December 21, 1996

Thaai Walker, Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writers

Tatum Willoughby, a fifth-grade student at Prescott Elementary on Campbell Street in West Oakland, used to cry because she had trouble ``speaking the right language,'' as she calls it.

The bright African American child tried hard to translate the phrases and words she uses at home -- black English -- into the standard English her teacher said would help her excel.

But after months of being taught through a program that recognizes that African American children may come into the classroom using ebonics -- a word for black English that combines ``ebony'' and ``phonics'' -- Tatum reads her essays with pride. Occasionally, the 10-year-old slips into black English, such as saying ``dis'' for ``this.'' But she quickly corrects herself.

``Most people won't understand you if you speak (black English),'' Tatum said, her round face serious as she explained how the program has helped her. ``This teaches us how to learn the right language so that if you meet a group that speaks (standard English) you will know how to talk to them.''

The subject of ebonics was swept onto the national stage this week when the Oakland school board unanimously approved a districtwide policy to recognize black English as a full-fledged language. District officials say ebonics will not be taught, but teachers will be instructed to respect the language and help children learn how to translate it into standard English.

Oakland became the first school district in the nation to take such an approach, though others have smaller, similar programs.

Education officials in some districts, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, say they are intrigued with what Oakland did and might do the same -- primarily to seek federal bilingual education funds.

Yet it remains unclear whether bilingual education money might be available for ebonics programs. And ebonics itself is highly controversial among blacks and nonblacks alike.

Some scholars call it slang, criticizing Oakland for legitimizing error-ridden speech. Many parents, teachers and even students fear that schools will instruct students in how to speak black English, making it harder to convey the rules of standard English and, ultimately, to employ graduates of such programs.

Oakland school officials say those fears are based on widespread misinterpretation of their policy.

Annie Layton-Dixon, principal of two Oakland schools, has other concerns.

``If people truly believe this (concept) and it's educationally sound, it can be made to work. But I worry that it might be divisive -- another way to separate the groups,'' she said.

Yesterday, San Francisco school board member Dan Kelly said he hopes his district will follow Oakland's lead.

``I'm just one person in seven on the board, but I would support a move to have the federal government recognize ebonics as a separate language for purposes of funding bilingual education,'' Kelly said.

``I grew up in Brooklyn, and everyone said `dees' for `these,' `goil' for `girl' and `erl' for `oil.' My friends and I didn't have correct grammar either. But my family spoke standard English, so I was deemed by the teachers to be the smartest kid in class. My friends felt put down and stupid.

``When you're teaching a child standard English, you need to do it without putting down their language. That's the value of understanding ebonics.''

At Prescott Elementary, Tatum's fifth-grade teacher, Carrie Secret, already teaches her class how standard English differs from ebonics. She tells her students that their ``home language'' is ``L1,'' for first language, and that ``L2,'' or second language, is the standard form.

Telling them that black English is different, not wrong, makes them feel better about themselves, she said.

``If a child says, `You was sitting in my chair,' I say to them, `L2 please -- you were sitting in my chair.' ''

Linguist Noma LeMoine, director of the Language Development Program for African American Students in Los Angeles schools, said black English has firm roots in West Africa's Niger-Congo language groups. In them, a consonant is almost always followed by a vowel.

So the sentence, ``I put my test on your desk'' becomes ``I put my tes on yo des,'' LeMoine said. ``In class, we would re-write it, underlining the ``sk'' in desk, the ``st'' in test, and the ``r'' in your. And we'd talk about these differences.''

At Prescott in Oakland, Sarah Stewart, a teacher's aide known as ``Granny,'' said, ``(Black children) are being taught standard English just like the Spanish, Cambodian or Japanese are. I'm very sorry that so many people have misunderstood what this is all about -- and I think their misunderstanding is due to ignorance.''

Dorothy Moore, a West Oakland mother who volunteers at Prescott, said recognizing ebonics is recognizing African American heritage.

``When you go into society, and your mother tongue is devalued, then a child is devalued and a people are devalued,'' Moore said. ``We are told the way we speak is unintelligent, insignificant, wrong. It is another way of erasing us.''

Yesterday, Secret had her students read essays aloud and told them to enunciate.

``Jist for seven days . . .'' one boy began.

Secret interrupted him. ``You said, `jist.' Use it right.''

The boy corrected himself using ``just,'' the standard English translation.

Chastity Harper, 10, said Secret's way of teaching has made her feel good about herself.

``If I talk ebonics, people might misjudge me and call me names because they can't understand me, and because people can be cruel,'' she said. ``No matter what they say, I know I'm smart.''



