SCHOOLS WANT BLACK ENGLISH AS 2ND LANGUAGE: CALIFORNIA DISTRICT SEEKS FEDERAL FUNDS FOR EBONICS
By V. Dion Haynes
Chicago TRIBUNE STAFFWRITER
Originally published: Friday, December 20, 1996
Web-posted: Tuesday, January 14, 1997
. Los Angeles--Adding fuel to an already heated debate among educators over bilingual education, the school board in Oakland apparently has become the first district in the nation to officially declare black English--also known as Ebonics--as a second language.
The ruling by the northern California school district, where 53 percent of the students are black, means that the Ebonics language--which includes such uses as "He be at the store" or "She liketed the candy" will be considered as legitimate as Spanish, Chinese or other languages spoken in the schools.
Board members Wednesday night directed teachers to become trained in the use of Ebonics, enabling them to understand how to better instruct African-American students in standard English.
Linguists and educators have been embroiled in heavy discussions over the value of black English. For years, it was dismissed by African-Americans and whites alike as a "lazy tongue" or lack of proper instruction in standard English.
In the past 15 years, though, many educators have begun recognizing it as a legitimate language, with roots in Africa. Some teachers, in an attempt to help instill self-esteem in black students, have introduced reading materials that use Ebonics, a term created from "ebony" and "phonics."
Recognition of black English around the nation varies. Blondean Davis, deputy chief education officer of the Chicago Public Schools, said it's "a non-issue within educational circles" in the city.
Gwendolyn Cooke, director of urban services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said that for numerous districts Ebonics "is just another tool and a way to reach kids so that they achieve and improve achievement."
"African-American students do bring a language to the classroom that's different," said McClymonds High Principal Willie Hamilton, a member of the task force that recommended the change.
"It's not to have the teachers teach Ebonics. It's to have the teachers understand the language," he said. "It happens with other non-English-speaking or limited-English-proficient students, and we felt the same should be done for African-American students."
Still, apparently no other school district has gone as far as Oakland in recognizing Ebonics as a second language. In doing so, the school board hopes to become eligible for the same federal funding that other bilingual programs receive.
In California, a state known for experimenting with educational approaches, reaction was varied.
Delaine Eastin, the state's superintendent of public education, said she believes teaching students black English will hinder them.
"This will not help the students become doctors or lawyers or help them get into the University of California," Eastin said Thursday. "We have no research to show this is beneficial for students. This will do a disservice to the students."
However, Sid Thompson, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, applauded the Oakland board's decision.
"We are encouraged by what Oakland is doing," Thompson said. "If someone could figure out a way we could (get federal funding to teach Ebonics), boy, we'd be happy with that."
Thompson added that the Los Angeles school district spends $3 million of its own money for an Ebonics program for 25,000 black students.
The American Speech, Language and Hearing Association has classified black English as a legitimate social dialect with unique lexicon, grammar, phonology, syntax and semantics.
Linguists have traced Ebonics to African languages spoken by slaves. It has distinct patterns, including double or triple negatives and unique verb uses--"He don't know nothing about that."
Oakland school board members have yet to devise a plan on how they will use Ebonics. But they are expected to apply for federal funding for bilingual programs to defray the costs of training teachers, even though federal officials previously have rejected such requests.
Several board members, including Toni Cook, declared that the federal money wasn't the main impetus. She said the motivation for the program was the dismal achievement scores posted by African-American students, 71 percent of whom are enrolled in special education classes.
"Whatever we are using now is not working," Cook said. "Because someone says, `I be,' does not mean someone is intellectually deficient."
The idea, according to supporters, is to help students who don't fully comprehend mainstream English or tune out because they feel the language spoken in their homes and in their community is being ignored.
But opponents criticized the board's policy as patronizing to blacks.
"It is a racist affront against people who have struggled for decades to be a part of the American fiber," said Steven Gooden, 30, who is black and served as honorary youth chairperson at the Republican National Convention in San Diego. "This cuts to the heart of the issue, I think defining us as genetically deprived."
Tribune news services contributed to this article