Equity & Diversity

Hispanics Want School Courses To Reflect Their History, Culture

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — May 14, 1997 7 min read

Educators in Denver envision that in the not-so-distant future students in the city’s 110 public schools will learn history and ponder mathematical problems by studying Chicano murals. They will read the fiction of Rudolfo Anaya or the poetry of Lorna de Cervantes in language arts classes. And in geography and social studies courses, they will trace the northern migration of Mexican peoples over the centuries and their influence on the United States.

Exposing the district’s 64,000 schoolchildren to the rich Hispanic heritage that has influenced the region and the nation, many teachers and administrators say, will help boost the generally poor achievement of the students of such background who make up 47 percent of enrollment. For other students, they believe that the programs will promote greater cultural interest and respect.

More than 50 teachers throughout the Denver public schools are designing courses that both meet district academic standards and incorporate the struggles and triumphs of their neighbors to the south. Officials hope that at least a dozen schools will pilot the voluntary curriculum, known as the Alma de la Raza project, as early as next year.

“Kids who are not engaged in the classroom do not succeed,” said Loyola A. Martinez, the program’s director. “You have to spark their interest.”

Like African-Americans before them, the nation’s Hispanic peoples are urging schools to incorporate their history and cultural practices into the curriculum. And although their strategies and wishes diverge in some respects, they are, in many quarters, running into the same resistance that has hounded champions of black studies.

As the Hispanic population grows, many experts say that the creation and expansion of such programs is inevitable. The U.S. Bureau of the Census estimates that the number of school-age children of Hispanic descent will grow by some 23 percent, to 9.6 million, by 2010 and will skyrocket by 71 percent, to more than 13 million, by 2025, when they will make up one-fourth of the United States’ school-age population.

Advocates of such efforts around the country argue that teaching such students about their ancestors and the contributions made by people with backgrounds similar to their own will foster a greater interest in what they are learning, better performance in school, improved self-esteem, and pride in their community.

“Students need to see themselves in the curriculum,” said Kathy C. Escamilla, an associate professor of language, literacy, and culture at the University of Colorado in Denver. “Hispanics have traditionally been left out of the mainstream curriculum.”

Last year, Ms. Escamilla surveyed more than 3,000 high school students in the Southwest to gauge how much they were learning about Mexican-American history. Although educators, as well as the public, perceived that the curriculum focused too much on the topic, few students of any ethnicity could demonstrate knowledge of key Mexican-American events or figures.

“Teachers in the field and people who do research with Latino kids see the need,” Ms. Escamilla said. “But there is a tension in getting boards of education to see the need.”

Struggling for Support

Indeed, such efforts have met with ample criticism. The Denver project, which is paid for by the district, federal Goals 2000 money, and contributions from a local college, took three years to gain board support. Some board members, while acknowledging poor performance and high dropout rates among Hispanic students, asked whether such a program would be divisive.

In Vaughn, N.M., two high school teachers are fighting for their jobs after using texts and videotapes in their classes that outline the history of Mexican-Americans and their struggle for civil rights. The district is more than 90 percent Hispanic. In February, Nadine and Patsy Cordova, sisters who have taught in the tiny Vaughn school district for 12 and 17 years, respectively, were led from their classrooms by police for violating the orders of Superintendent Arthur Martinez, who charged that the materials were divisive, racist, and critical of mainstream history.

The sisters have taken the issue to state court, where a hearing is scheduled for next week.

“We were complying with the curriculum, but we were just being creative in finding materials that were relevant to students’ lives,” Nadine Cordova said.

Officials in Tucson, Ariz., are also grappling with a lawsuit over the best way to teach Hispanic children. A group of eight parents and students have filed a class action against the 63,000-student Tucson district to create a Mexican-American studies program similar to those offered for African-Americans and American Indians under a desegregation settlement two decades ago.

District officials say that the courses they offer as part of an extensive bilingual education program are sufficient to meet the needs of the 26,000 Hispanic students in the district.

But Rosalie M. Lopez, the key plaintiff in the case, disputes those claims. “What they fail to say is that the majority of Mexican-American children are not in the bilingual program,” said Ms. Lopez, whose daughter attends a district junior high school. “Here are these two programs that are models of success and that have increased academic achievement and lowered the student dropout rate” for blacks and Indians, Ms. Lopez said. “Why can’t they take the same principals and models and implement them for Mexican-American students?”

Last December, the school board rejected the Mexican-American studies proposal for a second time. The board has since formed a committee to study the matter. A judge will decide next month whether to dismiss the case.

But some experts question whether such programs can be done well given the diversity of the Hispanic population, and ask if they really do improve student achievement and behavior.

Conservative commentator Linda Chavez maintains that there is no evidence that efforts to raise the self-esteem of students through ethnic programs produce positive effects.

“I know the efforts are well-meaning and that people are concerned about trying to raise achievement among Hispanics,” Ms. Chavez, who is Mexican-American, said. “But I don’t think [teaching ethnic studies is] the role of the public school. The role of the public school is to teach about American history.”

A Quiet Conversion

Despite such arguments, some schools and districts have been quietly taking steps to move beyond typical multicultural programs that cover diverse cultures more generally to more specific instruction focusing on Hispanics. Many are crafting the programs to match the local student populations, whether of Mexican-American, Puerto Rican, Cuban-American, or some other Latino descent. Such classes are offered in some schools in California, New York, and Texas. And a variety of after-school academic and cultural programs are available in districts around the country.

Observers say that the dramatically changing demographics of urban areas have not been the only catalyst for districts to broaden the scope of their curricula. It is a natural step in a movement begun in higher education nearly three decades ago, according to Luis A. Torres, the chairman of the Chicano studies department at Metropolitan State College of Denver, which is helping subsidize and develop the curriculum for the district’s program there.

“It took us more than 25 years to really get a solid basis in higher education. Now we’re at the point where we’re able to turn our attention to K-12,” Mr. Torres said. “The development of Chicano studies in K-12 is going to be by far the most significant part of the movement because we’re going to affect the largest number of students possible.”

Mr. Torres is working with the National Association of Chicano and Chicana Studies in Cheney, Wash., to form a caucus to address the needs of Latino children and write a model K-12 curriculum to assist schools nationwide.

But finding relevant materials has not been easy. Frustrated by the lack of textbooks and other materials for high school students, Carlos M. Jimenez, a history teacher at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, used his own manuscript, Mexican American Heritage, for more than a decade before getting the text published in 1992. It is now used by schools throughout California and has been purchased by educators in Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Tennessee.

“It enhances the students’ self-image to see that their ancestors were not savages, that they were very advanced civilizations,” Mr. Jimenez said. “When the school validates a person’s culture by making it part of the curriculum, the student feels value in what and who they are.”

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