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Oakland School District Recognizes Black English

Education: It is the first to declare 'Ebonics' a separate language. But mayor, some other officials fear backlash.

December 20, 1996|ELAINE WOO and MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

"Oakland is a very diverse community. When students come to school with whatever language--whether Filipinos or Chinese or Hispanic--funds are available to support them so they learn standard English. The African American community says, 'Why then aren't our students given that money and support if they are limited in English?' "

The U.S. Department of Education has neither granted nor received requests to give black English programs bilingual education funds, which are authorized by Congress under Title VII, spokesman Rick Miller said Thursday.

If Oakland or any other district made such a request, it would be considered, Miller said. But department policy has been not to recognize black English as a separate and distinct language, he said.

Norm Gold, who oversees bilingual education programs in the state for legal compliance, said no state or federal bilingual education money could be spent on the training programs or services that Oakland has decided students there need.

The district could, however, use federal funds already set aside for poor students or those struggling academically. And Gold said teachers should recognize that not all students speak standard English at home.

"You don't want to try to obliterate a variant of the language that is perfectly useful," Gold said. But "all of these kids need, of course, to master standard English."

The battle over black English has flared on and off for decades.

Some proponents favor the label Ebonics--a combination of "ebony" and "phonics"--to denote a distinct language spoken by the majority of descendants of African American slaves, said John Baugh, a professor of education and linguistics at Stanford University.

Its standing as a distinct language was first tested in a 1979 federal court case brought by black parents who complained that the Ann Arbor, Mich., school district had denied a group of black children equal educational opportunity because of teachers' failure to recognize or accommodate the dialect. School officials were ordered to hold training sessions to sensitize teachers to the use of black English and to devise methods to teach youngsters who spoke it.

Six years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District established its Language Development Program for African American Students, which largely focuses on teacher training. Used at 31 inner-city schools, it costs the district $3 million a year, drawn from its general fund. Last year, Los Angeles recognized the special needs of students who speak other nonstandard dialects, including "Spanglish"--a mixture of Spanish and English--and Hawaiian pidgin.

Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris, who is African American, said Thursday that he rejects the idea that Ebonics is a separate language, seeing it instead as a form of slang that is not widely spoken.

Harris said he has received calls from business leaders who are concerned that Oakland's image will be harmed by the school board's decision. He tried to reassure them that the furor would go away and that the community would continue to set high academic standards, he said.

"Our commitment is to excellence in education . . . both in terms of language and mathematics, and we will not tolerate or support any form of substandard English," the mayor said.

The Oakland Education Assn., which represents the city's 3,500 teachers, counselors and other certificated employees, supports the district's recognition of black dialect. But it was far from certain Thursday that a majority of teachers would welcome the prospect of undergoing special training to instruct youngsters who speak it.

Priscilla McClendon, who teaches a combined fifth- and sixth-grade class at Oakland's Lakeview Elementary School, where 70% of the students are African American, said she thought that the board's recognition of Ebonics was a good move, but that teachers would feel burdened by requirements of additional training, especially if asked to attend night or weekend classes. "I have an 11-year-old, and with all the after-school meetings we already have, sometimes I'm not getting home until 5:30 or 6 anyway," the veteran teacher said.

San Francisco's Cesar Chavez Elementary School for two years has had a pilot program using bilingual instruction in black and standard English in three kindergarten-through-third grade classrooms.

Principal Pilar Mejia said the program is popular with parents and students. "First of all, it affirms that a child's culture and language need to be accepted in the school," she said.

Teachers and children speak Ebonics frequently in class, and read books and other materials written in black English. But teachers emphasize differentiating between black English and mainstream English.

"They may read a story written in black English or Ebonics and then the teacher will say, 'What is another way to say that,' or, 'If we were to say it in mainstream English, how would we say that?' "

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