Students of the Mexican American Studies class at KIPP: Camino raise their hands when teacher Lucero Saldaña asks a question regarding Mexican identity.
Mexican-American Studies students at KIPP Camino raise their hands when their teacher, Lucero Saldaña, asks a question regarding cultural identity. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Middle school teacher Lucero Saldaña sees a void in Texas’ current social studies course offerings: Mexican-American Studies (MAS), a class Saldaña says reflects the culture of the 2.8 million Hispanic students who represent more than half the state’s public school enrollment. After at least four years of discussion about curriculum and textbooks, Texas still does not have state-approved guidelines for the course.

Saldaña, English-language learner coordinator at middle school charter campus KIPP Camino Academy on San Antonio’s Westside, began offering her own MAS elective course in 2016. While pursuing a master’s degree in bicultural-bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Saldaña developed curriculum that she says teaches her students about their culture’s history.

“Most of [our] kids are coming from Mexican origins, as Chicanos or Chicanas,” she said. “And in order for them to be successful in school [and] in the community, studies show they must learn their history.”

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) will decide in April whether it will create state standards for a MAS course that would likely be taught at the high-school level. For school districts, curriculum can be time-consuming and expensive to develop without guidelines that define Texas’ desired outcome for MAS students. Districts may also choose to forego a non-state approved course because it doesn’t fit clearly within graduation requirements.

At a Jan. 30 meeting in Austin that addressed potential standards, Monica Martinez, associate commissioner for standards and programs with the Texas Education Agency, said state officials would not be able to start working on MAS course standards until the end of 2018 “at the earliest.”

SBOE board member Ruben Cortez, Jr. (D-Brownsville) suggested the State take advantage of expertise being offered by a coalition of college-level MAS scholars who have volunteered to serve as a working group to develop standards.

“You’ve got decades and decades of experience here from major universities across the state,” he said at the meeting.

Valerie Martinez, assistant professor of history at Our Lady of the Lake University, was among those who spoke at the meeting and volunteered to draft standards for approval. Standards could be most easily developed based on existing coursework, she said.

If granted permission by the State, Valerie Martinez and her working group would build standards based on a course currently offered in Houston Independent School District.

Saldaña said the creation of official standards would help more districts implement the course curriculum. As it stands, the majority of Texas schools do not offer the course.

Valerie Martinez said it could take up to four years for an educator to develop entirely new curriculum. Without a wealth of resources at hand, most districts choose to forego such a course offering.

South San Antonio ISD, a 97-percent Hispanic district with just under 10,000 students, does not currently offer the course.

“We have to be able to figure [out] ways to fit it into our master schedule with our existing staff while not creating overloads in other courses,” South San High School Principal Lee Hernandez said in a text to the Rivard Report. “We also have to consider graduation requirements ensuring our students who would be interested in taking a course like this have everything they need for college admission.”

Harlandale ISD, one of the few districts offering a MAS course, serves a 97.7-percent Hispanic student body with more than 15,000 students. The district offers its MAS course at Harlandale and McCollum high schools.

Harlandale ISD spokeswoman Natalie Bobadilla said the district crafted the elective curriculum in part through teacher participation in the Mexican-American Studies Teachers Academy, hosted by the University of Texas at San Antonio. UTSA organizes the academy annually to help teachers create curriculum to implement in courses.

Harlandale High School teacher Sarah Van Zant said she pulled lessons from courses offered in Rio Grande Valley school districts and from videos she found online.

Districts interested in implementing a Mexican-American Studies course may also turn to organizations advocating for the curriculum, like Somos MAS or the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies Tejas Foco. The latter organization plans to host its third statewide summit on implementing Mexican-American Studies in Texas schools in June in San Antonio.

Advocates hope the establishment of state standards will help textbook publishers create appropriate instructional materials. Since 2014, when the SBOE first asked for textbook submissions for Mexican-American Studies courses, two books have been submitted and subsequently rejected.

The proposed textbook, "Mexican American Heritage," was produced by Momentum Instruction.
The proposed textbook, “Mexican American Heritage,” was produced by Momentum Publishing. Credit: Composite / Courtesy

Critics described the first book, Mexican American Heritage, as “racially offensive,” and a panel of educators found the book to be factually inaccurate with more than 140 errors throughout the text.

“Chicanos, on the other hand, adopted a revolutionary narrative that opposed Western civilization and wanted to destroy this society,” the book read.

In 2016, the SBOE voted unanimously to exclude the book from the state-approved list of instructional materials.

One year later, the SBOE rejected a second book, The Mexican American Studies Toolkit, because it also contained factual errors. A state review panel discovered more than 50 errors in the initial draft.

“The book requires substantial revisions in terms of its structure, pedagogical components, lack of citations, interdisciplinary and social studies content, and multiple perspectives,” the panel wrote.

Valerie Martinez said that without the creation of state standards, a textbook is unlikely to gain state approval.

“The whole textbook fight in 2016 was because publishers were unaware of what [state standards] were requiring. They were unaware of the content that was needed,” she said.

In Saldaña’s course at KIPP, students don’t have an official textbook. Instead, their teacher relies on resources she finds through her program at UTSA and events throughout the community.

Saldaña sometimes uses movies as part of her curriculum and plans to show her students the film Walk Out. It depicts the 1968 East L.A. walkouts organized by Hispanic high-school students who left their classrooms to protest their substandard educational offerings.

A San Anto Cultural Arts mural depicts the Lanier High School walkout alongside the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center on the near Westside. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

KIPP spokesman Kirk Scarbrough said many San Antonio students can relate to the film due to similar walkouts that occurred the same year at Lanier and Edgewood high schools. Hundreds of local students left their classrooms in 1968 to protest curriculum that they said promoted manual labor and placed less emphasis on college preparation.

One of Saldaña’s students, 14-year-old Fernanda Perez, said KIPP’s course changed her perspective on her culture and gave her pride in her heritage.

Perez said her regular social studies courses focus on achievements largely made by white males, whereas her MAS course places greater emphasis on the contributions of Mexican-American historic figures, such as Cesar Chavez.

KIPP Camino School Leader Juan Juarez said he had to wait until he attended college to take courses focusing on Mexican Americans.

Growing up, Juarez attended predominantly white elementary, middle, and high schools. In college, he met other Mexican Americans and took courses that celebrated his culture. When he took over as school leader at Camino, he wanted to use his experience to build a better learning environment for his students.

“I don’t want them to wait until they are in college just like I did to start figuring out or exploring their identities and cultures,” he said. 

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.