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Dozens of high schools across the U.S. will be introducing a brand new Advanced Placement course on African American studies this fall, including a school in Oakland. It will be the first time that African American studies is offered as an AP course.
Bishop O’Dowd High School, a private Catholic school in East Oakland, was one of 68 schools chosen to pilot the course next school year. Tony Green, an educator at O’Dowd for more than 30 years, will teach the classes. While the AP course will be a first for the school, the subject matter won’t be new to Green, who began introducing lessons about Black history and culture at O’Dowd in 1986 while advising the school’s Black Student Union.
“To me, this signals the understanding of the importance of African American contributions to the nation as a whole,” Green said about the official AP course. “It signals the understanding of the real contributions that we have made as a people and a culture.”
Over the last few decades, Green has also taught U.S. history and government, world history, economics, and foreign policy. This will be his first time teaching AP classes, which give high school students college credit if they pass the final exams.
The College Board, a national nonprofit that oversees college entrance exams and AP courses, has spent the last couple of years developing the course. In 2020 and 2021, College Board officials reviewed African American studies syllabi from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, state universities, and Ivy League colleges. They also surveyed students, teachers, and principals, who ranked African American studies as their top choice for a course they’d like to offer in the future.
When Green teaches African American history, he purposely starts with humanity’s beginnings in Africa. He also covers African civilizations in East and West Africa and the spread of African culture during and after the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
“Slavery was such a small part of the African experience, which goes back 200,000 years,” he said. “If you just ignore the foundation of humanity—which is African—it really makes no sense and makes it difficult to understand the problems of slavery, unless you understand what existed prior to slavery.”
In teaching the AP course, Green is also looking forward to exposing his students to the Black history that exists in Oakland and the East Bay. He’s taken his students on field trips to Marcus Books, regarded as the oldest Black bookstore in the country, to San Pablo Park in Berkeley, which was a gathering place for African Americans in the 20th century, and to various Oakland neighborhoods to examine the current-day impacts of gentrification.
The one-year AP pilot course will cover the origins of the African diaspora from the eighth to the 16th centuries, enslavement and resistance in the United States, and freedom and civil rights movements from the Civil War to the present.
Because it’s a pilot, students who take the class won’t receive college credit this year. The College Board will use surveys and feedback from students, teachers, and administrators before launching the official course. Sixty students at Bishop O’Dowd have signed up for the class in the fall.
The Oaklandside emailed the College Board seeking more information about their criteria for selecting schools for the pilot program, but the organization hadn’t responded by publication time. Dr. Lisa Lomba, the interim principal at Bishop O’Dowd, told us in an email that the high school was likely selected in part due to its long history of providing students with classes on African American history.
“We also have a higher percentage of African-American and multiracial students than peer private/independent schools in our region,” she added. “Having an AP course that reflects their identity is exciting, as our upper division seminars on Black history [have] been for students.”
An online review of some of the other schools selected to pilot the new AP course shows a mix of public and private schools. It’s unclear whether other Oakland schools were considered.
College Board officials hope the course will boost Black student enrollment in AP classes nationally. In 2020, about 8% of seniors who took an AP exam across the U.S. were Black, while Black students comprised about 14% of all graduating seniors that same year. In California, the numbers are less disparate: Black students are about 5% of students in California and in 2021 were nearly 6% of those who passed at least two AP exams, according to data from the California Department of Education.
In contrast to some states around the country that are enacting legislation prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory—which in some cases can chill any teaching about race or prejudice—California recently passed a law requiring that students take an ethnic studies course to graduate high school, starting with students who are currently in the fourth grade or will be graduating in 2030. But developing that curriculum has been complicated for the experts tasked with deciding what should be taught.
In 2015, Oakland Unified School District adopted a policy requiring all OUSD high schools to offer ethnic studies to students. A 2020 board resolution also instructed district staff to adopt ethnic studies curriculum for elementary and middle schoolers, and to incorporate lessons about Oakland’s different cultural groups.