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Students and Teachers Say AP African American Studies Course Was a Success Despite the Controversy

7 minute read

When Florida Governor Ron DeSantis spoke out in January against the College Board’s new Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies pilot class, he ended up becoming a teachable moment himself.

Rachel Williams-Giordano, one of the pilot teachers in Cambridge, Mass., set aside class time for her mostly high school seniors at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School to discuss the controversy. “They had to reflect about their overall experience in the course and identify whether Governor DeSantis was correct in his assessment that the course lacked educational value,” says Williams-Giordano. “I want them to understand that there’s always going to be someone telling them a specific story…and it’s their job to question. It’s their job to do research. It’s their job to look at multiple sources and take into consideration different perspectives and what influences people’s perspective.” The students’ conclusion: “The course does have educational value, and they said that they learn something new every day.”

The first year of the College Board’s AP African American Studies pilot in 60 high schools nationwide is wrapping up, and next year, 800 schools in more than 40 states will be offering the course. The College Board announced on April 24 that it will be making changes to the curriculum, but did not specify what those changes might be. “We are committed to providing an unflinching encounter with the facts and evidence of African American history and culture,” the organization wrote in a statement on its website. “To achieve that commitment, we must listen to the diversity of voices within the field. The development committee and experts within AP remain engaged in building a course and exam that best reflect this dynamic discipline. Those scholars and experts have decided they will make changes to the latest course framework during this pilot phase. They will determine the details of those changes over the next few months.”

The College Board declined to comment when asked about the reason for the changes.

The class drew heated controversy in political culture wars during its first year, with DeSantis calling it “woke indoctrination” and other prominent Republicans claiming it promotes a political agenda. But some of the students and teachers who experienced the course in the classroom have a different perspective. Nearly a dozen students and teachers who took and taught the new course tell TIME they viewed it as a success, allowing students to learn about eras of African history less frequently taught in schools and connect with material relevant to current events.

Read More: This AP African American Studies Teacher Invited TV Cameras Into His Class to Avoid Controversy. It Worked

Gianna Reynolds, a student taking the class in Los Angeles, likes how the lessons go beyond the most frequently covered African American history topics. “I took AP World History my sophomore year, and I did not learn anything about Africa or African history prior to slavery,” Reynolds says. “It’s nice to have an environment where my history doesn’t begin and end with slavery and the civil rights era.” She adds: “People need to be more open-minded towards this class and not place their own fear or judgment or prejudices on what they think that this class is if they haven’t experienced it yet.”

Reynolds’ teacher Don Singleton says the students have been most engaged in the lessons on the history of Africa. “If you show the greatness of Africans, African empires, perhaps white people wouldn’t see African and African American peoples as less than,” he says. Further north in Oakland, California, Tony Green also introduced his students to a side of the Jim Crow South rarely talked about in schools, including the success of Alonzo Herndon, one of the first Black millionaires.

Students and teachers say the class helped provide context for issues that came up during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Indianapolis, teacher Deonte Singfield wanted his students to “look throughout history at how different groups of people have experienced struggle together and found ways to connect.” Auryona Lomas, a student in the class in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, says she now understands why her grandmother was initially hesitant about getting the COVID-19 vaccine—despite the shots being safe and effective—after reading about Black cervical cancer patient Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were used for scientific research without her family’s consent, and the 1972 Tuskegee syphilis study, in which the government didn’t treat Black men for syphilis in order to study their reactions. “Because of these past happenings, she was really wary of what could possibly be in [the vaccine]—that helps me understand why she views things the way she does,” Lomas says.

Schools had been asking the College Board for a class like this for more than a decade, but the murder of George Floyd in 2020 was the catalyst for launching the course as an effort to provide students context for why acts of police violence against Black Americans continue to happen. Developed by leading African American history scholars like Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the course mixes history with culture. In fact, when history teacher Jennifer Showalter in Spokane, Washington, found out that some of her students hadn’t heard of Stevie Wonder, she had them listen to one of his albums for homework.

The course remains in the crosshairs of the culture wars, fueled in part by resentment over the increased anti-racist programming in schools and workplaces in the wake of Floyd’s murder. In January, DeSantis announced he wanted to ban the AP African American Studies curriculum in Florida, and the state’s education department tweeted that it objected to references to Black Lives Matter and reparations in the course outline, which appeared in a section of the draft outline on optional essay topics. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported on Jan. 29 that the state’s education department was looking into the course after Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued an executive order “to prohibit indoctrination and critical race theory in schools.” (Actual critical race theory—an academic framework that looks at how legal systems and institutions in society perpetuate racism and exclusion—is not taught in K-12 schools.)

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

The outline for AP African American Studies has been available online since Feb. 1. It sparked outcry in the scholarly community when the final version didn’t feature some ideas that were prominently featured in previous drafts, including intersectionality, the concept of seeing discrimination through racial and gender identities. The College Board had to apologize for the timing of the release, but maintained that changes were made before the Florida Department of Education tweeted about them.

Three months later, the controversy is still top of mind for teachers and students in the pilot program. “I can’t say that I wasn’t nervous,” Ruthie Walls, one of the AP African American Studies teachers in Little Rock, Arkansas, says about what it was like to teach this year. She found herself not only fielding questions about the future of the course from students, but also journalists, a level of national recognition she didn’t expect. “One child asked me, ‘Are they going to shut our course down? Could that happen?’” Walls says. “I said anything can happen, but I don’t think it will. All we can do is wait and see. We should not be fearful. We should not be intimidated. Study history. That’s what we’re here for.”

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