Willamette University

A Teacher Put to the Test

Curtis Acosta ’94 and Ethnic Studies in Arizona

By Susan Domagalski Fleming ’92

Curtis Acosta ’94

It’s easy to see why Curtis Acosta ’94 is everyone’s favorite teacher. On an October night in Willamette’s Ford Hall, he commands the room. Declining the microphone, he projects easily to the last row of the packed auditorium. His words jockey around the space, his voice spanning an octave. When he says the ethnic studies program he teaches in has been “shot at,” he mimes target practice against the wall.

Acosta has taught high school for 16 years, the last seven at Tucson High Magnet School in Arizona. Sixty miles from the Mexican border, Tucson High is about two-thirds Latino. In a city where a third of all children live below the poverty line, Latino students historically have shown low test scores and high dropout rates. Acosta has seen students go to prison, their families imprisoned or deported. He’s heard of parents going out to the post office and never coming back. Unsurprisingly, after students lose their parents, they are not enthusiastic about coming to school on Monday. Such stresses can compromise a student’s ability to learn.

Tucson’s Mexican American Studies (MAS) program reaches disconnected students by including a curricular focus on the positive contributions of Latino culture. Acosta’s Latino literature classes cover greats such as Luis Valdez and Laura Esquivel, Homer and Shakespeare.

Measures of Success

Hope, it seemed, was winning. A 2011 study by the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) Department of Accountability and Research showed that last year’s high school seniors who had taken one or more MAS classes scored 3 to 6 percent higher in math, reading and writing exams. The graduation rate was 89 percent,compared to 78 percent for those who had not taken an MAS class, and in every year since 2005 the graduation rate of MAS students has been at least 5 percent higher than the comparison group. Causal or correlative, these results are intriguing.

The story might have ended there, but problems surfaced. Although TUSD also has African American, Native American and Asian American Studies departments — which, like the Mexican American classes, are open to all students — it was MAS that raised concerns for then-Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne.

Horne believed classes should treat students “as individuals,” not as members of specific groups. “What is important about people is what they know, what they can do ... not [the] race into which they are born,” he wrote in a June 11, 2007 open letter to the citizens of Tucson. He felt the classes created an atmosphere of resentment among Hispanic youth and that teaching the history of oppression of Hispanics was putting undue blame on the dominant culture. He encouraged citizens to call for the program’s end.

Acosta and his colleagues continued to defend the program. “That’s the number-one thing people get wrong about ethnic studies,” Acosta says. “We’re not trying to bring somebody down. We’re about lifting ourselves up.”

Controversy Ensues

Class in Tucson

Class in Tucson

Acosta was one of Willamette’s Glee managers in 1991

Acosta was one of Willamette’s Glee managers in 1991

A media blitz followed, defined by dueling blogs, essays, rallies, marches and sit-ins. Acosta’s classes have been visited by representatives from CNN, Education Week and The New York Times. “I have the most visited classroom in America,” Acosta says. School board meetings became packed with angry parents and community members, and Acosta, the father of two young children, received death threats.

It’s hard to find a media outlet that hasn’t weighed in on the issue. Linda Chavez, chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Virginia think tank that promotes what it calls a “colorblind” society, criticized ethnic studies programs as politically correct in an op-ed for the Dallas Morning News. “The teaching of American history has become a spoils system in the name of identity politics, divvying up slots in the historical pantheon to various groups: blacks, Latinos, women, gays. We’ve elevated minor characters to major roles in American history, if they fit the right ethnic or gender profile.”

Acosta, however, sees ethnic studies as American by their nature. “Latino literature is American literature,” he says. “The story of the Chicano is the story of America.” Professor Sammy Basu, chair of Willamette’s American ethnic studies department, calls ethnic studies “a scholarly effort to hold America to its highest democratic idealism. It values an inclusionary understanding of the American social experiment, and it addresses discrepancies between that vision and the actual historical, economic and cultural of life in America.”

Acknowledging and examining where these ideals fall short helps Acosta engage many of his students as they analyze social problems, research and present solutions. He notes the savvy of modern students and their eagerness to talk about what they witness in society.

“First, you as a culture have to know yourself,” he says. “We just talked about male hierarchy in Latino culture. How are we going to address inequities if we don’t talk about them? And if it’s present all over the classroom but it’s not acknowledged in what you’re reading, how are you going to fix that? We need to be culturally responsive. How else are you going to move forward?”

