updated 6/9/2005 7:43:42 PM ET 2005-06-09T23:43:42

In what could be a first in the United States, the Philadelphia school system will soon require that all high school students take a year of African and African-American studies.

Leaders of the school district, where two-thirds of students are black, hope the course will not only keep those students interested in their academic work but also give others a more accurate view of history.

“We have the opportunity ... to do something under our watch that is really going to do right by our students, to say, ‘We’ve come from some pretty great places,”’ said assistant superintendent Cecilia Cannon.

The course, already offered as an elective at 11 of the city’s 54 high schools, covers topics including classical African civilizations, civil rights and black nationalism, and teachers say it has captivated students.

At the nearly all-black Strawberry Mansion High School, the class chose a top student to have a $360 genetic test designed to help black Americans trace their roots back to Africa. James Sullivan, a senior, learned that his maternal family descends from the Ibo tribe in Nigeria, and that his ancestors came to the United States as slaves.

“There were tears in his eyes, but joy also,” said Principal Lois Powell Mondesire, who added that other students are now interested in genetic testing.

Other states looking closely
National education groups said they did not know of other districts that require black studies, now a high-profile academic field on college campuses such as Harvard and Cornell.

But educators will no doubt be watching the Philadelphia experiment, unanimously approved by the five-person School Reform Commission this spring. Administrators in California, Massachusetts and elsewhere have called to ask for details, Philadelphia officials said.

“School districts all across the country try all kinds of different things to engage the kids and improve student performance,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 65 large urban school districts. “So this will be of interest, but it won’t necessarily create a stampede in this direction.”

The class, designed for 10th graders, uses the textbook “The African American Odyssey” by Darline Hine, one of only a few on the topic written at the high-school level. Course units range from the capture of slaves in West Africa to the Civil War.

‘It’s a big world’
One student said she wondered about singling out African-American history as a requirement for graduation.

“It’s a big world. You have to think about everyone else, too” said Briggitte Rodriguez, 14, a freshman at Philadelphia High School for Girls, which is 62 percent black.

Others schoolmates saw the requirement as an improvement on Black History Month for the schools. “They usually just focus on African-American history in February, and it should be all year-round,” said Victoria Pertell.

The 210,000-student Philadelphia school system is 65 percent black, 14.5 percent Hispanic, 14.2 percent white and 5.3 percent Asian-American.

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