50 Years of Ethnic Studies 2.0

50 Years of Ethnic Studies 2.0
For students to graduate from high school, incoming freshmen students for the fall 2023 class in the Fresno Unified School District must complete a 10-credit, two-semester ethnic studies course to graduate. Image courtesy of Nettrice Gaskins

The academic discipline of Africana/Black studies/ethnic studies discussed in a September 2022 Community Alliance article has again expanded. This expansion is now at the high school level. The central question is how do institutions teach the history of race relations at the high school level.

The College Board will answer this question by offering a new Advanced Placement (AP) course and related exam on African American studies. This AP course is being made available to 60 high schools nationwide this fall. The course, part of a pilot program, will be interdisciplinary in its scope and cover history, literature, the arts, geography and other academic areas.

“If the pilot program pans out, it will be the first course in African American studies for high school students that is considered rigorous enough to allow students to receive credit and advance placement at many colleges across the country.

“The plan for an Advanced Placement course is a significant step in acknowledging the field of African American studies, more than 50 years after what has been credited as the Black studies department was started after a student strike at San Francisco State College in 1968, said Henry Louis Gates Jr., a former chair of Harvard’s department of African and African American studies and director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research” (New York Times, Sept. 1).

The College Board is not at this time releasing copies of the syllabus for the course or any related content of the course. It also will not identify any of the 60 high schools participating in the pilot program.

According to the College Board, students in the program will take the pilot exam but will not receive AP scores or college credit. All the data generated will be used to create a permanent syllabus and related content for a nationwide AP course in African American studies.

Possible subjects to be covered related to the Black experience, nationally and internationally, might include the ancient African civilizations of Egypt, traditional African kingdoms and related cultures, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the lives of enslaved African people and how they resisted their enslavement, the impact of the Harlem Renaissance, the Black arts movements, the Black Power movement, Black pride, the civil rights movement, Black feminism, Black queerness, Black philosophy, Black politics, the Black Lives Matter movement, the politics of the African diasopra, critical race theory, the 1619 Project, and intersectionality.

It has taken 50 years for African American studies to be instituted at the university and college levels of academia. This construct is now finding its way to the high school level. The College Board indicated that if the pilot program is successful, all high schools that want it can make the full AP course available to their students in the 2024–2025 school year. The College Board also indicated that this course has been in development for more than 10 years.

“[Marlon] William-Clark [a social studies teacher in Florida] said he was ‘surprised and not surprised’ that it had taken such a long time after the rise of African American studies to establish this course.

“‘The way I look at it is that often history is told from the perspective of the winner,’ he said. ‘We’re getting to a point in our country’s history where diverse voices are being valued, and that’s what this course does’” (New York Times, Sept. 1).

This movement has now come to Fresno. Instead of being under the academic identifier of Black studies or African American studies, the Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) will offer a requirement under the academic identifier of ethnic studies.

FUSD is now requiring students, beginning with incoming freshmen in the fall of 2023, to complete one 10-credit, two semester-long ethnic studies course to meet the graduation requirement. The course will include content not usually covered in a Euro-centric view of political and racial interaction in America with people of color.

“FUSD defines ethnic studies as ‘a critical and interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity and indigeneity’—distinct from the field of history in the way it specifically looks at how race and racism ‘have been, and continue to be’ powerful social, cultural and political forces” (Fresno Bee, Sept. 12).

It could be argued that the 50 years of ethnic studies classes offered at Fresno State and Fresno City College helped FUSD come to the decision to offer ethnic studies for their students more quickly than other school districts. The district had planned to offer these courses in the last school year after passing a resolution in August 2020 but delayed the launch to recruit and train more teachers for the newly required courses.

In October 2021, Governor Newsom signed legislation requiring an ethnic studies requirement for all California high school students, starting with the incoming freshmen in 2026. Hence, FUSD will meet this state mandate three years earlier than the majority of high school districts. FUSD will follow the model curriculum for ethnic studies courses that was finalized by the state in March 2021.

Another reason for the rapid development of the ethnic studies graduation requirement evolved from a group of FUSD teachers organized as the Fresno Ethnic Studies Coalition. The coalition was a prime mover behind the 2020 initiative to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement for all high school students in the district. As a result of the coalition’s efforts, the FUSD trustees supported the proposal at their Aug. 24 meeting. The board then voted to amend its bylaws to include the new graduation requirement.

“I think this is hugely valuable to helping our students learn their personal cultural histories and contributions to this nation,” said Trustee Veva Islas (Fresno Bee, Sept. 12).

Black studies and ethnic studies have evolved from a protest by Black university students for more academic representation in colleges and universities curriculums to being offered as a high school AP course in African American studies and an ethnic studies graduation requirement for local Fresno high school students.

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