It’s 9:30 on a Thursday morning, and the students inside Room 327 at Denver’s East High School are supposed to be watching a documentary about World War II. Class is almost over, though, so even when the teacher pauses the video to ask a question about the United States’ international trade policy during the conflict, most of the teenagers in the Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. history class continue preparing for next period’s precalculus quiz. The clicking of fingers on graphing calculators fills the room.

When the bell chimes, one AP class replaces another inside Room 327. Harlem Porter finds an open desk in the back and opens their laptop. Like their peers in the AP African diaspora seminar, Porter is working on a long-term research paper that will decide whether they pass or fail the course. “I’m looking at how Eurocentrism has affected the sexuality of Africans through the cosmology of two separate tribes: the Igbo and Yoruba of West Africa,” Porter says. “With those tribes, genders aren’t assigned until you’re around five.” Porter, who is nonbinary, explains that Christian colonists “overrode those beliefs” and that the effect is still being felt by the United States’ Black communities today. “It’s a topic that’s close to my heart,” Porter says.

East High School Student, Harlem Porter. Photograph Rachel Woolf.

Porter would normally stand out in an AP class, not just because of their passion for the material, but also because of their race: According to the Education Trust, Black and Latino students are underrepresented in AP courses across the country. That’s certainly the case in East High School’s AP U.S. history class, which has a minority enrollment of 17 percent. The school’s African diaspora seminar, however, is 52 percent minority, nearly mirroring East’s student body, which is 48 percent nonwhite. That level of representation in an AP course is “like finding a unicorn,” says Paul Markson III, who co-teaches the AP African diaspora seminar. “You just don’t see it anywhere.”

Markson is all too familiar with the racial achievement gaps in Colorado’s AP classes. Black students in the state are roughly 30 percent less likely to enroll in such courses than their white counterparts. Of those who do take an AP test, only 26 percent pass the end-of-term exam, compared to 67 percent of white students. For years, Markson and members of East’s faculty had discussed ways to increase minority participation in AP classes, but progress was slow. “Basically,” Markson says, “there was no real interest because the classes hadn’t changed.”

The College Board, a New York City–based not-for-profit known for administering standardized tests such as the SAT, introduced AP classes to students during the 1950s. Created to prepare kids for U.S. universities by replicating the lecture hall experience, a stock AP class feeds massive amounts of information to passive learners. At the end of the year, students are tested on what they’ve learned by taking a single exam. It’s a “drill and kill” philosophy, Markson says, that’s high on stress and low on creative thinking.

It also favors upper-middle-class white students, says Kristin Klopfenstein, director of the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab at the University of Denver. “Since [AP courses were] designed to replicate college,” Klopfenstein says, “all the barriers that exist for attending higher education are the same barriers that exist in Advanced Placement courses.” Because minority students often attend chronically underfunded and underperforming elementary and middle schools, they are ill-prepared for the rigors of an AP class, meaning they fall behind their peers: Research shows that AP students perform better academically once they’re in college.

In 2014, however, the College Board unveiled a new instruction model. The seminar offering was intended to be more flexible, eschewing rote memorization and a high-stakes exam for a research project on a particular theme, giving students the agency to take on topics of their choosing. “We wanted to turn that classic AP model on its head,” says Rushi Sheth, who used to oversee the seminar offering for the board. “Things that are important to kids, they have the freedom to explore in AP seminars.”

From left: AP African diaspora teachers Michelle Rich and Paul Markson III. Photograph by Rachel Woolf.

Although Sheth says the seminar model wasn’t introduced specifically to boost diversity in AP classes, scholars at Tuskegee University in Alabama, Teachers College at Columbia University in New York, and the African Diaspora Consortium (ADC), a network of academics intent on reimagining how African history can be taught from a global perspective, saw an opportunity to do just that. In 2017, the triumvirate began designing curriculum that would trace the movement of Africans, often forced by the slave trade and colonialism, across the world. A basic framework of material is supplied to teachers, but the specific topics students gravitate toward is intentionally left open. (For example, an educator in Philadelphia remixed the syllabus into an exploration of “Crunk Feminism.”) And for kids of African ancestry, the seminar provides a valuable opportunity to study themselves.

