Starting the last class period of the day, Lakewood High School teacher Austin Sparks told his students that they would be discussing the civil rights movement.  

But maybe not in the way they’ve learned about it before in their U.S. history classes.

“Let’s talk about racially segregated transportation,” he said. “And yes, I’m aware you already know they divided buses up and Black people were told to sit in the back of the bus, but that’s not what we’re talking about today.”

Pulling up a PowerPoint slide showing a few black-and-white photographs of small buses piloted by Black drivers, Sparks explained that predominantly Black neighborhoods lacked sufficient infrastructure for public transportation, so some African American entrepreneurs started their own bus companies and taxi services.

“These were called Jitneys,” he told the class. “They transported Black Americans in cities to and from school and work so they could be successful. They created their own system, and to me, that’s inspiring,” he said.

This lesson is part of the new Advanced Placement course in African American Studies. Lakewood High School is one of about 60 schools in the country piloting the AP course this school year before it becomes widely available in fall 2024. The College Board, which administers all AP exams and creates the course curriculums, published the official course outline on Feb. 1, 2023.

Aniya Johnson, an 11th grader who told Signal Cleveland she took the course to “learn more about my own history,” said course material like this was illuminating for her.

“It’s really surprising how much real history is suppressed and left out of regular classes,” she said. “[History] that had a huge impact, because American history includes Black history.” 

A Lakewood AP African American Studies student takes notes during class.
A Lakewood AP African American Studies student takes notes during class. Credit: Kenyatta Crisp for Signal Cleveland / Crisp Photography Ltd.

A rewarding course to teach

Sparks, who is in his fourth year of teaching at Lakewood, told Signal Cleveland that one of the main reasons his school had the opportunity to pilot the course was that he was teaching an elective on African American history during the 2021-2022 school year. One of the requirements for teaching the pilot AP course was that a school needed to have staff with experience teaching the subject. 

Sparks feels the AP course, designed to focus largely on primary sources, goes a lot more in depth than his elective course did. He said that he himself has learned a lot from the curriculum. He said he jumped at the opportunity to teach the course and that so far the experience has been very rewarding.

Austin Sparks, a teacher a Lakewood High School, got the chance to teach a pilot version of the new AP African American Studies course. Only 60 schools across the country piloted the course this year.
Austin Sparks, a teacher a Lakewood High School, got the chance to teach a pilot version of the new AP African American Studies course. Only 60 schools across the country piloted the course this year. Credit: Kenyatta Crisp for Signal Cleveland / Crisp Photography Ltd.

A ‘very popular course’ at Lakewood HS 

Christine Gordillo, the spokesperson for Lakewood City Schools, told Signal Cleveland that the course has been very popular. Sixty-one students opted to enroll, more than staff and faculty had expected, she said. The students are divided between three class sections. A majority have already taken a standard United States history course, and some had taken the AP version.

“I’ve learned about early Africa, the history of the empires and the queens,” 12th grader Sydney Hampton told Signal Cleveland. “We never really have learned about that before. So it’s cool to see that new aspect.” 

“It’s cool to connect the dots and see the bigger picture,” she said.

Fiona Gjermeni, an 11th grader who took Sparks’ African American History elective last year, said she learned that there were African explorers who came to America during the Age of Exploration, before the slave trade began. 

“I feel like U.S. history paints it in a way that the first time Africans came to America was the slave trade. But it’s not true. And I think that this class teaching me that was very beneficial,” Gjermeni said.  

Twelfth grader Madalynne Sorge, who is white, said she took the class to expand her knowledge of other cultures and races. She said the course differed from her U.S. history class by highlighting African American perspectives of historical events she had only briefly learned about before. 

Students from all three class sections of the course spoke with Signal Cleveland about their experience taking AP African American Studies this year.
Students from all three class sections of the course spoke with Signal Cleveland about their experience taking AP African American Studies this year. Credit: Kenyatta Crisp for Signal Cleveland / Crisp Photography Ltd.