December 21, 1996.

Elliot Diringer, Lori Olszewski, Chronicle East Bay Bureau

Amid all the furor over the Oakland school board's decision to recognize ebonics as a distinct language, one key point seems to have been lost: The goal is to help black students master standard English.

For the second day running, radio talk shows were abuzz over the board's unanimous vote, and anyone tuning in could easily have come away with the impression that Oakland is giving up on conventional English and diverting black kids into classes taught in slang.

``It's saying in the most racist way that black kids are stupid and they can't learn English so let's not bother with that,'' said Jim Boulet, executive director of the national organization English First. ``These kids deserve a little better than the latest social engineering scheme.''

Oakland school officials, a bit surprised by the ferocity of the nationwide response, were going to great pains yesterday to explain what they have in mind.

``This is about improving English proficiency skills,'' said Superintendent Carolyn Getridge, emphasizing that no classes in ebonics are planned and that all students will be expected to learn the kind of English used in American workplaces.

The resolution adopted Wednesday by the board is largely a symbolic manifesto declaring ebonics, or black English, a distinct language with African roots and agreeing to use it as a tool, district- wide, to improve student performance.

The Oakland School Board was to meet this morning, and Board Member Toni Cook said she expects the board to discuss how to respond to the national uproar. The discussion may include whether to clarify some of the language in the resolution that is causing confusion.

The new policy is part of a broader effort to stop blaming children and start demanding more accountability from teachers and administrators in a district where the average grade among African American students is a D- plus, said Alan Young, the district's director of state and federal programs.

``If people are not willing to accept ebonics as a second language,'' Young said, ``then they should at least accept that African American students are not achieving at the level they need to, and we need to do something about it.''

Just what the district will do remains to be seen.

District leaders said they might at some point seek federal bilingual funds -- which federal officials say would probably be denied -- but for now, the resolution merely instructs administrators to come up with a plan.

One approach now being tried in about two dozen Oakland schools is training teachers to recognize and respect ebonics as the everyday language of many African American students and, instead of declaring them wrong when they use it, helping them translate to standard English.

``We have found these programs to be more effective with our African American students,'' Young said, ``and the idea would be to offer them across the district.''

Even without a plan, though, the very notion of legitimizing ebonics and somehow incorporating it into the curriculum is drawing sharp attacks from many quarters.

In one of about 120 e-mail messages to The Chronicle's feedback line, Margo Koller of Tucson, Ariz., said she is glad she moved from Oakland four years ago. ``We are appalled,'' she wrote. ``They are creating a subculture that will never learn any kind of responsibility to society.''


Criticism came from some prominent blacks as well. ``I think it's tragic,'' said Ward Connerly, the University of California regent who led the successful campaign for Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action initiative that passed last month.

``These are not kids who came from Africa last year or last generation even,'' Connerly said. ``These are kids that have had every opportunity to acclimate themselves to American society, and they have gotten themselves into this trap of speaking this language -- this slang, really -- that people can't understand. Now we're going to legitimize it.''

To many familiar with the long debate over black English, however, the shrill response to the Oakland policy smacks of racism.

``The whole thing has really gotten overblown because people are jumping on the racist bandwagon,'' said Robert Allen, senior editor of the Black Scholar, the nation's largest black scholarly journal. ``They're really misconstruing what the school board is trying to do and letting their minds run wild.''


Among linguists, meanwhile, the question of ebonics' standing is hardly a settled matter.

Ebonics -- more often referred to as black English or African American English -- is widely recognized among experts as a distinct system of speech and syntax, a linguistic legacy of slavery and years of cultural isolation. While some linguists consider it a language, most do not.

``Black English is a dialect -- it is not a separate language,'' said John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics and African American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

``It's black people shooting themselves in the foot,'' McWhorter said of the Oakland policy. ``They're implying that black people are incapable of learning a language which is so close to theirs that it's not a different language.''

John Baugh, a Stanford University professor of education and linguistics who is currently a visiting scholar at Swarthmore College, sees more value in the district's policy.

``Given the large number of African Americans in the Oakland school district, I'm sympathetic to their desire to do something,'' he said, ``even though I might quibble with their linguistic terminology.''



--- By MICHELLE LOCKE= Associated Press Writer= Dec 22, 1996 OAKLAND, Calif. (AP)

This much is settled Black English will be recognized as a second language in Oakland schools. Whether it is considered an insult to the students or a helping hand is the subject of hot debate. Critics said the decision to interpret Black English in class, rather than just calling it ``wrong,'' underestimates black students' learning abilities and could give them the wrong idea about what it takes to succeed. ``This hurts the kids, that's the real tragedy of it,'' said John Fonte, a visiting scholar in education at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. ``The way to learn English is to study English.''

