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. Credit: Photo by Cristina Rutter

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.

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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