Houston ISD school pilots one of nation's first AP African American studies classes

Rosie Nguyen Image
Tuesday, February 14, 2023
HISD school pilots AP African American studies classes
A Houston teacher danced for joy at the opportunity to teach this class. "I literally got up from my desk, and I was dancing because I was so happy that they were listening to teac

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The first AP African American Studies class is coming to a high school near you. The College Board launched a pilot program last fall at 60 selected schools, including one right here in Houston.

Ms. Nelva Williamson has been teaching the AP U.S. History course for the last six years at the Young Women's College Preparatory Academy (YWCPA) in Houston's Third Ward. But she always felt like there was a significantly crucial part missing from the curriculum. Williamson said she's been requesting for the College Board to offer AP African American Studies for years.

"African American history is U.S. history. When you look at most standard textbooks, African Americans are pushed to the sidelines or footnotes. But certainly when you look at the development of this country, African Americans have been there since the beginning, "she said. "It needs to be the good, the bad, the ugly, the highs, and the lows. All of that goes together in the making of this country."

Little did she know, the nonprofit organization has been working to develop this program for the last decade. In 2021, she found out her school had been selected to be one of only 60 high schools across the country to be part of the first pilot program.

"I literally danced in my classroom. I literally got up from my desk, and I was dancing because I was so happy that they were listening to teachers and felt like this was an important course," said Williamson. "I feel that students who take this class are going to internalize history in a different way. Already, I know that some of my students are talking more to their grandparents and parents about their own family history."

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The pilot program launched at YWCPA in Fall 2022. Dr. Tabitha Davis, who is the principal, said their campus consists of about 50 percent Black students, 40 percent Hispanic/Latino, and the rest being white and other races.

"It's so powerful for students to see themselves in inspirational, empowering and victorious narratives," said Davis.

Williamson explained that she uses a variety of fields, from literature to art, to explore the vital contributions and experiences of African Americans in our country with her students. This comes during a time when the debate over how to teach diverse history becomes more and more divisive.

According to PEN America, 36 states introduced 137 bills last year seeking to restrict teaching on race, gender, history, and sexual orientation. The Florida Department of Education and Gov. Ron DeSantis waged war last month against the College Board who designed the course, claiming the course was filled with Critical Race Theory and violated Florida law with the discussion of Black queer studies and the reparations movement.

In a statement on Feb. 1, College Board CEO David Coleman said the course is "an unflinching encounter with the facts and evidence of African American history and culture."

"No one is excluded from this course: the Black artists and inventors whose achievements have come to light; the Black women and men, including gay Americans, who played pivotal roles in the Civil Rights movements; and people of faith from all backgrounds who contributed to the antislavery and Civil Rights causes. Everyone is seen," he wrote.

RELATED: Florida says rejected AP African American Studies course 'lacks educational value'

Ava Harris, who is a senior at YWCPA, said she decided to take the course because up until now, she hardly ever learned about people who looked like her.

"I was drawn to this class for personal and historical reasons. On a personal level, I am Black. So this is something that I've never been able to talk to my dad about at home, because there aren't really a lot of resources for this," said Harris. "I'm also an appreciator of history, so I wanted to learn more because I didn't hear or learn a lot about African American history."

The pilot program will expand to hundreds of additional high schools in the fall. Students participating in the pilot program will take an exam, but won't receive scores or college credit. Next year, all schools can begin offering AP African American Studies. The College Board will administer the first official exams for this course in Spring 2025.

"As some people say, we African Americans built this place for free. That understanding of enslavement and the foundations of this nation, having been built by Black people, is important. It's also important for our students to know that it wasn't just slavery. There were other events and people who made this country what it is," said Williamson.

Davis said a second level to the course may even be a possibility in the future.

"It's important for students to know where our country has been, in order to really understand where we are now, in terms of interracial relations, uniting cultures, uniting communities. We need to acknowledge the journey of various groups in this country. But we should also recognize our uniqueness, our diversity, and then how all those unique perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds come together to weave this beautiful fabric we know as the United States," said Davis.