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What It’s Really Like Inside One of Florida’s AP African American Studies Classes

5 minute read

Marlon Williams-Clark started the 2022-2023 school year teaching AP African American Studies to a predominantly Black group of high school students in Tallahassee, Fla. His class was part of the College Board’s pilot program, meant to test the new curriculum in 60 schools nationwide. It’s one of only five in Florida.

But by the time Black History Month started on Feb. 1, Williams-Clark was told by his school district he could no longer teach the course. He’s now left to design a new curriculum for the rest of the year—one that won’t run afoul of the Florida Department of Education and Governor Ron DeSantis.

The state education department publicly announced in mid-January that it would reject AP African American Studies. “Frustration and confusion, that’s what it’s like to be in the class right now,” Williams-Clark told TIME.

The hardest part of this situation for him has been seeing his students’ disappointment. “A lot of them were ready to protest, they were upset about it,” he adds.

Read more: The Real Reason Florida Wants to Ban AP African-American Studies, According to an Architect of the Course

Since Feb. 1 when the College Board published the final framework for its first new AP class in eight years, educators have been unsure about what is actually in it and why some topics like intersectionality were required reading in previous drafts of the framework but not in the end product.

The course material that Williams-Clark’s students liked the most— “42 Million Ways to Be Black” from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one of the nation’s foremost African American history scholars—is one such resource, appearing as required content in an earlier version of the pilot framework distributed to teachers, but not in the final version.

There have also been a lot of questions about whether Florida, the nation’s third most populous state, had any say in what went into the course and the nature of the College Board’s conversations with state education officials. While the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) is taking credit for the removal of material that was in previous drafts of the framework, the College Board said in a statement on Saturday that the educational nonprofit was never asked to remove any of those topics. The College Board says it spent a lot of time last fall fielding “vague, uninformed” questions from the FDOE, like “What does the word ‘intersectionality’ mean?”—referring to a common term for undergraduate-level humanities students—and “Does the course promote Black Panther thinking?” The College Board says the FDOE didn’t make any specific requests or suggestions.

However, in its statement on Saturday, the College Board said it should have been clearer about what topics were optional from the get-go—like Black Lives Matter and reparations—and that it should have revealed more about the process of how AP curriculums are approved, a process that can include rejections like FDOE’s initial reaction last September.

Read more: What a Florida Reparations Case Can Teach Us About Justice in America

Since Florida moved last spring to enact the “Stop WOKE Act,” designed to regulate the way race is talked about in public schools and workplaces, the state has been on the forefront of the culture wars and the debate over how much of America’s history of racism should be discussed in diversity, equity and inclusion trainings and in classrooms.

In a press conference on Jan. 23, Governor DeSantis called AP African American Studies “indoctrination” and claimed it is “pushing an agenda on our kids.” On Saturday, the College Board fired back: “We have made the mistake of treating FDOE with the courtesy we always accord to an education agency, but they have instead exploited this courtesy for their political agenda.”

Meanwhile, Williams-Clark hasn’t had time to look closely at the final AP African American Studies framework because he’s been busy trying to reorganize his class, which will still be taught as an honors Black history course. But inevitably the curriculum might overlap with the material that was in the AP pilot because it covered so much ground.

Plus, he says the AP class framework provided much-needed structure to teachers who wanted to teach more in-depth Black history at the high school level, but didn’t know how. Florida says it requires curricula on Black history, but the quality of the instruction can depend on the region and how knowledgeable the teacher is, Williams-Clark says.

That’s true nationwide, too. Williams-Clark says teachers who want to start teaching more Black history topics often “felt like they were on an island by themselves,” creating the class from scratch, and the AP pilot course gave a “comprehensive” story of the Black experience.

Now, he says his students are watching history repeat itself, comparing Florida pushing back on AP African American Studies to the opposition to Black studies departments at universities more than 50 years ago in the civil rights era, arguing, “For whatever reason, whenever it came to the teaching of the African American experience, it has always been divisive.”

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com