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Educationby Fern Shen11:26 amJan 17, 20220

High hopes as Poly is approved for African American Studies Advanced Placement pilot program

Baltimore students will get AP credit and help craft a national curriculum as the College Board prepares to give Africana studies its blessing, which some say is long overdue

Above: Trailblazing scientist and inventor Valerie L. Thomas, whose life story has been part of African American studies classes at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. (Wikipedia)

When Jaelyn Moses took a high school African American studies course at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute it was, for her, a life-changing experience.

The teacher, Patrice Frasier, was “amazing,” the course work went way deeper than past history classes ever had, and there was so much going on in the city to connect it to that year, including the Uprising after the death of Freddie Gray.

It was eye-opening to interview elders like a former teacher who was in his 80s and had vivid stories about the harsh segregation era in Baltimore.

Moses was really struck by the case of Cyntoia Brown, who served 15 years of a life sentence for killing a man when she was 16 (“She was our age!”).

A victim of sex trafficking at the time of the murder, Brown was granted clemency and released from a Nashville prison in 2019.

Then there were the role models Moses discovered, like inventor and scientist Valerie L. Thomas, a Morgan State University graduate who went on to do groundbreaking work at NASA, including the invention of the Illusion Transmitter.

“She basically invented 3-D imaging – and we had never heard of her,” exclaimed Moses, who credits the class for her decision to attend a historically Black school, Howard University.

Last week, when Moses heard that Poly is one of 50 schools nationwide approved by the College Board to pilot a new African American Studies Advanced Placement (AP) test, she said the news was thrilling.

“The College Board recognition means they’re going to make the course that much better,” said Moses, today a technology consultant for Deloitte. “I can only imagine the impact an AP version of the course is going to have on students.”

Proud to be Chosen

Moses learned about Poly’s opportunity from social media posts by Josh Headley, the school’s Capstone Coordinator.

Starting in the 2022-23 school year, Poly’s African American studies elective will be a designated Advanced Placement class, Headley announced.

“Sincerely humbled and proud that my school and staff were chosen for this momentous opportunity,” he added.

Created by the non-profit College Board, AP classes offer college-level curricula and examinations to high school students on subjects including Calculus, Literature, Physics, French and many more.

Colleges and universities look with favor on applicants who have taken the exams – and may grant placement and course credit to students who get high scores.

“Our kids will rise to the challenge. We’ll tell them, ‘You get to help shape the future’”  – Josh Headley, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

The city’s first public school to offer AP courses, Poly went from five AP courses 20 years ago to 24 now, Headley told The Brew.

He’s hoping that with the College Board conferring that status on African American studies, more students will take the course and use it as a springboard for college and careers.

“Just that label from a group with such a longstanding history of advanced academics means something,” he said. “Maybe more kids will take this path that didn’t seem open to them.”

As part of the program, staff and students will provide feedback to the College Board as it develops the curriculum so that the classes can be more widely offered.

“I think our kids will rise to the challenge,” Headley observed. “We’ll tell them, ‘You have the opportunity to do something great. You get to help shape the future.’”

Historically Underrepresented

To those who have been pushing for years for the change, the pilot program is a long time coming.

In September 2020, the College Board announced the launch of a national AP curriculum on race with a focus on the African diaspora.

The experts crafting the curriculum at the time pointed to the multiple benefits they hoped it would bring, including helping Black students achieve greater academic success in AP programs, where they are historically underrepresented.

Recognizing that issue, Baltimore City Schools launched in 2019 an effort to make AP classes available at all city high schools.

Another goal of the College Board’s pilot program is to help all students, whether White, Latino or Asian, deepen their personal racial awareness.

“I think there is going to be a convergence between the work we are doing and the larger universe demanding some form of racial justice,” African Studies professor Ernest Morrell, of the University of Notre Dame, a co-convener of the African Diaspora International Research Network, told The Washington Post.

That was one benefit for Poly student Moses, who said that at the time she took Frasier’s African American History class, she was “discovering my Blackness.”

At Howard University, she majored in Computer Information Systems and minored in Mandarin, but also learned about the African diaspora – and is glad Poly students will now, too.

During a time of negativity, that approach to Black history is uplifting, said Moses, who is planning to apply to law school and specialize in international human rights.

“It creates a picture of progress,” she said.

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