The nearly 100 Harford County Public School students who signed up to take the Advanced Placement African American Studies next school year will have to find a new class.

The latest version of the college prep course piloted at three Harford high schools was rejected by the school board last week in 5-4 vote, with some members calling it divisive, with a progressive agenda and too much focus on racism. The curriculum, designed by a national nonprofit called the College Board, will be widely available for the first time this fall, but not in Harford County.

“The topics are heavily politically oriented and perpetuate the message of oppressed versus oppressor,” Terri Kocher, a board member who voted against the class, said at the meeting. “I think we’re missing an opportunity to present positive messages of unity and great American contributions.”

Harford isn’t the first school district to take issue with the AP class, an elective course with an accompanying exam that can be submitted for college credit consideration. An earlier version of the course was rejected in Florida, where there are restrictions on teaching about race, gender identity and sexuality. Since then, the course has been revised to put less emphasis on contemporary topics like Black Lives Matter and queer studies.

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By the second year of the pilot, though, it was in 700 U.S. schools, 31 of them in Maryland. It now includes African American achievements in music, film and sports. Students might read works by abolitionist Frederick Douglass, NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois and poet Maya Angelou, or analyze constitutional amendments addressing slavery, citizenship and the right to vote.

That wasn’t enough for Harford board members.

Its move to reject the latest version of the course has left students and staff scrambling to find replacement classes, but some educators and diversity advocates say the broader message does more lasting damage.

Melissa Williams, principal of Joppatowne High School, saw the AP African American Studies class firsthand. Her school, as well as Aberdeen and Bel Air high schools, were three of the Maryland schools picked for the pilot.

Williams told board members at the June 24 meeting that the rigorous course not only reflects the diversity of the district, state and nation but gives resources to students that will help their understanding of Black Americans’ complex past.

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Taking away the course now, she said, will “wreak havoc” on their schedules.

“That’s a small issue compared to the importance of the message that will or will not be sent as a result of tonight’s vote,” said the principal.

In a statement, Harford County superintendent Sean Bulson said he was “deeply saddened” by the board’s vote. The AP course would have provided a more authentic portrayal of American history, he said, and it demonstrated the school system’s “commitment to providing an education that reflects the diversity of our student body and community. When we remain true to that commitment, it is unifying, not divisive.”

More than 75% of those enrolled were students of color, he added.

This past school year, 67 students took the course and 90 signed up to take it next school year, according to the school system. One of them was Teaja Adams, a rising senior at Edgewood High School. She said in a statement that referring to the class as “divisive” means they are uncomfortable with learning about the past “unless it’s whitewashed,” but what’s really divisive is not being honest about history.

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“To say out loud that this class, my one opportunity to learn about me, that is divisive. How dare you take away my ability to choose,” wrote Adams, whose great grandparents were in the Black Panther Party and part of the U.S. Army’s first African American female battalion in World War II.

Her mom, Taryn Cash, said students are asking for these classes because they want to see themselves in their learning and want to hear an accurate account of history.

“All this class is actually about is fessing up and telling the truth,” she said.

In a statement, the school board president said members appreciate that “African-American studies is an important part of our history and culture,” but “had concerns with the specific AP curriculum content.”

At last week’s meeting, Kocher said she agrees it’s a course that should be taught, but not in a way that teaches “victimhood.”

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“There’s so many assignments and pictures of police content, human rights conflict, social justice conflict, people against the police,” she said, “instead of the focus on great people in history, which I was hoping to see.”

Her colleagues Lauren Paige Strauss and Melissa Hahn, vice president of the board, shared her concerns.

Carol Bruce, one of two Black board members, said it’s up to teachers to teach the course appropriately.

“For us to keep saying we don’t want it because it’s political, I think that’s unfair,” she said. “And I think it’s short-sighted.”

Board members want to work with College Board to tweak African American Studies, but Bulson said that was unlikely.

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College Board crafted the course through a committee of college faculty, high school teachers and experts who used data from 100 college syllabi and feedback from hundreds of faculty, a spokesperson said. The course framework being released nationally this fall also allows teachers to create their own lessons to meet the particular needs of their classes. Students, too, are allowed to select topics for their own projects.

It’s Chrystie Crawford-Smick’s view that the school board doesn’t trust educators to do their jobs.

“No one that voted against this curriculum is an educator,” said the president of the Harford County Education Association, the county teachers union. “But they have a political agenda and are willing to rob students of an opportunity to learn. To make sure their viewpoint is the only viewpoint expressed in Harford County Public Schools.”

On Monday, unions representing Harford County teachers, administrators and other staff sent a letter to the board expressing their disappointment in the decision.

“Education doesn’t have party lines, instead it has framework and methodology, and the people who do this work each day are the ones who are best equipped to design and implement curriculum,” the letter stated.

The AP African American studies course will become widely available for the first time this fall. (Nick Hunt/Getty Images for MVAAFF)

Last week’s vote was the third attempt to approve the AP African American Studies course after the board tabled it in May and early June. A revised women’s studies course was also on the table, along with a middle school social studies curriculum that needed updating so it’s aligned to Maryland’s new standard of teaching social studies.

Board members took issue with the middle school courses, including board president Aaron Poynton, who said at the meeting that it did not meet his high standards. He saw “social political ideology” and “questionable moral and ethical assignments” that he said prompted sixth graders to write about the effectiveness of terrorism as a form of protest.

”I had [an] objection with that, as I think most parents would,” Poynton said.

The school system said in an email that the assignment in question is from the old curriculum, not the one up for a vote.

His standards are simple, said Poynton in an interview. It shouldn’t tell kids what to think, but how to think.

“It just needs to be quality, it needs to be balanced, it needs to have decency,” he said.

The middle school curriculum was not approved after Kocher, Hahn, Strauss, Poynton and Diane Alvarez voted against it. Poynton said in an interview that he hopes to revisit the topic at the July 15 meeting and approve a curriculum with tweaks the board suggested.

The women’s studies course, which Alvarez criticized for “glorifying” birth control activist Margaret Sanger, was tabled because it was still being drafted when it was presented to the board, Poynton said.

In an interview, Poynton said the board heard an equal number of comments from people who supported the classes and from those who had concerns. “One of the things that we have to do is be able to listen to all sides to try to understand all of the different points of view and the nuances around the issue,” he said.

The news of the vote disgusted Vicki Jones, president of Harford’s NAACP branch.

“They’re really trying to write history in a way that still causes divisiveness,” she said. “History is history. People will continue to repeat the things of the past if they don’t understand what happened.”

What the board needs to do, she said, is have a discussion with students, parents and the NAACP to hear their perspectives.

He said he’d soon be meeting with Jones and three educators who taught the course to hear directly from them.

About the Education Hub

This reporting is part of The Banner’s Education Hub, community-funded journalism that provides parents with resources they need to make decisions about how their children learn. Read more.