Oakland school officials see progress with ebonics

Use as teaching tool continues despite storm of controversy

August 16, 1999|By Jamal E. Watson | Jamal E. Watson,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND, Calif. -- There was intense criticism from around the country and skepticism at home when Oakland school officials decided in 1996 to teach classes using ebonics, a speech pattern that the school board deemed a second language for many black students.

Today, ebonics -- also known as black English -- is still used as a teaching tool in the classroom, and Oakland school officials say that the strategy, meant to help children move from the language they hear on the street to the standard English they'll use in school, works.

"Our purpose has not changed," said Toni Cook, a former Oakland school board member who introduced the resolution to recognize ebonics, which was later altered to remove references to ebonics as "genetically based" and as the "primary language" of black students. "Our goal is to produce readers, writers, thinkers, speakers of standard American English. That's what we believe we are doing, and we are compiling the research data which shows that we're making progress in this area."

Much of the criticism of ebonics, which is traceable to African languages that slaves brought to the United States -- has subsided, and support for the once-embattled school district appears to be growing.

"Having teachers trying to talk a little ghetto to help us understand English better seems to be working," said Spike William Slaughter, who will begin his senior year at Oakland High School in a few weeks.

Last year, his literature teacher periodically switched between standard American English and ebonics while teaching the likes of Shakespeare and Faulkner.

`Trying to relate to us'

"They're trying to relate to us, and you can't knock them for that," he said. "Many of our teachers are white and don't know street language. They're trying to understand where we're coming from."

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a $1 million grant to establish the African American Literacy and Culture research project -- a collaborative effort between the Oakland Unified School District, California State University at Hayward and the University of Pennsylvania. The project, spearheaded by Cook, formerly of Columbia, Md., is aimed at "examining the relationship between African-American language and culture and literacy acquisition and development."

For the past year, a research team of scholars -- including linguist William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania -- has been studying the linguistic learning patterns at four elementary school sites: two in Philadelphia and two in Oakland. Each school is overwhelmingly African-American and has reading and language arts scores below the 50th percentile. The research team has developed a reading program that will analyze a child's reading level by using questions that are culturally sensitive -- for instance, stories would include minority characters.

"This research project is enormous," Cook said. "We [Oakland school officials] were the first to publicly admit that we didn't have the answers on how best to educate African-American students."

Oakland school officials have also developed a task force on the education of African-American students and have aggressively encouraged teachers, many of whom are not black, to enroll in a state-sponsored teacher development program called Standard English Proficiency Program.

Created in 1981 by the California State Board of Education, the program is aimed at helping teachers improve the academic performance of black pupils, primarily in the elementary school stage.

Teachers who participate in the program are taught to recognize such language patterns as using the verb "be" before a conjugated verb, replacing "th" sounds with "f" sounds at the end of words, or dropping "g" in words ending in "ing."

Strategies to address these differences include drills in which students go through a list of black English patterns and give the standard English version. Classes are conducted in standard English, with a bit of ebonics mixed in. School officials say that when teachers have gone through the program, the test scores of their students have generally been above district -- sometimes national -- averages.

Still, there are some who remain critical.

They continue to complain that school officials are elevating a black dialect to the status of an official language, and say instructors are teaching students ebonics -- a term that is a combination of "ebony" and "phonics."

"What they [the school board] adopted is a very bureaucratic resolution, and it's not very clear," said Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown. "I still don't know what they are trying to say."

Brown said Oakland schools need to deal with more serious problems, such as high suspension rates and poor attendance, and shouldn't be spending time on ebonics. "What business is it of the schools to worry about this?" he asked.

But former Oakland Superintendent Carole C. Quan, who resigned this year under pressure from Brown, countered the mayor's criticism.

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