Legal Action

Legislators in Arizona did not see similar value in the curriculum. With Horne’s backing, House Bill 2281 was signed into law May 11, 2010. It prohibited courses that 1) promote the overthrow of the U.S. government; 2) promote resentment toward a race or class or people; 3) are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group and 4) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals. Schools that violate the law risk losing 10 percent of their funding. For TUSD, this amounts to about $15 million.

Anticipating the law’s passage, Acosta and 10 other Tucson high school teachers filed a lawsuit Oct. 18, 2010, against the superintendent of public instruction (Horne has since moved up to attorney general of Arizona) and the Board of Education, maintaining House Bill 2281 violates the First and 14th Amendments. Meanwhile, the bill took effect Dec. 31, 2010; three days later, teachers were told they must comply. As of October 18, 2011, Acosta and his colleagues’ lawyer filed a motion for summary judgment with their judge in the Ninth Circuit — the federal appellate court for several Western states including Oregon and Arizona. Among other things, a summary judgment would allow them to avoid the expense of a full trial. “He can strike it down on its face,” Acosta says.

“Meanwhile, our program has suffered mightily. Our hope is that rulings in our favor will allow us the proper climate and lack of intrusion to rebuild the program.”

Promotional materials grab attention

Promotional materials grab attention

Cultural Validation

Acosta is not alone in his approach to teaching. Willamette alumna Elisa Schorr ’01 has taught at Roosevelt High School in Portland since 2003. Winner of the prestigious Milken Award, she is vice principal of Roosevelt’s Spanish-English International School. Regardless of native language, all SEIS students are taught in English and Spanish both, with the goal of creating bilingual citizens. Juniors and seniors take AP Spanish Literature and are assigned to read Don Quixote and modern authors like Sandra Cisneros. “Where Hispanic students come from has a rich tradition of literature and culture,” Schorr says. “That is powerful for kids. We’re saying to them that we value who they are.” The teachers have built success rates higher than the state average, and plans are under way to expand the bilingual program into the sciences.

In Arizona, Acosta says, “We have been desperate for academic opportunities that reflect who we are and what we have contributed, not because of vanity, but because it means we matter.”

At Willamette, sophomore Sarai Rivas ’14 is the daughter of immigrants from El Salvador. She takes two classes from the same professor, Briann Davila. One of the classes has two people of color. In this class, she admits, she does not participate. In the other, Latina/o Sociology, she more readily identifies with the texts and is a contributor. “I’ve experienced things that we read about,” she says. “Even if I’ve still never read about many of the things I’ve experienced.”

Acosta and McGinnis visit the Ford Hall theater

Acosta and McGinnis visit the Ford Hall theater

Rivas was among the crowd of students at the screening of Precious Knowledge, a documentary about Acosta and the MAS program. The film was produced by Eren Isabel McGinnis, a filmmaker and parent of a former student of Acosta’s. After each of two showings of the film, no fewer than 15 students waited in line with posters, DVDs they had purchased and notebook paper for “Mr. Acosta” to sign. Some approached him with the guarded-buthopeful smile of someone meeting a celebrity.

English and film studies Professor Ken Nolley helped bring the documentary to campus, hoping, in part, to provide validation for Latino students. “If
students feel like their presence is tangential or unvalued, it is difficult for them to embrace the academic process and to benefit fully from it,” he says. “To make it work,” Acosta adds, “the classroom has to reflect the world the students live in.”

Discovering His Identity

The world Acosta grew up in is much different from that of his students. The son of a Swedish mother and a Mexican father, Acosta had a stable middle-class upbringing in California. For years he did not identify as a Latino. “I hated being Mexican when I first arrived at Willamette,” he says. He was happy in school, connecting with his fraternity brothers and performing in theatre productions like Alice in Wonderland. But one day he had an awakening. Crossing campus with a fellow student, he saw his darkbrown arm next to one he describes as alabaster. And it hit him. He said to himself, “I need to deal with my brownness.”

This wasn’t easy to do. As an undergraduate, he knew only a handful of Mexicans. “Latinos saw each other but didn’t congregate,” he says. Language-wise, he also felt different. “My Spanish is worse than Dora the Explorer.”

