State of African American Studies in Houston-area highs schools
Burial mask of King Tutankhamen (King Tut). AP Photo Amr Nabil

In the wake of the Texas Board of Education okaying African American Studies (AAS) to be taught as an elective in state high schools in April 2020, exactly how many Houston-area schools districts offering such courses is unclear.

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Just months after African American Studies classes were cleared to be offered to Texas high schoolers, such courses seemed to be in danger of ever being taught. As pushback to the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project and calls during the “Summer of George Floyd” protests to end white supremacy in criminal justice, politics and education, any efforts to teach Black history or provide a Black perspective on contemporary issues were slapped with the erroneous label of “Critical Race Theory” and vehemently attacked by conservative organizations, parents and politicians.

Katy ISD even cancelled a scheduled Oct. 4 presentation from author Jerry Craft, winner of the 2020 Newberry Medal, the Coretta Scott King Author Award and the Kirkus Prize, because his books New Kid and Class Act chronicled elementary school life for Black children attending predominantly white schools.

Photo by Aswad Walker.

Katy ISD even removed Craft’s books from school libraries at the behest of some Katy parents fearful their children would feel uncomfortable reading books chronicling the Black experience.

And even though Katy ISD reversed their book removal, State Rep. Matt Krause (Republican) launched an investigation into Texas school districts over the type of books they have, particularly books that pertain to race or sexuality or “make students feel discomfort.”

DISTRICTS OFFERING AAS

Thus, with both local and national attacks on all things Black in Texas schools, the Defender reached out to the six area school districts to see which had high schools offering African American Studies classes. Of those, three responded to Defender inquiries. Two of the three, HISD and Ft. Bend ISD, have high schools offering the course, while Alief has zero.

Of HISD’s 52 high schools, 14 offer African American Studies (AAS) courses. Those 14 schools offer 25 sections (separate classes) on the subject. Five HISD high schools have more than one section of AAS, with Sterling leading the way with four.

FBISD did not provide the number of sections their five AAS-teaching schools offer, but they are serving a total of 345 students.

“As a diverse community, FBISD is proud to offer ethnic studies courses including African American Studies to our students,” said FBISD Coordinator of Community and Civic Engagement, Chassidy Olainu-Alade. “There is great value in learning about history from a variety of viewpoints and narratives, and the African American studies course is designed to do just that.”

Regarding their zero AAS courses, Alief ISD said in a statement, “We have been working with our regional partners to develop curriculum and resources to offer the course in the near future.”

At press time, Katy, Cy-Fair and Aldine school districts had yet to respond.

THE CURRICULUM

Andre Muata Richardson. Screenshot from Zoom interview with the Defender Network.

Andre Muata Richardson lobbied to become Sterling Aviation High School’s AAS teacher because he knew personally the impact exposure to history, literature and other subjects from a Black perspective can have on a person’s sense of self.

His favorite part of the AAS curriculum is the religious/spiritual contributions of the ancient African nation, Egypt. That curriculum was based off one developed for Dallas ISD by Jamilia Thomas, the senior vice president of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Dallas, state board trustees Aicha Davis and Lawrence Allen, various Texas university scholars, and groups like the NAACP, League of United Latin American Citizens and Houston’s Hermann Park Rotary Club.

Christina Frascino, Mickey Leland College Preparatory Academy for Young Men’s AAS teacher, appreciates the fact that the curriculum covers everything, including the arts, history, science, architecture and more.

STUDENT IMPACT

According to the National Education Association’s (NEA) 2020 report What the Research Says About Ethnic Studies, “Students who participate in ethnic studies (i.e. AAS) are more academically engaged, develop a stronger sense of self-efficacy and personal empowerment, perform better academically and graduate at higher rates.”

Frascino sees this firsthand.

Christina Frascino

“Our AAS students have really deep, advanced-level discussions, even when they’re outside of the class or in the class, and they’re taking more pride in themselves, which is fun to watch. When they’re learning about themselves as pharaohs and queens of Egypt, instead of slaves of America, it shows a different part of their history that they haven’t seen before.”

Ft. Bend ISD AAS teacher Tanya Samuels echoed those sentiments.

“Students come into my class with prior knowledge, but there is so much history about African Americans that they have not had access to,” she said. “A class like African American studies fills in gaps of information that they don’t get in a traditional U.S. History class.”

According education company Kaplan’s website, taking AAS courses helps students gain a wide range of transferable skills, including critical thinking, research, persuasive argument construction, effective public speaking and more. AAS courses are said to also help students appreciate social and global diversity rather than seeing it as a threat.

CHALLENGES

Still, the threat of parents and politicians who have equated AAS with critical race theory, and demonized them both, has teachers worried.

“I don’t really know, I know what critical race theory is, but I do know that they’re trying to say anything that makes white people feel uncomfortable is critical race theory,” said Richardson. “But, anytime we talk about what happened to us, we’ve been made to feel we shouldn’t talk about it because it’s going to make them uncomfortable. But, in order for us to heal ourselves, we have to acknowledge the truth and we have to deal with the truth.”

Regarding fears of reprisals for teaching AAS, Frascino said, “I tell my students, what we talk about in class was almost made illegal. The content itself was almost completely outlawed in 2021.

“So, what we’re talking about in class is not completely detached from what’s happening now. So, it’s a fear of mine, but my motto is to always teach the truth, no matter what that truth is or what those feelings are. I want to teach the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

School DistrictTotal Number of HSsNumber of HSs w/ AASNumber of sections (students)
HISD521425
FBISD175(345)
Alief ISD600
Cy Fair ISD10??
Aldine ISD9??
Katy ISD9??