In 2018, the College Board agreed to test the curriculum during a yearlong trial at 11 high schools across the country. Kassie Freeman, president and CEO of the ADC, says 80 percent of students passed the pilot seminar, and the next year, the board added the course to its menu of offerings. That’s when Michelle Rich, Markson’s co-teacher at East, learned about the class.

In 2019, Denver Public Schools (DPS) approved the Black Excellence Resolution, which required schools to produce a comprehensive plan for prioritizing the achievement of Black students. East’s proposal eliminated weighted grades for AP courses, so that they aren’t worth more to GPAs, and mandated that pupils take at least one ethnic studies class. Still, enrollment in East’s AP courses remained 70 percent white in 2021-’22.

East Highs School Student, Sierra Rothman-Haji. Photograph by Rachel Woolf.

Rich believed the African diaspora seminar had the potential to balance that number. “I thought, Oh, this is great,” Rich says. “The content might increase the diversity. Since it’s a research-based class without a high-stakes test, it could open doors for some students.” After a bit of wrangling between school administrators and the district, the AP African diaspora seminar debuted in East’s course catalog for the 2021-’22 school year.

“Listen up!” The din in Room 327 subsides as Rich dispenses instructions for the day’s class, Markson standing beside her with his arms akimbo. Students, Rich tells them, will be spending the day preparing slides for an upcoming presentation on their research projects.

Thomas Bohlen, who sits across from Porter, gets to work putting together citations for a PowerPoint on the fashion industry and Black culture. Bohlen used to hate learning about history: “It was all just like, ‘Here’s some stuff, memorize these dates.’ This is one of the only classes I’ve taken where there is such an individual focus and you are able to look into the topics you are passionate about.’ ” Now, Bohlen is thinking of minoring in history in college.

But the format of the African diaspora seminar isn’t the only thing driving increased representation. In 2019, a study published in the Harvard Educational Review showed that Spanish-language instruction and culturally relevant curriculum boosted both enrollment and the pass rate by at least 10 percentage points in less than 10 years at a low-income high school with a high Latino population in California. AP African diaspora seems to be having the same effect at East: Jayden Baumann, who is Black, was assigned this class by his counselor, “but I stayed in it because it was talking about African culture, African history, and I wanted to learn a lot about that.”

Inside the AP African diaspora seminar at Denver’s East High School. Photograph by Rachel Woolf.

Moreover, a 2015 study of three million Florida students published in the Economics of Education Review found that matching teachers with students of the same race improved performance across multiple subjects, particularly for struggling Black students. Markson, who graduated from East in 1989, is one of the district’s few Black AP instructors. “I can identify with the students on a different level,” he says.

East isn’t the only school finding success with the AP African diaspora seminar; 100 educators across the United States attended free workshops on the theme in 2021. “The growth is moving at a pace that we had not anticipated at this early of a stage,” says the ADC’s Freeman. But East, which will once again offer the class in 2022-’23, is still the only DPS school with the African diaspora seminar—or any AP curriculum that is culturally relevant to students of color—in its catalog.

DPS, the state’s most diverse school district, boasts relatively strong representation numbers: Black and Latino students account for 70 percent of total enrollment and 61 percent of AP classes. Still, Markson is hoping that AP African diaspora being offered at other schools would push that number higher, and district administrators have taken notice. “As we live our value of collaboration,” DPS deputy superintendent Tony Smith said in a statement, “we plan to share this resource with schools across the district.” At press time, there were tentative plans to discuss the seminar’s expansion during the district’s Leadership Week in July.

That same month, Markson and Rich received the results of their inaugural AP African diaspora class’ research projects. Nearly 60 percent of the students passed. Markson and Rich are already discussing ways to improve the course in the coming years. “This seminar was a good first step, because we’ve been talking about this issue with AP classes for the five years I’ve been here,” Rich says. “It seemed like a good way to start taking a little more action.”