Proponents say the idea is to help students make the transition to standard English by understanding and translating their mother tongue.

``We're not saying (Black English) is wrong, we're saying it's different and not that it has to be abandoned but that something has to be learned,'' said Peter Haberfeld of the Oakland teachers' union, which supports the change. ``It's building on kids' strengths.''

The Oakland School Board voted Wednesday to officially recognize Black English, also known as Ebonics a term combining ``ebony'' and ``phonics.'

How the new policy will be implemented hasn't been worked out, but possibilities include placing Black English-speaking students in classes that will help them learn standard English. It also creates a program to train teachers to understand Black English.

The American Speech, Language and Hearing Association has classified Black English as a social dialect with its own lexicon and syntax.

For instance, if a student says ``He done did it'' for ``He has done it,'' teachers would translate the phrase to standard English, rather than just correcting the student.

English words in Black English lose a ``d'' following a vowel, so ``good'' becomes ``goo,'' and the final ``th'' is sometimes replaced with ``f,'' so ``with'' becomes ``wif.'' Speakers also can use double or even triple negatives, such as ``I'm not going back there no more.''

School board members insist their motivation is improving the performance of black students, who make up 53 percent of the 52,000-student district and 71 percent of those enrolled in special education courses.

The decision has provoked strong reactions from black leaders and others across the country. Poet Maya Angelou called the decision a mistake.

``I'm incensed,'' Angelou told The Wichita Eagle. ``The very idea that African-American language is a language separate and apart is very threatening, because it can encourage young men and women not to learn standard English.'' Black English already has been taught in a number of schools, including Ann Arbor, Mich., where a suit by parents resulted in a court ordering teachers to help Black English-speakers learn standard English without making them give up their mother tongue.

Oakland appears to be the first district to make a system-wide change.

Gary Marx, a spokesman for the National Association of School Administrators, expected debate over the issue to spread.

``School systems across the country will be very interested in seeing how this program plays out the techniques that are used and what works, what doesn't work, what could be done better,'' he said.


Sunday, December 22, 1996 Los Angeles Times



The Oakland school board is rightly worried about the poor performance of black students in the district, but its official designation of black English as a second language is no cure for failures in the classrooms. It is not a separate language at all. Nevertheless, the board's action has ignited a useful national debate over how best to help children who speak nonstandard English master the language of mainstream America.

Whatever the intent in Oakland, the goal there and in other districts must remain proficiency in standard English for all children. Anything less would stigmatize students, limit their ability to compete successfully in college or the workplace and do them a permanent disservice.

Districts with students whose first language is not English are entitled to federal bilingual education funds. Oakland is not likely to prevail in any bid to get these funds to educate speakers of black English. The U.S. Department of Education, in 1981, noted that black English is a dialect and a form of standard English, not a separate language itself. Therefore black English is not eligible for federal bilingual education funds.

This is not the first time that educators have engaged in a debate about black English. In 1979, a federal judge ruled that the dialect was a barrier to equal participation in public education after 11 black pupils were unfairly classified as slow learners and assigned to special education classes in Ann Arbor, Mich., because they failed to speak standard English. That ruling required the Ann Arbor school district to change its policy and prompted other districts to address how to teach children like these.

Among the successful approaches: an emphasis on thinking, listening, speaking, reading and writing in standard English, especially in the primary grades, effective teacher training, greater parental involvement, smaller classes, oral language development programs, tutoring sessions, individualized instruction, mentoring programs and broad racial and economic integration within classrooms. Teacher training remains a key because instructors must help children make the distinction between the two forms of English.

Black English evolved from West African languages and slave traders who used a form of pidgin English to communicate with African slaves who were neither allowed to speak their tribal languages nor to learn English in a classroom. Also known as ebonics, a combination of the words "ebony" and "phonics," it shares a vocabulary with mainstream English but is governed by distinct grammatical usages and has separate syntax patterns, unique idioms and an array of differences in pronunciation. This legacy of slavery persists particularly among African Americans who remain isolated racially and economically in poor black communities. Nonusers often dismiss it as ghetto slang or poor, ungrammatical English and penalize those who speak it.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has 92,000 black students among its 669,000 pupils, Supt. Sid Thompson encourages teachers to respect the abilities of children who do not speak standard English, but his bottom line is that every child must achieve proficiency in mainstream English. The district spends $3 million annually on a special program that targets 31 predominantly black campuses in Central L.A. and trains 2,000 teachers to work with children on standard English. There is a waiting list for other L.A. schools that wish to participate.

