Educator Curtis Acosta, picture courtesy Rethinking Schools
Imagine an educator so dynamic and compelling he can win over the most jaded and broken adolescents. He has that magic teacher element that cannot be quantified. He and his colleagues develop a rigorous program so effective that students cannot help but buy in. Students learn the history of their country while building reading and writing skills. They learn the power of education and become informed young people on track for success.
The data is irrefutable: students in the program graduate at a higher rate than the national average. Far more of them go on to graduate from college than the national average. The program works to empower teachers, students, the community, city, and their entire state. It could be a blueprint for thousands of similar programs across the nation. Surely all citizens desire such an education for our children.
So of course he was fired. Naturally this program, whose like had never been seen before, was shut down. Law enforcement officials, politicians, educational leaders, and the media criminalized staff and students. The story played out in a court room. The ruling: Tucson Unified’s Mexican American Studies Program violated House Bill 2281 in the state of Arizona.
One of the teachers who fought hard to keep this program going was Curtis Acosta. He was featured in the outstanding documentary, Precious Knowledge. He happily played “the straight man” as Al Madrigal brilliantly skewered the school board and the state on The Daily Show. I was familiar with Acosta’s story before I heard him speak at the Northwest Teachers for Social Justice Conference in Seattle last month. I knew he would be an inspiring speaker, and I sorely needed inspiring.
Like many teachers across the nation, I swim through a sea of negativity to do my job each day. As a high school ESL teacher, I have been informed by the Department of Education and my own district that my instruction “leaves much to be desired,” as the students are taking too long to master English. The state seems surprised that many of them are not passing the state tests quickly enough. Our sheltered program is being dismantled and replaced by a “sink or swim” model, which leaves dozens of ELL’s failing Core classes needed for graduation. My colleagues and I are like the proverbial toads in a pot: the water keeps heating up but we don’t jump out. So many of us are angry and we have gotten used to complaining about the state and the federal mandates and the “ones who don’t know” who are in charge of everything.
There are so many reasons to be cynical. But Curtis Acosta reminded me that my anger and cynicism won’t help my students. Acosta has every right to be cynical, but that’s not what I heard in his speech. Instead, I learned about how teachers continue to fight for the right of public school education for all. I learned about Freedom University, started by three University of Georgia professors in response to the decision to close the doors of certain schools to those students without proof of citizenship.
I learned that part of the Mexican American Studies Program lives on, sponsored by donors and a teacher working for free, on the weekends, taught by Mr. Acosta himself. In the course description, the college states, “Prescott College, an educational institution committed to preparing all students to live ethically in a global world, is opposed to any law that restricts multicultural education.”
Mr. Acosta might have been stopped by the powerful forces of House Bills and State Superintendents, but he wasn’t. He might have let his own justifiable outrage and cynicism take over his soul, but he didn’t. He used his power and energy for the good of his students as he’s always done, and I promised myself to do the same. Anger is a fair response, but it’s not enough by itself. We must take action in order to help our students and create the necessary change we need in our much maligned public schools.
After the speech, I took a photo of Mr. Acosta with some students who came to hear him. About two dozen beaming Latino students are surrounding him in the picture. Behind them on the giant screen is the last slide of his Powerpoint presentation, which reads:
“It is impossible to teach without the courage to love, without the courage to try a thousand times before giving in. In short it is impossible to teach without a forged, invented, and well-thought-out capacity to love.”
Thank you, Curtis Acosta, for reminding me why I became a teacher in the first place. No state test, school board, textbook company, mandate or House Bill can stop me from doing what must be done for my students. They need me now more than ever, and I promise to work for them.