Starting next fall, high schools around the state will be able to offer African American Studies as an elective course, making Texas the first state to approve both that course and Mexican American Studies.

Members of the State Board of Education (SBOE), often fractured by partisan politics, unanimously approved standards for an African American Studies course April 17.

“When students are learning about themselves about what’s possible, they develop hope and with that hope comes better grades and more engagement and an understanding that this is bigger than me and my contribution to society is bigger,” said Lawrence Scott, a Texas A&M University-San Antonio professor who helped write the course standards. “This course will allow people to have a very organic, and perhaps cordial and collegial, and then critical and crucial conversation about what it means to be black in America.”

Scott sat on the San Antonio advisory team, helping to develop the standards with a team of academics, education officials, and other stakeholders over the last nine months. The San Antonio team and other teams from around the state used an African American Studies course already offered in the Dallas Independent School District as inspiration.

It was a challenge to distill the important figures and events into limited state standards, said Scott and Marisa Perez-Diaz, a Democratic SBOE member whose district includes part of Bexar County and who helped develop the standards.

The final product reflects what the working group believed to be the most influential figures and phases for African American advancement, Perez-Diaz said, noting that educators could use the course as a building block to develop more instruction.

“This is the first iteration of a course that can develop other courses,” Perez-Diaz said. “If somebody has the desire to build off from this, we can extend what needs to go further.”

Perez-Diaz said the approval of Texas’ second ethnic studies course was relatively smooth, taking place over nine months, a contrast to the contentious and protracted process for getting Mexican American Studies approved by the state board.

Advocates lobbied SBOE members to establish state standards for a MAS course in 2014, the course went through a controversial textbook request process and name change, and it finally received SBOE approval in 2018.

“Mexican American Studies was the foundation for a lot of the work we’ve done for African American Studies,” she said, adding that it will now be easier to develop more ethnic studies courses.

Last week, Perez-Diaz began talking with a Texas district about a Native American/Indigenous Studies course. Ethnic studies courses are only a starting place for integrating a range of voices who have not been heard before into student learning, she said.

“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done when we are looking at our social studies generally,” Perez-Diaz said. “We need to embed this information in there, and it’s critical to our history. But until we get to a place where we’re able to do that, these courses are so important for our students, especially [those] who long to see people they can relate to.”

Ken Mercer, a Republican SBOE member whose district stretches across North Bexar County, agreed. He guessed that courses like Mexican American Studies and African American Studies will help boost critical success factors in education, estimating that in a few years dropout rates will decline and graduation and college readiness rates will increase.

“I think we’re going to find more students who are re-interested and have the tools to be successful in college or university,” Mercer said.

Scott went even further, guessing that discipline rates could also decrease for students taking the subjects who see themselves reflected in their curriculum for the first time.

San Antonio, Northside, and Judson ISDs have indicated interest in offering African American Studies courses, Perez-Diaz said. After Mexican American Studies was approved, several school districts added the class to their offerings, and expanded their summer camp programming to include the topic.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.