At the same time, this was Willamette, and he was learning from his professors to question systems and beliefs. He went back to California in the summers to work on the warehouse assembly line of his father’s employer. There, surrounded by African American and Latino workers, he felt at home. “Here I was, going to this prestigious university, and I felt really comfy on the warehouse floor,” he says. His questioning continued, this time with his co-workers. “That place made me ask, ‘What’s your life like? Can you make it?’ I embraced the folks who were struggling. Now I am one of those people who struggle.” After graduating in 1994, when Acosta took his growing self-knowledge south to Tucson to “dry out his wet socks,” he began to feel that same sense of home he’d felt in the warehouse. He attended the University of Arizona for graduate work that would allow him to teach, and he is now pursuing a doctorate in education there. From the beginning, his goal has been to prepare students to attend a school as challenging as Willamette.

“My classes are multicultural because they have to be. I’m preparing students for a world that is that,” Acosta says. “A lot of people are stuck in a 1960s–70s ethnic studies context, thinking that it hasn’t evolved. It’s our generation’s right and responsibility to evolve it. Just like it’s the next generation’s right to evolve it further.”

Living Within Two Worlds

Willamette itself is part of this evolution. Rita Moore, professor of education at the Graduate School of Education, says that training educators to be culturally responsive to firstand second-generation Americans is standard. “These children often live in two worlds,” Moore says. “One celebrates the richness of their history and language, and one is strongly influenced by the cultural context we share as a nation.” She believes other programs in the state have a common approach and emphasis on social justice, “but this is not necessarily true across the country.”

Many think it should be. “It is no longer tenable for any thoughtful and informed person in higher education to cling to the idea that the tradition of education was designed to serve the personal and social interests of privileged Europeans only,” Nolley says. Some bristle at this, but Acosta says he hopes people won’t give in to fear. “We’re not saying anything about getting rid of European history or British literature. We’re giving students more options.”

Again, this can be seen in the Willamette community, where Basu notes a commonality among junior faculty. “For them, their disciplinary and multidisciplinary vocation is inconceivable without attending to questions of race and ethnicity as well as other dynamics of identity and power. As a result, Willamette is witnessing a veritable blooming of coursework addressing matters of difference and advocating on questions of social justice.”

Would Acosta choose teaching all over again? Did he see himself as an advocate for social justice when he started out? Teaching, yes, he is quick to answer. But activism? He starts to answer but never really finishes. His eyes scan the line of Hispanic students waiting to talk to him. He will chat with each one, shake their hands, ask about majors and how they’re doing at Willamette. He wishes each student well, tells them to graduate. They smile.

And as they readjust their backpacks and prepare to head out into the night, they all say the same thing: Thank you.

The documentary, Precious Knowledge, is scheduled to air in May 2012 on PBS.

Susan Domagalski Fleming ’92 is a Portland-based writer. She graduated from Willamette with a major in English and completed her master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University.


Legal Update

As of Dec. 27, 2011, Administrative Law Judge Lewis Kowal ruled that one or more MAS courses are not in compliance with former H.B. 2281, now A.R.S. 15-111 and 112, as written, and that Arizona State Superintendent John Huppenthal can legally withhold 10 percent of Tucson Unified School District’s funding. The district is reviewing the ruling.

Still to be determined is the larger issue of the constitutionality of the law itself, pending at the federal level with Judge Wallace Tashima of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.


Shelaswau Bushnell Crier

Acosta et al v. Horne et al: Is This Case Unusual?

By Shelaswau Bushnell Crier, assistant professor of law, Willamette University College of Law

Cases regarding a state or school district’s control over curricula and text books are not unusual. Nor are the bases for the claims Acosta and advocates assert against H.B. 2281, which include equal protection, free speech and due process violations. What makes this case unusual is the peculiar language of H.B. 2281. The discriminatory nature of the law and the political history that produced it and its subsequent enforcement are reminiscent of cases from the 1920s and 1960s.

For example, Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) involved a Nebraska state law prohibiting the teaching of “any subject to any person in any language other than the English language” until the child has passed the eighth grade. The law was enacted after World War I, primarily on the basis of anti-German sentiment. The Supreme Court struck down the law, concluding that it was arbitrary and had no “reasonable relation to any end within the competency of the state.”

When evaluating freedom-of-speech cases in the education context, the Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized the students’ “right to receive ideas.” Sample cases include Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico (1982), which involved the school board’s removal of books some parents found objectionable; and Keyishian v. Board of Regents (1967), which involved a suit brought by university employees protesting a New York law requiring them to certify that they were not Communists and/or write under oath that they did not advocate or teach the overthrow of the U.S. government.

The majority opinion in Keyishian (and several subsequent Supreme Court cases) emphasized the following sentiment:

“Our nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom. The nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth ‘out of a multitude of tongues, [rather] than through any kind of authoritative selection.’”