Teachers, students voice support for AP African American Studies course
If C.C. Smith had had access to an African American history class as a kid, the self-described history nut said he “would’ve ate it up.”
Smith said he learned much from his father, “an expert on the Delta” and professor emeritus at Arkansas State University where he was the school’s first African American faculty member. The late Calvin Smith “lived through the long civil rights movement” and shared a lot of history with his son.
“I’ve shaken hands with Daisy Bates, I’ve gotten the chance to hang out with the Little Rock Nine, I’ve gotten the chance to see the Jesse Jacksons,” Smith said. “I’ve gotten the chance to be around historical figures and that ingrained in me the love for history.”
Influenced by his parents, both educators, Smith became a journalist and teacher himself. He’s served the Jonesboro School District for nearly 30 years and currently works at the Academies at Jonesboro High School. Smith coaches volleyball and track, and teaches African American History and a new Advanced Placement African American Studies course being piloted at 60 U.S. schools, including two in Arkansas.
The Advanced Placement (AP) Program allows high school students to pursue college-level studies in nearly 40 subjects. The classes culminate in an exam through which students can earn college credit. The AP Program is an initiative of the College Board, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1900 to expand access to higher education.
Instead of teaching from one specific textbook, Smith said, the AP African American Studies course is designed to be interdisciplinary, with students studying history through different lenses, disciplines and resources.
Smith built upon his existing African American history class to develop a more in-depth curriculum when the pilot course launched last fall.
“In my class that I was already teaching, I might make reference to a poem or I might make reference to a work of art, whereas with the AP, I’m actually teaching a lesson through that artwork, that art piece,” he said.
Over the course of an academic year, Smith will teach the curriculum’s four units:
- Origins of the African Diaspora — A study of early African societies
- Freedom, Enslavement and Resistance — A study of the transatlantic slave trade
- The Practice of Freedom — A study of Reconstruction, migration and Black internationalism
- Movements and Debates — A study of the Civil Rights Movement, Black women’s voices in leadership, and diversity within Black communities
This is Smith’s first time teaching an AP course, but he’s found support from other pilot program teachers who share strategies through an online community board.
“It’s still a work in progress…but it’s getting to the point where I really enjoy it and I’m having fun with it,” he said.
The creation of the course, which the AP Program has worked on for more than a decade, is designed to be a multiyear process, according to the College Board. After this initial pilot year, the program will expand to hundreds of additional high schools in the 2023-24 school year. All schools can offer the program the following academic year with the first AP exams administered in Spring 2025.
Smith said his class is a “very diverse” group of 20 students who engage in discussion and are good at giving feedback. Smith and his students are all learning together as they test the course and work out the kinks, he said.
“I think it’s a win-win for all of us to be honest with you,” Smith said. “I think the kids seem to be enjoying it.”
Ruthie Walls at Little Rock Central High School said her students are also enjoying the course. Bringing the pilot to her school was a team effort, and it’s “of vital importance to teach AP African American Studies,” Walls said in an emailed statement.
“First, the kids really want to know the history,” she said. “Next, as educators our goal is to help students become well-informed, critical thinkers. The history actually helps them understand the very complex world that we live in now.”
Walls teaches one section of 27 students and said teachers are happy to see the course being offered, students are engaged and parents are on board. Teachers from around the state have also reached out to learn more about the class, she said.
“I’m very pleased with the curriculum and the primary sources that the College Board has made available,” Walls said. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of all of my students. The course is challenging, but all come in every day and work hard.”
While Smith and Walls reported positive feedback from their pilot experience, there has been pushback against the course nationally.
African American history is required in Florida; however, in a letter to the College Board dated Jan. 12, the Florida Department of Education said it did not approve of inclusion of the AP African American Studies course because “the content of this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation last year that restricts race and gender conversations in schools and workplaces. A federal judge issued a temporary injunction against the law.
In Arkansas, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed an executive order on her first day in office that prohibits “indoctrination” and critical race theory in schools. Critical race theory is typically not taught in K-12 schools in Arkansas, and is reserved mostly for graduate-level college coursework.
Sanders also issued an executive order directing the state’s education secretary, former Florida DOE senior chancellor Jacob Oliva, to review “out-of-date, unnecessary or otherwise burdensome” state laws and regulations for public schools.
