While taking the class, Jazmin Heath, 15, discovered the story of Harriet Tubman, the runaway Maryland slave who rescued countless others from slavery via the "Underground Railroad."
Chaunae Berry, 15, saw "Roots," the 1977 TV mini-series, for the first time, and she learned to admire the opposing stances on civil rights taken by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.
"Everybody hears that slavery was this, slavery was that, but we don't take it in," said Heath, a 10th-grader at Mastbaum High School in Kensington.
"But now that they made it a course, we can actually learn what everybody is talking about," Heath added. "We see it in a book. It's like, snap, this stuff really happened."
The course she's talking about is African-American history, the Philadelphia school district's newest mandatory class.
This year's 10th-graders are the first students in Philadelphia history who must pass the class to graduate. The course gives students one credit toward the 23.5 total needed for a diploma.
That has made the class a hot topic among the Class of 2009, covering everything from ancient African civilizations to hip-hop culture.
During interviews, students said they believe the class is being presented well and, most importantly, is teaching them about people, events and concepts that they knew little or nothing about.
"I think it's a step in the right direction because there's not a lot of stuff that we do hear," said Heath, who is African-American. "They don't tell us about the riots that were led or the people who broke away from slavery. They don't really show us our history," she said of traditional history classes.
Some students, however, said the teacher is as important as what is taught.
"They should have a black teacher teaching African- American history instead of a white teacher," said Herron Mills, 15, who attends Sayre High School in West Philadelphia. He [her teacher] is trying to do a good job, but most of my class thinks the same way so they're not really taking in what he's saying."
"I like my class," countered Berry, who attends Olney High. "We're all learning something. We have an African-American teacher, and he tells us the positive about African-American history, and he tells us the negative." Mills and Berry are African- American.
While the history of African-Americans has been taught in the nation's classrooms for decades, school district officials said they are not aware of another district that requires students to pass a yearlong course as a graduation requirement.
The mandate is needed in a district that is more than 65 percent African-American, said Dr. Nathaniel Norment Jr., chairman of Temple University's Department of African-American Studies.
"In terms of the studies that demonstrate that knowledge of self and culture improves academic performance, with the dropout rate in Philadelphia, it's worth the effort to use the cultural and historical background of the majority student group to improve academic performance," he said.
Students appear to be embracing the course. Of the 11,000 who are taking the class this year, 1,100 are upperclassmen using the course as an elective - 500 11th-graders and 600 12th-graders. The course also drew hundreds of upperclassmen last year when it was first offered to them as an elective.
"Just in passing and talking to students - I don't have any formal evaluation - but all of the comments have been very positive about the course," said School Reform Commission member Sandra Dungee Glenn, who took a leading role in advocating for the course's creation. "Students are learning about things that they did not know. The course is doing what I hoped it would do," she added.
The curriculum was written by Dana King, the district's lead academic coach for African-American history and social studies, and Dr. Greg Carr, an assistant professor in the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University, in Washington, D.C.
They drew from the work of dozens of contemporary authors and historians and from historical icons of the past, such as Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson and Anna Julia Cooper.
King said the course studies the African people before the slave trade so students can learn about the continent's ethnic groups and ways of life. The "middle passage" of slaves to the Americas is covered. Also, King said, students learn that just 6 percent of the African slaves were brought to the United States; the rest were taken to the Caribbean and South America.
"Our course is really designed to tell the intellectual experience of a people," King said. "We have spent the last year getting our wonderful teachers to understand that this course is not a course about race. It is about the human experience from the perspective of the Africans who came to the Western Hemisphere during the 15th through the 21st centuries."
After the School Reform Commission approved the new course on Feb. 16 2005, King said only a few people called her office to criticize the decision. One man, she recalled, thought the course would ignore "the bad parts" of African-American life. One mother erroneously thought the course would prevent her daughter from taking an advanced placement course.
As word gets around the country about the course, King has been in demand to help other school systems develop courses.
She has spoken to educators in Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y., and Prince George's County, Md., among other places. Next week she'll be in Greensboro, N.C.