OAKLAND, Calif. — The seven-member Oakland School Board voted unanimously on January 15 to support an amended version of the controversial Ebonics resolution that it originally passed on December 18, 1996. With the amendment process complete, the board and others in the school district hope to be removed from the national media spotlight.
The newly-amended resolution upholds the district’s intent to implement an academic program aimed at helping African American students acquire and master standard English language skills. It also continues to recognize Ebonics — also referred to in the resolution as African Language Systems and Pan African Communication Behaviors — as not “merely” dialects of English.
Excised from the resolution are: statements referring to African Language Systems being “genetically based;” statements implying that Ebonics is the “primary language” of all African American students; and wording that led readers of the initial resolution to conclude that students would be taught in Ebonics.
The amended resolution retains the original draft’s adoption of the report, recommendations, and policy statement submitted by the District’s African American Task Force.
Oakland remained enough in the spotlight to be the focus of a Senate subcommittee hearing late last month on the topic of Ebonics. The hearing was part of an exploration into a congressional proposal to cut federal aid to those school systems that have programs in Ebonics.
Education Secretary Richard Riley has ruled out using federal bilingual education money to help the Oakland Unified School District. But the district gets about $14 million in other funds, some used to train teachers to educate children with other native tongues.
Oakland officials told the Senate subcommittee that if pupils comfortable only in Spanish or Cambodian get specially trained teachers, Black children who speak Ebonics should, too.
“Parents sit and they see one group of children’s teachers get special training and special help and materials and another group of children, who also don’t speak standard English, don’t get special training for their teachers or special help,” said Jean Quan, Oakland school district president.
At the hearing, chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Carolyn Getridge, superintendent of the Oakland school system, said the school board should be commended for a “bold response to a chronic and growing gap between those who are successful in our public schools and those who are not.”
She told the committee, which oversees education spending, that more than half the 52,200 pupils in the Oakland district, California’s sixth largest, are Black and have a mean grade-point average of 1.8. That compares with a district-wide average of 2.1 and above 3.0 for whites and students of Asian descent.
Toni Cook, a school board member since 1990, said Black pupils also constitute a majority of suspended students, those who repeat grades, and truants. Almost a fifth of those who reach the twelfth grade do not graduate, she said.
The issue isn’t whether you agree or disagree with Ebonics, she said. “The issue is what is happening in the Oakland School District.”
Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C) said during the hearing that Ebonics is “absurd” and Oakland’s actions were “political correctness gone out of control.”
“It’s teaching down to people,” Faircloth said. “That’s the last thing we need to be doing.”
The Missouri professor who coined the term “Ebonies” to define Black English told the Senate committee that Ebonics is a valuable tool for teachers to prevent minority students from falling behind.
“It’s not that we’re against standard English, it’s how do you teach it? There are many ways of teaching it,” Dr. Robert L. Williams, professor emeritus of psychology and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, said.
Armstrong Williams, a conservative columnist and a former aide to Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) testified in the hearing that he believed Ebonics should play no role in the education of children. He said that that he learned French from a teacher who spoke only French in the classroom and never translated into English. That form of modeling is what teachers should do for standard English, he said.
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