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A new scholarship highlights the work of Ruthie Walls

Little Rock Central was thesite of the first fundamental test to the United States’ resolve to enforce African-American civil rights in the face of massive southern defiance following Brown v. Board of Education.
U.S. National Park Service
Little Rock Central was the site of the first fundamental test to the United States’ resolve to enforce African-American civil rights in the face of massive southern defiance following Brown v. Board of Education.

A new scholarship through the Arkansas Community Foundation has been set up to award a student at Little Rock Central who excels in the AP African American Studies course. Senator Clarke Tucker has been leading the charge on this scholarship and keeping the course available for students at the historic high school.

Clarke Tucker: Ms. Walls is an outstanding teacher, she’s a regional leader for this curriculum, and she's very deserving to have a scholarship named for her. There are a number of awards that are given at the end of every school year at Little Rock Central High, this is one of them. I think there typically already is an award for the student who most excels in a particular AP course, that will continue to be the case, it just so happens that our goal is to raise enough money to have an endowed scholarship, so the recipient of that award gets some scholarship money for school after high school as well.

She has helped develop this curriculum, and really more to the point, she’s helped train teachers in Arkansas and in the region on the curriculum and spreading the possibility for its study for schools across the region.

Matthew Moore: When did you first hear about the action being taken by the Department of Education around this AP African American Studies course?

CT: I first heard about it when the course code was changed on Friday afternoon, the Friday before school started on August 14th, so that would have been Friday, August 11. Of course, Little Rock Central is one of six schools in the state that’s offering it, as well as eStem. I have constituents who go to both schools, and when the students starting hearing that the course may not happen the Friday before school starts and that they may not get credit for it, they were obviously very concerned. I started getting messages and phone calls from constituents that day.

MM: Were their concerns that it was just kind of unclear what was going to be happening? This is a year-long course that students take, what were the main concerns you were hearing from constituents?

CT: I think the biggest frustration for a lot of people was just the lack of clarity as to what was happening. A lot of people interpreted what happened to mean they could not take the course this year or if they did then it wouldn’t be an AP course, they wouldn't get a boosted GPA credit for taking an AP course, or they might not be able to graduate, or they might be disciplined if the course violates state law. So, there were a lot of questions that people had, and I think we've been able to get a number of those answered, but there are still some unanswered questions—in my mind, at least—which continues to be a point of frustration.

MM: The Department of Education, when talking about this course has stated, “the department encourages the teaching of all American history and supports rigorous courses not based on opinions or indoctrination.” What is your response when you hear a statement like that?

CT: Well, I actually just came from a meeting with the governor and the education commissioner. I think there has been some communication difficulties, and that was a point acknowledged in the meeting. We asked them to get this message out to the public, and they assured us that the course would be taught this year, and that the course is not going to be removed from the schools that have elected to proceed with the course, and I think that’s a very important point for the public to understand.

The point that you just raised in that question was a point of vigorous discussion in that meeting. And, you know, there’s different perspectives. I think from their perspective, I understand what they're saying when they say, “we want free thinkers, we want students to learn the material and be able to think for themselves.” And, of course, I wholeheartedly agree with that. I think the issue is the way it's coming across to members of the public and certainly my constituents who have communicated with me that I've heard from about this is that there are only certain topics in education that we were scrutinizing for indoctrination and it's specifically this AP African American Studies program.

The administration is insisting that they have this scrutiny for all courses but that’s just not how it’s being perceived in the public right now. I think the administration needs to do a better job of making sure the public understands their intent is to apply this across the board.

MM: Are there other examples of courses that they've raised—maybe in that conversation or that you're aware of—outside of the African American Studies program that they're taking considerations to make sure that they're not based in opinions or that they aren't indoctrination?

CT: There's no examples that I'm aware of. Their explanation is that this course is a pilot course and it's subject to change, and other courses are not subject to change because the curriculum is set. My question about that is, why is this pilot course being treated differently than other AP pilot courses that have come in Arkansas before? And also why is it being treated differently [in Arkansas] than this particular AP course that's being offered in 40 other states and the District of Columbia this school year? None of those other 40 states or the District of Columbia, to my knowledge, are disallowing credit towards graduation or taking a different stance for the payment of the AP exam fees like Arkansas is. Those are some of the remaining questions I have.

MM: When talking about this scholarship, you've made the point to say, “We're still not raising funds for the AP exam fees as we're still working for the state to pay for them.” The state of Arkansas pays for AP exams for every other AP course. At this current point in time, we're talking on Tuesday August 22nd, they haven't stated publicly whether or not they will pay for the African American Studies AP test. Have you had conversations to lead you to believe that the state may go back to paying for the AP test for this course?

CT: No, I don’t believe the state is going to pay the fee for the AP exam for this course, which again, is a point of significant frustration.

MM: For all of the other courses they're willing to pay for that, but not for this one.

CT: That's right.

MM: What would you say to the students who are enrolled in this class, whether they're people who are in your district—some of these students may be able to vote this next election cycle, right? What would you say to the students who are enrolled in this AP class that they chose to take?

CT: I would say that I applaud their intellectual curiosity, for understanding important parts of American history and culture. A significant part of the class is African American history, but it goes beyond that, the name of the course is African American Studies. I applaud African American students for learning about African American history and other students who are going to learn about history and studies other than about themselves. I think that’s all wonderful, and their critical thinking. I also would tell them that I’m jealous because I wish that this course had been offered at Central when I was a student there because I absolutely would have taken it. And I’ve been excited to learn everything that’s offered in this course.

MM: It feels like the fact that this is happening at Little Rock Central holds a special poignancy to it doesn't it?

CT: It absolutely is important that this is happening at Central. Central High, of course, is included in the course materials, because if you're going to study African American studies in the United States, there’s a mark in that that can’t be taken away that happened at Central High. The battle from 1957, we won that battle, but there are still battles being fought today, including at Central High.

MM: What word of encouragement would you have to Ms. Walls, who I'm sure has been inundated with invitations to talk to the press, invitations to hear from other people, what word of encouragement do you have to her?

CT: The first word I always have for our teachers is, “Thank you for your selfless service,” because teachers give so much of themselves, and they do it for our kids and our future. But a special applause for Ms. Walls for her leadership and making sure that this material is offered to students not only at Central, but at other high schools in Arkansas and other high schools in our region. I know that teachers are worked so hard, and to take this extra burden on to share this material with kids all over the state and region really is so meaningful.

This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Matthew Moore is senior producer for Ozarks at Large.
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