Latino Studies curriculum will make CPS a pioneer

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Latino students are now the largest share of students in CPS, which plans to make Latino studies a required part of the curriculum. These students are at Marshall Middle School in a photo from 2012.

Photo by Cristina Rutter

Latino students are now the largest share of students in CPS, which plans to make Latino studies a required part of the curriculum. These students are at Marshall Middle School in a photo from 2012.

When CPS unveiled its interdisciplinary Latino and Latin American studies curriculum last week, there was one module that really jumped out at School Board member Jesse Ruiz.

Eighth grade students at district-run schools will learn about the World War II-era “bracero” program that brought Mexicans to the U.S. to fill labor shortages in agricultural fields. It’s a little-known bit of immigration history that’s more often taught in college ethnic studies courses or upper-level high school classes than in elementary schools.

“My father was a bracero,” says Ruiz, before recounting his father’s stories of brutal treatment by supervisors in the fields. “I’m so glad that students at CPS will learn about guys like my dad.”

As Hispanics continue to make up a growing share of all CPS students –  nearly 46 percent of students identify as Hispanic this year, compared to just over one-third 15 years ago – district leaders say it’s necessary to make the study of Latino history and culture a core part of education.

The new curriculum will be taught from kindergarten through 10th grade and includes complete units and lessons in a range of disciplines (teachers can download the lessons from an internal district website). The interdisciplinary approach means that kindergartners can learn about the Mayan counting system while they’re learning numbers, and fifth-graders can learn about African influences on South American percussion during music class.

Just over a year ago, CPS released a curriculum focused on African and African American studies that is now being piloted in schools; both curricula emphasize universal themes of culture, dignity and identity. Experts say no other district in the country has implemented this kind of interdisciplinary ethnic studies curricula on such a large scale. The district plans to make the curricula available to other school districts.

“This is huge,” says CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. “We copyrighted it so we can sell it.”

During a presentation last week at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, speaker after speaker shared personal stories to demonstrate why all students should be taught to value Latin American culture and history.

Among them: Byrd-Bennett, whose mother is of Puerto Rican and Jamaican heritage and grew up in Puerto Rico. (Byrd-Bennett’s paternal grandparents were African American and Irish.)

Just a few months ago, Byrd-Bennett said, her mother apologized for not attending many of her school functions when she was a child growing up in New York. She blamed her limited English.

“I didn’t want to come because I didn’t want to embarrass you,” the CEO recalled her mother’s words. “Wow. No more. No more will a child’s parent say, ‘I won’t come because I don’t want to embarrass you.’ This is the curriculum for the next generation of Chicago’s children.”

Training coming for teachers

Teachers at many schools have incorporated Latino or African-American culture or history in the classroom, and many high schools offer ethnic studies courses for juniors or seniors. But much of this has been done on an ad-hoc basis, and teachers with more expertise or interest in the subjects were more likely to include ethnic studies in lessons than others.

The new curricula are standardized, aligned to the Common Core State Standards, and were created by CPS officials and teachers with the guidance of the district’s Latino Advisory Committee, a group established by Mayor Rahm Emanuel last year.

“It’s certainly refreshing that there would be something comprehensive available for teachers who don’t feel expert enough to teach ethnic studies,” says Jen Johnson, a special projects facilitator for the Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center, who previously taught African-American history in high schools. “Obviously we’d want there to be training and teachers to have autonomy in classrooms to choose what they think is most appropriate for students.”

Nolan Cabrera, an assistant professor of education policy studies at the University of Arizona, echoes that sentiment. Cabrera was the lead author of a 2012 study that showed how low-achieving students made academic gains after taking ethnic studies courses in Tucson, Ariz.

“A big question for the district will be whether or not they’re going to be willing to pony up for the necessary professional development on a district level, so people can effectively execute this kind of curriculum,” Cabrera says. “If you don’t have the background in the area, you can have all the best intentions in the world but will be ineffective at executing this and understanding what this all means.”

District officials said CPS will offer some professional development and workshops for teachers to learn the new material starting this spring. “We want to provide the right sort of engagement so they know how to implement the curriculum,” said Evan Plummer, the CPS director of arts education and manager of the new Latino and Latin American Studies curriculum.

There are other worries. “Our district just doesn’t have a good track record of implementing things,” says Ray Salazar, who teaches upper-level English classes at Hancock High School and writes the blog The White Rhino: A Chicago Latino English Teacher. “It seems like the responsibility is still on the teacher to obtain copies of the material to carry out the curriculum.”

That’s especially the case if many teachers don’t even know about the existence of the internal website called the Knowledge Center. Salazar himself only learned of it when researching the new Latino studies curriculum for a recent blog post.

Plus, it’s unclear how widespread the African and African American Studies curriculum has become and when it will become a requirement for all schools. (Charter schools are not included in the requirement.) Johnson says she hasn’t heard much from teachers about it, which “might be an indication that it’s not being used very widely,” she says.

