Students at a Brooklyn school fought to add AP African American Studies to their curriculum

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In June 2020, after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd sparked protests against racial injustice around the world, Brooklyn Preparatory High School hosted a forum for its staff and predominantly black and Hispanic student body to Share your thoughts and express your feelings.

“Those three deaths had a specific effect on all of us, but also specifically on our students,” said JP King, a history professor and director of experience at the New York City school, “and our administration and teachers made it a priority to hear what what the students had to say about it.

The forum, held via Zoom as the Covid pandemic disrupted education, was open to the entire school and included a panel of staff members and students. What resulted was an outpouring of emotions, as well as a general frustration from students at not seeing themselves enough in the curriculum, King and administrators said.

With the help of their assistant principal and the backing of the New York City Department of Education’s AP for All initiative, students and staff launched a petition to have African American Studies among the College Board’s Advanced Placement offerings. After a two-year push, the school is now among 60 nationwide participating in a pilot program launched this fall for AP African American Studies, at a time when teaching about race is under attack across the United States. Joined.

Amirah Riddick, 17, of Brooklyn, who was among the students who advocated for the course to be added to Brooklyn Prep’s AP offerings, described it as “a game changer.”

Amirah Riddick.Marc J. Franklin/NBC News

“A lot of our history classes, we learn about white history like Europeans, like colonization and a lot of things like that,” said Riddick, a senior who hopes to study journalism at Northwestern University. “And I feel like we’re mostly Hispanic, mostly African-American students, mostly Caribbean students, we don’t learn as much about our cultures and the ways that we were thriving. We learn more about the ways that we were confined like in slavery, and how we were treated.

During a recent class, Brooklyn Prep Assistant Principal Shannah Henderson, who teaches the course, had students work in small groups to analyze Countee Cullen’s poem “Heritage.” She said her role is primarily to remind students of “the different perspectives and the different voices” and manage the different cultural expectations of children, according to the course design.

If it wasn’t for her, the show might not have made it to Brooklyn Prep.

Shannah Henderson speaks with a student during an AP African American Studies course at Brooklyn Preparatory High School
Shannah Henderson speaks with a student during Brooklyn Preparatory High School’s AP African American Studies course in Brooklyn, NY on Wednesday.Marc J. Franklin/NBC News

Henderson has been the school’s AP coordinator for a decade and said in that time she “had the privilege of hearing student complaints” about AP classes they didn’t have. In June 2020, King helped her write a couple of tweets directed at the College Board, demanding a course that would speak to the “history, heritage, culture, life and experiences” of her students.

Henderson said Trevor Packer, senior vice president and head of the AP program and instruction division, responded.

“And what he said was that there was interest in doing it from the College Board, but they found there wasn’t enough interest from colleges. So they were still working on it,” Henderson said.

Sometime last year, he said, he found out about the pilot program, but Brooklyn Prep had not been invited to participate. So she got back in touch with Packer. “I said, ‘Hey, we petitioned, do you remember us?’ And we got into the pilot program,” he said.

When asked what was required to be considered for the pilot program, Henderson said, “Interest and support from your school district. And your principal, obviously.”

Henderson traveled to Howard University in July to receive training on how to teach the course. She said that because she doesn’t have a degree in African-American studies, she was also asked to take online courses at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

The College Board has said that the course has taken a decade to prepare. Henderson credited Packer for being responsive to her students and her request, saying she believes the 2020 racial reckoning and the rise of student voices and activism during that time “definitely helped ignite a spark.” “.

Khia Williams in Brooklyn Preparatory High School's AP African American Studies course
Khia Williams, 17, is one of the people enrolled in the course and who advocated for it.Marc J. Franklin/NBC News

In response to an interview request from NBC News, the College Board said it recently published a set of principles for all AP courses that make it clear that students will find evidence, weigh conflicting viewpoints and come to their own conclusions.

“AP students are never required to agree with a particular opinion or espouse a particular ideology, but they are expected to explore different perspectives,” he said in a statement.

AP African American Studies is multidisciplinary, drawing on literature, the arts and humanities, political science, geography, and the sciences. The course is expected to be available to all interested high schools in the 2024-25 school year, once colleges and universities have confirmed their credit and placement policies for the course’s AP exam, the College Board said.

“As with all AP courses in the humanities, it’s not a theoretical course; students immerse themselves in primary sources,” he said. “The course is designed to encourage students to examine each topic from a variety of perspectives, without ideology, in line with the tradition of debates in the field.”

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