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Oakland school board amends Ebonics policy

board January 16, 1997
Web posted at: 10:30 a.m. EST

OAKLAND, California (CNN) -- After a nationwide storm of criticism, the Oakland school board has approved a revised version of its policy on black English, or Ebonics.

Following three hours of heated debate, the school officials voted unanimously Wednesday night to alter parts of a plan that recognized Ebonics, or African-American diction, as a distinct language.

Text of amended resolution

The new resolution removes references to Ebonics as "genetically based" and as the "primary language" of many African-American students.

Another part of the resolution also was deleted which many understood to indicate that African-American students would be taught in Ebonics. The board had denied such intentions.

The revised resolution makes it clear that students will be taught standard English, not Ebonics. However, board members say they are not backing down from their intention to train teachers to recognize Ebonics.

Ebonics, derived from "ebony" and "phonics," describes speech patterns used by some African-Americans. Opinions differ as to whether it is a language, a dialect or slang.

The new resolution said studies had shown that African Language Systems had origins in West African and Niger-Congo languages and were "not merely dialects of English." The board recognized the existence of black English and said "these are language patterns that many African-American students bring to school."

'Laughingstock of the nation'

Board president Jean Quan said implementing the policy would be "the real hard work."

During the public comment period, some speakers criticized the board for changing the resolution while others opposed it in any form. Quan repeatedly appealed to the noisy crowd to allow people to speak and once threatened to cut short the meeting.

Robert Moody, a member of a group called Africans United for Self Help, opposed changing the original resolution, saying: "We need to stand on our own two feet ... I defy anyone of another race to tell us how to speak."

Deborah Wright attacked the board's efforts. "Your policy that attempts to legitimize poor grammar and identify it with black America will set us back 100 years," she said.

Another speaker, Bertha Westbrooks, said, "We're the laughingstock of the nation."

But Ann Johnson, assistant principal of Franklin elementary school in Oakland, supported the amended resolution, saying Ebonics was an effective classroom tool.


Board says criticism unwarranted

The original resolution was adopted on December 18. It immediately stirred national debate and drew sharp criticism from some black leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Jackson later met with board officials and said he agreed with some of their goals.

The Clinton administration had criticized Oakland's proposal, saying it would refuse to grant special funding.

However, the district had insisted it would not teach Ebonics in place of standard English, and would not try to classify Ebonics-speaking students as bilingual in order to obtain federal funds.

Oakland school officials said all along the controversial policy was misunderstood. By recognizing Ebonics, the district said it hoped to improve the way black students were taught to read and write standard English.

The Oakland school district is the only one in California where black students are in the majority.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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