*District officials say schools were required to implement at least one unit of the African and African American Studies curriculum this school year, and “implementation numbers continue to grow in usage as local schools make the decision as to where the curriculum’s resources best fit in their curriculum. ” Both curricula are expected to be in full implementation by next school year.

Tackling social issues

Salazar applauds the new curriculum, but says he wishes it offered more in-depth, critical lessons at the high school level.

“Unless it’s going to take on some contemporary issues that are facing Latinos today, we’re not doing justice to the Latino reality as a whole, and really not getting into the social issues that could make this curriculum more meaningful for young people,” he says.

In addition, Salazar was surprised that the curriculum stops at 10th grade, although district leaders said that’s in part because many high schools already offer specialized ethnic studies classes for upperclassmen. But Salazar says one problem with this logic is that ethnic studies courses are often offered as elective courses, and not as core classes. That means many students won’t take, say, a Latin American literature course, if it doesn’t count toward their English requirements.

Cabrera says it’s critical to make high school ethnic studies courses count toward core requirements. The controversial program he studied in Tucson, for example, allowed high school students to take Mexican American Studies courses that counted toward their core graduation requirements.

He and other researchers found that the students who took the courses – they were optional – were among the lowest-performing in the district during their freshmen and sophomore years. But “when we then looked at their graduation rates, they actually exceeded the rest of the district,” he said. They also scored better on standardized tests.

The gains can be explained in part by students’ greater identification with and interest in the material, Cabrera says. But he said it’s important to remember that not all ethnic studies classes or curricula are created equally. Some offer a more “Pollyanna-ish version of ethnic studies, and that never works.”

Ethnic studies at their best offer a more critical analysis of “social inequality, why does it exist, how is it maintained, and what can we do to disrupt it,” he says.

And while the critical version of ethnic studies tends to be taught at the high school level, “you can have those conversations from Day One — you just have to make sure it’s age appropriate,” Cabrera says. “Minority students are already grappling with racial difference at a very, very young age. And if you can start to make sense out of that, you understand how we make those decisions and bridge those decisions.”

*This story was updated on March 11, 2015, to include a district explanation of when schools will be required to implement both curricula.

  • Concerned Parent

    Picture is from Marshall Middle -have you seen how CPS is destroying
    this school? 100 students left as a charter school takes over them –
    like cancer.

    • Concerned Neighbor

      The “charter school” is Disney Magnet, whose parents have the wherewithal and clout to demand and get their own high school. CPS saw a little school filled with the children of “nobodies” and saw an easy fix. Never mind only five years ago Marshall Middle was being showcased as an exemplary middle school. Never mind Marshall’s kids come from nearby feeder schools, while the building is half-way across the city from Disney Magnet. Funny thing is, about five years ago the parents at Alcott School did the same thing – demanded their own high school. When they got it – only about a mile away – most of them decided they wanted their kids in even “better” schools – selective entry ones. So, guess what? Ordinary kids are reaping the benefit and getting a great education in a small, friendly environment. Perhaps our best hope now is the same thing will happen at Disney HS, and those kids being pushed out of 7th and 8th grade at Marshall now will end up in a completely re-habbed building with a small student body and qualified teachers who care about them. Like the teachers who will soon be losing their jobs at Marshall do now. Of course, no one cares about those displaced teachers either. How good can they be if they are teaching such “losers”?

      • Northside

        They Wil get the old…welcome to apply bs..but you know how that goes..

  • Northside

    “It seems like the responsibility is still on the teacher to obtain copies of the material to carry out the curriculum.”

    This quote is true for ALL subjects. Everything I teach is searched, created and printed by our teachers….if we use a “pre made worksheet” it is considered a sacrilege. Even if the pre made was created by an expert. Somehow if we get it off teachers pay teachers or make it up off the internet it is considered better?

    I think BBB should also consider getting the Schools some REAL and SOLID curriculum and materials before she goes getting the icing. An African American Student needs to READ about their culture..but they first need to get genuine RESEARCHED curriculum…not something pulled from North Carolina and teachers pay teachers!!

    BBB get the house in order first before you buy the summer house!!!

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  • michaelj68

    A jobs program for all the losers who majored in [Fill in Blank] Studies and are stuck working at Starbucks. You have a school system that is fundamentally failing to teach students basic skills like reading and writing and I bet vast majority could not identify the quarter century the Civil War occurred in but are now going to learn about more about Cesar Chavez than George Washington and count like the Mayans did even though they cannot do basic math. Looks like the CPS is going all in producing the next generation of McDonalds workers.

