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Oakland schools adopt 'Black English' policy

teacher December 19, 1996
Web posted at: 11:15 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Don Knapp

OAKLAND, California (CNN) -- The school board for the Oakland school system Wednesday night voted unanimously to recognize Black English, or "Ebonics," as a second language, and the primary language of its African-American students.

It's expected that the school district will now seek state and federal funds for bilingual education.

The move means that teachers will be trained to recognize when students are using Black English, and will translate it into standard English, like they do with Hispanic students or others for whom English is a second language.


"If that is the only way to receive funds to get the necessary tools for our children to learn standard English," parent Dale Spencer said, she is in favor of the vote. "My key concern is I want my child to learn standard English and whatever it takes to do that, we have to, I guess, play the game with them."

Dr. Gwen DeBow is a teacher at Webster Academy School, a public Oakland elementary school. She is one of more than 100 Oakland teachers already developing and using a Black English curriculum.

"I'm talking about, it's a very, very different way of looking at how we instruct these children of color," she said. "It's coupled with character-building, self-esteem, getting strong enough to try."

African-American students have on average the lowest grades of all groups in Oakland's schools, and although black students make up only 53 percent of the 52,000-student district, they are 71 percent of those enrolled in special education courses.

Parents and educators agree something has to be done, but not everybody agrees that the answer is to officially recognize Black English.

Supporters say the idea is to catch those students who don't fully comprehend mainstream English or tune out because they feel the language of their community is being ignored.


Oakland high school student Michael Lampkins is for the move. He illustrated the difference in speech: "In English I'd say, 'I have to go,' 'I want to go home.' In Ebonics, 'I got to jet, I go to the heezee.' It's a shortened way to speak," he said. He thinks of himself as bilingual.

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John McWhorter, a linguist from the University of California- Berkeley, is of a different mind. The African-American says he has no vested interest in rejecting the idea, but "facts are facts, and black children, my cousins, are not bilingual. They are bi-dialectal, and that does not merit funding as bilingual people. It'd be an insult," he said.


Ebony Smith, an Oakland student, tended to agree. "Really, with a new language that is like a form of slang ... is really not going to be accepted in this society, ever," she said.

In the past, the federal government has rejected the argument that Black English is a separate language. In fact, since 1981, the U.S. Department of Education has held a clear policy that "so-called Black English is a form of English and not a separate and distinct language, and therefore not eligible for funding."

The Oakland school district hasn't said exactly how it will implement a Black English-as-a-second-language program -- whether it will mean separate classes, new teachers and new books. For now, Oakland educators will only say, it's a start.


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