Joe Lawless is a white history teacher at George Washington High School in the city's Far Northeast, and this year the main course he teaches is African American history.

"I actually have learned more than I think I've taught," said Lawless, a 16-year teaching veteran, who grew up on an almost all-black block in North Philadelphia. "A lot of those questions I've had about African Americans and my relationship with African Americans have been answered. It's given me a lot of understanding."

Lawless embraces the Philadelphia School District's mandate - the first of its kind in the country - that high school students take an African American history course before graduating. Harry Knight, a black history teacher at the same school, which has a diverse student body, disagrees.

"It's a good idea to have it. Forcing it was a bad idea," Knight said, suggesting that it be an elective. "My first-period class, where they are predominantly Caucasian, they're like, 'Why isn't it multicultural?' I agree with them."

Such debates among teachers and students are quietly going on throughout the 173,000-student district, which experts say remains the only urban school system in the nation to require such a course for graduation.

But there have been no vocal protests similar to those when the district endorsed the mandate in June 2005. Even then-House Speaker John Perzel (R., Phila.) entered the fray, saying students first should master reading, writing and math.

The mandate's supporters argued that African American history had been neglected for so long in a district where nearly two-thirds of the students are black that a required course was the only way to ensure a proper education on the topic.

Opposition dissipated as the course was rolled out last year on a smaller scale. This year's 10th graders are the first to come under the mandate. About 11,000 students are enrolled, including 1,100 juniors and seniors taking it as an elective.

Some still quietly oppose it.

"It remains a sore issue with a lot of parents," said Miriam Foltz, a vocal critic two years ago whose son will take the course next year at Central High School.

Others who were concerned at first now like the course.

"It's going great," said Joe Putro, head of the social studies department at Central, an academic magnet. "Teachers are really getting into it. The kids are really getting into it."

Putro was worried that another mandated course would limit students' ability to fit in other courses. But, he said, Central now allows students to take a major course over lunch. It also permits them to split the course over two years.

Dana King, a lead academic coach in the district and coauthor of the curriculum, said complaints had largely dwindled because people had seen that the course was not being presented in a way that would cause division between the races.

"They looked and said, 'Well, wait. They're not even talking about race.' This is about culture. . . . It is about the human experience from the perspective of the Africans who came to the Western Hemisphere from the 15th through 21st centuries," she said.

The course uses the textbook African-American History by lead author Darlene Clark Hine, a professor at Northwestern University, but draws on lots of other material. It begins with a six-week segment on Africa, covering ancient Egypt, Ethiopia and other areas, and proceeds to the present day. It is delivered in six segments, each beginning with a prompt or question.

Next year, lessons on the Caribbean and Philadelphia black history will be added, King said.

At George Washington, most students in Barbara Fried's African American history class support the requirement. The class had about equal numbers of black and white students, and other races.

"It's good for all cultures to learn, just to see what we've been through, see how we rose in life, who helped us get out of this slavery," said Evan Gardner, 15, a black student.

But Eijaz Mulla, 15, who is part Indian, said he would prefer to double up on math courses. Diana Rodriguez, 15, a native of Spain, would opt for European history.

"I'm interested in the kings, the queens, Russian history. I like African American history, but I think it's a sad history, about being slaves," she said.

Other students said they, too, found some course matter upsetting, but thought it should be taught.

"You've got to understand that that's the past. . . . It's very different from how it is now," said Rakim Robinson, 16, who is black.

Officials from the district parents' group and teachers' union said they hadn't received complaints. Neither has the NAACP, said J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia chapter.

"That's a good sign," he said.

The only blip he knew of occurred at Masterman, an academic magnet. Some parents and students, including his son, complained about a teacher who was unprepared. The school changed teachers, he said. Masterman's principal did not return a call for comment.

Some district leaders still wish it were an elective.

"I believe it's an important part of history, but I think that everybody should get a broader sense," said Greg Wade, president of the Home and School Council, the district parents' group.

About 80 high school teachers are giving the course. District officials said they did not have a racial breakdown. At George Washington, three are white and three black.

"The kids asked, 'Why is a white guy teaching this class?' " Lawless said. He answered: "It's not who you are but what you are and your motivation behind teaching it. I want to present history factually in a way that communicates an understanding of people."

Lawless, who volunteered to teach the class, has attended some of the district's summer and Saturday training for the course. The training is optional, and teachers are paid for it.

As he prepared, Lawless, who has a Temple University history degree, said he thought: "These are people I've never heard of before."

Experts were unsure why more districts haven't followed Philadelphia's lead. Some suggested that African American history had been infused into regular courses much better than it had been in the past and that many large, urban districts were preoccupied with raising standardized test scores.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a lobbying group for big-city districts, said more should follow Philadelphia.

"Motivation is a big factor in educational success," he said, "and other districts might find that requirement could spur greater motivation."

But Samuel Wineburg, an adjunct history professor at Stanford University and an expert on the teaching and learning of history, doubted that assumption.

"A new curriculum label is a cul-de-sac," he said, "that can easily mislead us from focusing on the most pressing problems of our most impoverished schools."

The Course At a Glance

The course is divided

into six segments, each beginning with a prompt or question.

Segment 1: How can we begin the study of the African-American (Africana) experience?

Segment 2: How did Africans preserve and affirm their way of life and use their identities as a means to resist enslavement (1420-1820)?

Segment 3: What were the similarities and differences in the practices of self-determination of Africans in the United States and their counterparts in the western hemisphere (1820-1865)?

Segment 4: How did Africans use their new geo-nationalist identities (African-Americans, Jamaicans, Haitians, Cubans, Ghanians, etc.) to resist racial segregation, colonization and imperialism (1865-1914)?

Segment 5: How did African-Americans make sense of and participate in international movements (1905-present)?

Segment 6: How does our study of the Africana (African-American) experience help us reexamine how we learn history and reshape our view of contemporary humanity?

To see the full course curriculum, go to http://

go.philly.com/afamhistoryEndText

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com