As a result, the Arkansas Department of Education has contacted the College Board to obtain information about the pilot course “as part of our comprehensive review of all rules, regulations, policies, materials and communications” as directed by the governor, communications director Kimberly Mundell said in an emailed statement.
“We will review the information, including the recent changes, and assess the course at the end of this year’s pilot to ensure students are taught factual history and that participation articulates into college credit that is beneficial to students,” Mundell said.
“In the wake of all the state-sanctioned lynching that we’re experiencing and seeing in the media, a lot of students are interested in not just learning about Black history, but they want a Black political education as well.
The College Board released an updated 234-page curriculum on Feb. 1 that removed some topics included in the pilot program, which Smith said was expected.
Pilot program teachers were informed at the beginning of the process that the curriculum would be trimmed, and Smith said it appears most of the alterations affected fourth-quarter instruction, including lessons on the Black Lives Matter movement and intersectionality.
The change is likely to accommodate the time teachers need to get through the required lessons as well as an independent student project, Smith said. While topics like reparations and the AIDS crisis may not be required, they are listed as potential final project topics.
To create the official course framework, which was under development for nearly a year, the AP Program consulted more than 300 African American Studies professors from more than 200 colleges. That process was completed in December.
The resulting course focuses on topics where professors shared “a strong consensus on the essential events, experiences and individuals crucial to a study of African American history and culture,” according to a College Board statement.
The new framework differs from the original outline in three ways, according to officials. This includes adding a small number of topics “to address important subjects that were not adequately represented” in the pilot, requiring only primary sources and dedicating time for students to explore topics in greater depth through an end-of-course research project.
The projects allow for an in-depth examination of contemporary issues instead of “rapid superficial coverage of them at the end of the course,” according to College Board.
Given the national attention on the subject, one of Smith’s students asked if they were in danger of losing the course. Smith assured the student that he’s not worried because he doesn’t teach history from his personal view.
“I teach the Xs and Os of history,” he said. “I teach the whys, I teach the hows, I teach the whens and I don’t go off into indoctrination. I don’t go off into critical race theory. I don’t even touch that stuff. I just teach the Xs and Os of history.”
The pilot program is about more than history, Smith said. By studying African American history through a different medium, students may also develop an appreciation for other fields like art, music and poetry, he said.
AP courses are advantageous in general, Smith said, because they give students a chance to study a subject more in depth and to improve their reading and writing skills. An AP course places them in a college setting, which could better prepare them for the transition to higher education, he said.
Growing up in Stuttgart, Kenneth Avery Jr. took AP courses in composition and literature, but he wasn’t introduced to African American studies until he enrolled at the University of Central Arkansas, the only university in the state that offers African and African American Studies as a standalone major.
Avery, who’s now a UCA academic advisor, said he was intrigued to learn about not just the history, but the political and social aspects of African and African American cultures.
“I think that’s what really reeled me in with African American Studies was knowing that there isn’t one universal perspective on anything,” he said. “There are multiple perspectives to learn about the world through.”
With increased media attention on the African American experience, Avery said more students are interested in exploring this subject matter. The proposed AP course is necessary, and it’s important to amplify the voices of Black scholars and their political knowledge, he said.
“In the wake of all the state-sanctioned lynching that we’re experiencing and seeing in the media, a lot of students are interested in not just learning about Black history, but they want a Black political education as well, and I feel like African and African American Studies provides that with its interdisciplinary curriculum,” Avery said.
At UCA, Avery earned a minor in African and African American Studies, a bachelor’s in communication and a master’s in teaching. On Feb. 2, he participated in a graduation ceremony at Temple University in Philadelphia where he earned his master’s in Africology and African American Studies.
In addition to education, Avery said AP courses helped him earn college credit and save money. Tuition for the 2022-2023 school year is about $317 per semester hour at UCA. Earning credit for a three-hour course by taking an AP exam could save a student nearly $1,000.
Providing the opportunity to earn college credit could also improve enrollment in African and African American Studies departments like the one at UCA, which is at risk of closure due to low enrollment, Avery said.
The state requires bachelor’s programs graduate an average of six students annually over a three-year period. The UCA program averaged 1.7 graduates a year from 2019 to 2021.
In 2022, the Arkansas Department of Higher Education gave UCA two more years to increase its numbers. The ADHE Coordinating Board reviews programs and those with low numbers of majors and graduates can be modified or discontinued.
During the two-year extension period, the university and program must produce quarterly reports on recruitment and enrollment efforts as well as declared majors and pending graduates.