    • MadXicano

      Yr mama works at McDonalds. OK sorry, but that’s the reaction yr comment gets. The racist Oklahoma frat boys probably did very well in math and science but never took ethnic studies. I’m a Chican@ studies major and I’ve NEVER worked at mcdonalds… although I do like a tall latte from Starbucks once in a while. Yr points lack evidence, and you “don’t get it.” If I majored in Gringo Studies (which is basically K-12) I don’t think I’d be a critical thinker and motivated to go to college. Ask yourself if you care about black and brown youth and their futures…. if the answer is no, then get back on the sidelines and let this work happen.

      • Northside

        Maybe u forgot to read…I’m married to a latino..with a latino child so yes I’m invested I what you call brown people .your gringo comment shows you obviously don’t know how to treat all people with respect…

        • Concerned Neighbor

          I’m new to this site, having read postings for only six days, but am wondering why you feel the need to use racial slurs and verbal violence in your postings. I hope your “latino child” doesn’t follow your example – at least at school. This type of disruptive behavior is causing a lot of problems in our schools.

          • Northside

            I was only actually responding to madmexs…comments..I agree with U. I don’t like him calling white people gringos..and I don’t like people using any racial slurs…please read the posts he wrote

          • Concerned Neighbor

            That’s who I thought I was responding to.

          • Northside

            No problem…it is a bit of a “web” of replies….I am glad that someone agrees with me!

  • bc3b

    Wouldn’t it be better if CPS students could excel at math and science?

    • MadXicano

      this is a common specious argument… but Ethnic studies is proven to get students of color motivated in school, self esteem, an academic identity, etc., and results in better overall grades. See Cambium report, Cabrerra articles/report. And math and science isn’t everything… how about critical thinking, knowing who you are, knowing about colonization, and racism. I’m sure those racist Oklahoma frat boys did REAL WELL in math and science. see my point?

  • MadXicano

    Inspirational! I taught Chican@ Literature at Santa Monica high school for a few years, until they fired me for being too political. I think teachers and students need to take a lead, because administrators and principals tend to be neoliberal (capitalist-oriented) managers with no concern for social justice, changing students of color’s lives around, and they tend to cater to the loud-mouthed affluent white parents who want their children to continue ruling the world (heck, they ARE those parents themselves). In short, it will take a social movement to make this happen. Hope we don’t give in to the white and affluent so easily. It ain’t easy being funny… and it aint funny being EASY!

    • Northside

      Let me get this straight Madmexicano. You claim that you were let go because you are “political” yet you have no problem creating a racist stereotype about white people. That we are all some how morally inferior to Lationos and any person of color. This to me is the very definition of racism. I am married to a “Latina” and I have see so many examples and racist conversations from Latinos (she will admit it herself) against other ethnic groups..including , but not limited to whites. I have been to South America several times for many months and I have seen examples of “caste” system were wealthy South Americans of several ethnic backgrounds treat their employees like slaves. I have seen African Americans, and Whites say very cruel things based on skin color.

      We do need to teach about the USA’s and the America’s very brutal past against indigenous people. I do agree. However, it would be irresponsible to somehow teach our children that some how being white is a euphemism for racism. I don’t quite understand how you, as a teacher, could label white people in such a demeaning way, without understanding that you are creating racial stereotypes. One day white people will be a minority. That is just a fact. However, would it make you happy if people of color started to assume that they are morally superior to whites? How, are you going to make a better world when you, in reality, are using racist remarks. I think it is important to point out about European and American oppression and exploitation of non-Europeans. However, it is equally important to point out that in modern America that racism is almost like a Food Web. There is no beginning or end. I think that you need to concentrate on redistribution of wealth and teaching a new generation to honor ALL races, including whites. In addition you need to teach that labeling any race, with any identity, is very unhealthy. We all need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves. “am i basing my decisions on character or the color of someones skin”. Racism is like the common cold, it has infected us ALL. We need to quit using labels like “whites, blacks, and Latinos” . I bet you were a great teacher, but no one has the right to label any race as inferior morally, socially, or economically. Every human is born like a blank slate. I hate to think that just because my 1/2 “Latino” daughter who was born with white skin, she has to be automatically be labeled as “white” by people who somehow feel they have a right to preach racism.

  • Scot

    The migration of literally millions from South to North tells us that the capitalist-leaning gringos seem to know something that maybe you don’t.

    But don’t worry. You’ll win in the end. Gringos are less likely to make children they can’t afford to take care of and they’re suckers for children in need.

    So just keep coming north and screwing women, making children you can’t afford, and the gringos will pay to help take care of them, sacrificing the growth of their own families to pay for yours. And by the time they figure out that you’re just using them, it will be too late! You can just use the democratic process along with your numbers to demand even more from the gringos. Maybe you can vote into existence the next Venezuela!

    Of course once you’ve bled the gringos dry, there won’t be any capital left for economic growth or expansion or new technology and the Western hemisphere will be one giant impoverished backward welfare state full of poor people. But it will be wonderful because everyone will be equally poor and no one will have their feelings hurt by having to see a rich person.

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  • Concerned Neighbor

    I was replying to madmexs, too. Egregious verbal violence.

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