AURORA, Colo. — A Colorado school is part of a nationwide pilot program, testing out a new Advanced Placement (AP) course this year.
Overland High School, located in Aurora in the Cherry Creek School District (CCSD), is one of 60 U.S. high schools teaching AP African American Studies.
“My boss came up to me and said, ‘Would you be interested in piloting this course?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely.’ Without even hesitation, I said, 'yes,'” said Nathan Umetsu, who teaches the course at Overland.
Umetsu, who has a masters in American History, was already teaching other history and government classes prior to this pilot course.
“Everything that we study that relates to American history, relates to African American history. That story must be heard, it must be told.”
Umetsu and school leaders also saw an opportunity at their school, specifically. According to the district, most students at Overland High School are students of color. Of the 30 students in this pilot course, 22 identify as Black or African American.
“I was very excited,” said 17-year old Hiyab Tekle, one of the seniors taking the course this year. “I’ve always been excited about Black history, African history, African American history – all history relating back to my skin color.”
And Tekle said this class is different than any previous lessons. It dives deeper and explores the stories he hasn’t already heard.
“In any class I’ve taken so far, has always been talking about a specific thing – its always talking about African American struggles,” he said. “But its never been talking about the accomplishments. The uprising. The kingdoms and queendoms of Africa.”
“How did African Americans rise to the challenge. How did black individuals rise to the challenge and say, hey, this is how I have changed, promoted equity, how I want to see equality?” Umetsu explained. “Students are really happy to hear that – there’s more success stories than negative.”
According to the online course documents, AP African American Studies covers four units:
UNIT 1 – Origins of the African Diaspora
UNIT 2 – Freedom, Enslavement, and Resistance
UNIT 3 – The Practice of Freedom
UNIT 4 – Movements and Debates (Civil Rights Movement and the Modern century)
The College Board has been developing the curriculum for more than a decade. And while many in the academic world have embraced this new course, it's not been without controversy.
The Republican Governor of Florida, Ron De Santis, banned the course in his state, claiming it was "indoctrinating" students with "left wing ideology."
Because it is a pilot course, College Board is collecting feedback from participating schools and recently made revisions to the curriculum. But critics said those revisions watered down the coursework too much amid the political backlash.
A spokesperson from CCSD offered this statement, in response to the national controversy surrounding the course curriculum:
“Cherry Creek School District is committed to instructional excellence and offers 38 Advanced Placement (AP) courses across our high schools with nearly 4,500 students enrolled in these advanced courses each year. We value our partnership with College Board and our high school educators who teach AP courses aligned to the College Board standards and curriculum. We continue to support the new courses that AP offers to ensure our students have access to a wide array of course topics that prepare them for future studies.
We are proud to be among the first 60 high schools across the country piloting an AP African American course during the 2022-23 school year as it aligns with our core values. This course at Overland High School gives students an opportunity to study U.S. history and contemporary African American experiences.”
Umetsu said he and the kids are aware of the politics and controversy surrounding the new course, but try to keep their focus on what happens inside the classroom – not outside it.
“This is a new course, so were expecting people to challenge it,” Umetsu said. “It’s such an exciting time when you think about where is the future heading. AP African American Studies can open up new doors and attitudes for students who have never heard about it.”
Umetsu said there is already a group of students interested in taking the course next year. He also said there was high interest among eighth grade students and their parents, ahead of their enrollment in Overland next year.
This year, the class is considered an elective course for the students at Overland. While they will take a final AP exam, Umetsu said it won’t yet count for college credit like other traditional AP courses because it is still a pilot program. But feedback from these first 60 schools will help inform the course development as the pilot expands to more school next year and beyond.
On a recent Friday, Umetsu’s lesson focused on the evolution and impact of Black American music. Students started class by learning about Ragtime, the Harlem Renaissance, Blues, Jazz and Hip Hop. They studied the stories told through lyrics, and even played a game guessing which lyrics were written in various eras.
“The students are engaging, having fun and, seeing them light up about history – its one of the most amazing experiences,” Umetsu said.
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