year, Mexican-American/Raza Studies was the result of community organizing.

But TUSD will have to find more ways to reach its Latino students. In 2006, Romero said, TUSD lost 42 percent of its Latino high school students. The students may not have dropped out; they could have transferred or moved.

Economically, that means a loss of millions of dollars in student funding. Morally, Romero said, it means TUSD has failed to reach those students.