A Service of UA Little Rock

Arkansas school districts move forward with AP African American Studies course

Little Rock Central High School is seen in this file photo from 2018. The school is one of six across Arkansas offering AP African American Studies this academic year.
Chris Hickey

Arkansas schools and legislators are taking steps to support students taking an Advanced Placement African American Studies class that the education department decided late last week would not count for graduation credit.

The Jonesboro School District will continue offering the class, which will be offered as a “local weighted credit course” for students at the Academies at Jonesboro High School, superintendent Kim Wilbanks said Wednesday. While the class won’t satisfy a graduation requirement, Wilbanks said it could count as an elective credit.

“After meeting with the students enrolled in the course, the majority expressed a desire to take an AP level course and no students needed the credit to meet graduation requirements,” Wilbanks said. “The District feels that continuing to offer the AP African American Studies pilot course is the best decision for our students.”

The AP Program allows high school students to pursue college-level studies in nearly 40 studies. The classes culminate in an exam through which students can earn college credit.

AP African American Studies was piloted in 60 schools last year, including two in Arkansas — the Academies at Jonesboro High School and Little Rock Central High School. The pilot expands to hundreds of additional high schools this year, with students taking the first AP exams in the spring of 2024. All schools can begin offering the course in the 2024-25 academic year.

Five of the six Arkansas schools expected to offer the course during the 2023-2024 academic year have confirmed they intend to move forward with the class.

Like the Academies at Jonesboro High School, Central High School will again offer the AP course this year, according to a statement released by the district Wednesday. Central High officials also said the class will be weighted the same as all other AP courses.

“LRSD has taken a proactive step to recognize the importance of diversity and inclusivity in our curriculum,” the statement reads. “As part of our commitment to providing a rich and comprehensive learning experience, we will continue with our plans to offer the AP course.”

Officials at eStem High School confirmed Thursday that they will continue to offer the class as a local elective credit and it will be weighted on a 5-point scale. Students who pass the course and take the AP exam will be awarded eStem High School’s first Medal of Historical Pursuit and Valor (Medallia Historicae Studii Virtutis). The Medal of Historical Pursuit and Valor may be worn as part of the student’s graduation regalia.

“Although the full impact of our state’s intentions is vague, our intentions are clear: We will continue to teach AP African American Studies at eHS,” according to a statement from the district.

Officials with the North Little Rock School District said Thursday that students enrolled in the course at two of its schools will also receive a local credit weighted on a 5-point scale.

The Jacksonville North Pulaski School District was expected to offer the AP class this year, but director of communications Cheesa Williams said Wednesday that “district leaders are currently working with the Arkansas Department of Education to determine what options we have that will be in the best interest of our scholars.”

ADE removed the AP African American Studies class from the state’s approved course list late last week, sparking anger from education advocates, students, the NAACP and Democratic state lawmakers.

Education Secretary Jacob Oliva told the Advocate Monday that the class was deleted from the state’s Course Code Management System because it “was listed in error last year.”

Oliva said the AP African American Studies is not a history course, and there are questions about “where would it articulate on a student’s high school transcript,” once the course is finalized at the end of the pilot program.

Oliva said ADE can’t yet approve it as a course because of state board rules that govern the requirements to earn weighted credit for AP courses and to earn college credit if a student scores high enough on the AP exam.

For example, Oliva said teachers must complete a course audit requirement to teach that course.

The College Board, the organization that administers the AP program, told the Arkansas Times the audit has been completed for all six schools.

ADE responded Thursday, but did not answer the Advocate’s request for clarification regarding the audit.

In a statement Monday, ADE spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell said Arkansas law contains provisions regarding prohibited topics, so until ADE gets clarity about the course, “we cannot approve a pilot that may unintentionally put a teacher at risk of violating Arkansas law.”

“The department encourages the teaching of all American history and supports rigorous courses not based on opinions or indoctrination,” Mundell said.

The curriculum for the second year of the pilot is available on College Board’s website.

In a statement, College Board officials said they shared in the “surprise, confusion, and disappointment” that AP African American Studies won’t count toward graduation credits or be weighted the same as other AP courses offered in Arkansas.

“College Board is committed to providing an unflinching encounter with the facts of African American history and culture, and rejects the notion that the AP African American Studies course is indoctrination in any form,” according to the statement.

An issue with not recognizing the African American Studies class as an approved AP course is the state will not pay the nearly $100 fee for the end-of-course exam.

Officials at the Academies at Jonesboro High School, Little Rock Central High and eStem High School told the Advocate that students can take the exam and the districts will work to make sure students don’t have to pay for it.

The North Little Rock School District said Thursday it’s considering options for covering the costs associated with the exam.

Additionally, the Little Rock School District plans to continue working closely with College Board on content and curriculum.

“Our educators are committed to providing engaging and thought-provoking lessons that encourage critical thinking, empathy, and a deep appreciation for cultural diversity,” according to the LRSD statement. “We firmly believe that this addition to our curriculum will not only enhance academic knowledge but also contribute to the development of well-rounded individuals prepared to thrive in an increasingly interconnected world.”

Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, said many students affected by ADE’s decision are his constituents, so he learned of the issue fairly quickly last Friday.

“When I heard about what happened I thought, somebody has made a mistake and we need to make sure that we get them the right information so that this can be fixed, and that’s still what I believe,” he said.

Tucker said he’s had “healthy communications” with ADE and work is underway to schedule a meeting between Arkansas legislators and education officials. Several lawmakers are out of town for a large legislative conference this week, so they’re hoping to schedule a meeting next week, he said.

In a social media post Tuesday, Tucker committed to raising funds for Central High students who want to take the exam. The Little Rock senator is an alum of Central High, a school that garnered national attention in 1957 when then-Gov. Orbal Faubus mobilized the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine Black children from integrating the school.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is also an alum 0f Central High School.

Tucker said several people reached out wanting to help pay for students’ exam fees.

“The response I got to that was so overwhelming that I’m pretty optimistic that we would be able to raise the money for every kid in the state that’s taking the test, not just at Central High. I feel very good about that,” he said.

“I’m not prepared to start raising that money yet because my position is still that the state should pay for it, and so I want to have that meeting with legislators and folks from the agency and see if we can flesh that out anymore.”

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Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.