The Oakland school board should try to bridge the achievement gap, but its recognition of ebonics as a second language is not the cure for what is wrong in the classroom.


Monday, December 23, 1996 San Francisco Chronicle

Strong Opinions On Ebonics Policy

No middle ground in views of Oakland schools' plan

Aurelio Rojas, Chronicle Staff Writer

Other than reigniting a decades-old controversy over the legitimacy of ``black English,'' there's little agreement about what it is the Oakland school board did last week.

``They're encouraging kids to use improper language,'' Carolyn Paulsen, a San Bruno accountant, said yesterday while Christmas shopping in the bustling downtown San Francisco Shopping Centre.

On Third Street in Bayview- Hunters Point, Marcus Harrison had a different take on the ebonics -- or black English -- controversy that has touched on explosive educational and racial issues.

``They (the school board) said it's all right to talk the way you talk -- that you're not stupid, just different,'' Harrison, an unemployed welder, said while walking by the closed Bayview-Anna E. Walden branch of the San Francisco Public Library.

Although Paulsen is white and Harrison is black, the resolution passed with no opposition by the Oakland school board Wednesday has divided both white and black communities.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson accused the board yesterday of insulting African American students by ``teaching down'' to them.

``I understand the attempt to reach out to these children, but this is an unacceptable surrender, borderlining on disgrace,'' Jackson said on the NBC News program ``Meet the Press,'' where he urged the board to reverse its decision.

But while Jackson maintains the board is intent on ``making slang talk a second language,'' the resolution merely acknowledges that black English is a distinct language spoken by African Americans and that it is not ``wrong'' but should be used to help them learn standard English.

Or at least that's what school officials said they meant. The confusion may have been caused by the wording of the resolution, which orders district officials to devise and implement a program to teach African American students in ``their primary language,'' black English.

By doing so, school officials hope to maintain the legitimacy of the language and to help students who speak black English learn standard English. But even that approach incites controversy.

``If you want to make it in mainstream America, you have to speak English the right way,'' Arnold Klein, a retired engineer who lives in San Rafael, said while shopping near Union Square. ``We can't all speak English the way we want and understand each other.''

Bernard Simpkins, a truck driver who lives in Hunters Point, said the issue shows how little white and black people understand each other.

``It's a black thing, the way black people talk, and white folks don't like people to act different,'' he said while pumping gas at a station on Third Street. ``This is about respecting the way we talk.''

While some critics fear that legitimizing ebonics will further stigmatize inner-city blacks, Simpkins thinks it will give black children greater self-esteem.

``You keep telling kids they're stupid because they don't talk like the queen of England and they start believing it,'' Simpkins said. ``That's why so many kids do poorly in schools.''

The school board plan calls for teachers and aides to be certified in special teaching methods.

District officials are expected to present a plan for training and other aspects of the program by the spring. But right now, recognizing they are embroiled in a public relations fiasco, they are concentrating on clearing up the misconceptions about the resolution.

``From what I heard on the radio and television, I thought they were going to teach black English,'' Sandra Banks, a secretary who is black, said at the San Francisco Shopping Centre. ``I could never support something like that.''

Yolanda Hernandez, a teacher's aide, said there was more to the public furor than the language issue.

``Proposition 187, Proposition 209, and now this,'' Hernandez said while shopping on Market Street. ``It's easy to see a pattern. They don't want immigrants here, and they don't want us to get jobs. But they want us all to talk the same.''

Christopher Leary, a Columbus, Ohio, businessman, said the tempest just reaffirmed what he thought about California.

``You people sure got a lot of racial tension out here,'' Leary said while waiting to board a cable car on Powell Street. ``It's a shame, too. It's such a pretty state.''


Relevant research:

Torrey, Jane W.

Black children's knowledge of Standard English.

American Educational Research Journal, 1983 Winter, v20 (n4):627-643.

Abstract: Two experiments with 27 Black 2nd graders attending school in a lower SES neighborhood demonstrated that measures of command of Standard English vary with the individual, with the grammatical form tested, and with the particular skill required by the test. Measures included recordings ofspontaneous speech, oral reading, reading comprehension, and grammaticalknowledge. Subjects' use of Standard English -s endings in spontaneous speech was a poorer predictor of school language achievements than the use

of those endings in reading and in more explicit grammatical tests like those used in schools, especially those requiring comprehension. It is concluded that teachers should not judge children's language abilities by their schoolyard grammar.

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