Hear some more of what students from all three class sections had to say:

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YouTube video
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YouTube video

Student takes on the course’s controversy

The course is the focus of a lot of public attention nationally, particularly after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration sent a letter to the College Board saying the course will be banned from the state’s approved directory. The letter claimed the class had “no educational value” and that it pushed a political agenda.

Ohio has not released such a statement and has not indicated that it will conduct a state review of the course as some other states have done.

In response to a question about what she learned in the course, 11th grader Aniya Johnson said she’s been following the news surrounding the course’s controversy. 

“History will never change, but the amount of it that’s shared will. This is an example of oppressed education,” she said. 

Aniya Johnson, Grade 11, said the course material gave her a better understanding of American history in general.
Aniya Johnson, Grade 11, said the course material gave her a better understanding of American history in general. Credit: Kenyatta Crisp for Signal Cleveland / Crisp Photography Ltd.

Other students argued that the course was based on primary sources and facts, saying you can’t call someone’s experience “invalid” and that the Florida officials were “downright wrong” about the course’s educational value.

Hear some of their takes below:

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YouTube video
YouTube video
YouTube video

Will Greater Cleveland colleges accept the AP credit? 

For high school students to actually receive college credit for an AP course, the school they enroll in must have a policy accepting the specific course. Most colleges and universities will review the course framework and exam to decide whether they will accept it and what score a student must have to receive credit. 

Here’s what some Northeast Ohio schools are saying.

Cleveland State University officials said they are waiting for the Ohio Department of Education to determine a credit-equivalency recommendation but would defer to the academic departments to determine what score a student needs to receive credit if a student who has taken the pilot exam wanted college credit for the course. AP exams are scored on a scale of one to five, with five being the highest score.

Ursuline College will accept the AP African American Studies course as elective credit if a student scores a 3 or higher on the AP exam. Officials will review the course framework once the pilot period ends to determine if the university will count it as a “core credit.” This means it could count towards graduation requirements for a specific major.

Ursuline College recently introduced a new Africana Studies Certificate program to its undergraduate curriculum. The program director, Assistant Dean for Diversity Yolanda M. King, said she hopes the course can eventually count for credits within the new program.

Cuyahoga Community College said since the course is still a pilot, officials have not brought it before faculty for review.

Baldwin Wallace University said it will likely award credit for scores of 3 or higher, but that the chair of the university’s Africana Studies has not yet reviewed the course framework.

Case Western Reserve University has not yet responded to Signal’s request about awarding credit for the course.

A spotlight on Black life in Cleveland

The course was designed hundreds of miles from Lakewood High, but one lesson hits close to home.

Sparks excitedly showed students an online tool that would be the focus of the day’s lesson. 

It was a set of maps of Cleveland

“What’s amazing about this resource,” Sparks told students, “is literally every AP class in the country is focusing on the demographics and the census data from Cleveland, Ohio. Literally every single one. It’s the story of Black life in Cleveland, Ohio.” 

Students explored maps from 1960s Cleveland showing racial inequities in housing, education and employment.
Students explored maps from 1960s Cleveland showing racial inequities in housing, education and employment. Credit: Kenyatta Crisp for Signal Cleveland / Crisp Photography Ltd.

For the Lakewood students, this was exciting as well. They spent the rest of class looking at maps that showed the stark differences in housing, employment and college education between majority white suburbs and majority Black Cleveland neighborhoods in the 1960s. 

One student pointed out how segregated the region was and that they see a lot of the same trends today.

Sparks said content like this keeps the students engaged and interested and that they have told him what they are learning is rewarding and enlightening.

“It’s rewarding for my minority students, to finally learn their own history, but even the white students who take this course love it because it’s information that has been lacking in public education.”

Paul Rochford, K-12 Education Reporter

K-12 Education Reporter (he/him)
Paul, a former City Year Cleveland AmeriCorps member based in a charter school, covers K-12 education. Paul joins us from Cleveland Documenters, where he focused on creating infographics and civic tech to make public information more accessible. Paul is also a musician, photographer and graphic designer.