School Board Grapples With Black-Language Issue

Times Staff Writer

No one at Tuesday’s school board meeting argued with the fact that too many black students in San Diego city schools speak and read standard English poorly.

But an uncertain Board of Education danced around the controversial issue of whether such students should be helped by creating separate classes to teach them standard English.

District administrators admitted that not enough is being done for black students who come to school speaking a nonstandard English learned at home, known as Ebonics, which most researchers now recognize as a separate oral language with its own rules of grammar and structure.


Efforts Have Lagged Recently

But rather than special language training, which might involve pulling black students out of regular classes for 30 minutes to an hour each day, the administrators suggested a renewal of efforts to make teachers more aware of the language gap. Those efforts, while first begun in 1979, have lagged significantly among district priorities in recent years.

Language-arts administrator Jesse Perry argued that special pullout programs--under way in Los Angeles, Richmond, Fresno and several other districts in the state and nationally--go against San Diego’s integration philosophy and rely too heavily on work sheets that emphasize grammatical exercises.

Trustee Shirley Weber found Perry’s report inadequate, saying teachers need specific strategies for moving black children from Ebonics to standard English, not simply more workshops in sensitivity training where teachers are taught not to criticize blacks for having a different oral language background.

Weber, a San Diego State University professor who has researched the Ebonics issue, said that if structured second-language type programs such as those in Los Angeles work to bridge the gap between home language and standard English, they should be pursued. Black achievement, when taken as a group, falls far below that of Asians, Caucasians and Latinos when measured on standardized tests, and Weber cites the disparity week after week in calling for action.

“What is more important, the integration thing or getting kids to the point where after the first or second grade they do not have difficulty” making the switch between Ebonics and standard English? Weber asked.

“We take LEP (limited English-proficient) kids out of class every day for special instruction. I don’t want blacks to be the sacrificial lambs for integration.”

During the hourlong discussion, other board members appeared to accept Weber’s view that Perry’s proposals are not enough as they heard more of what constitutes “black English” and why it differs from regional dialects and other language variants that do not have separate syntax and grammar from standard English.

But they hesitated in endorsing efforts that would involve black students being taught as a distinct group. Trustees Jim Roache and Ann Armstrong were both bothered by pullout programs because, in Roache’s words, “Someone would come down here and say we have separate but equal.”

Most educators today accept the existence of Ebonics as a legitimate oral language, which has its roots in a common West African pidgin that slaves developed to overcome differences in their tribal languages and to communicate with one another and their English-speaking slave masters.

It is the predominant language among many urban blacks today and is used at least some of the time by an estimated 80% of blacks--not in business or professional settings but informally at home and among friends.

Examples of black English phrasing include, “The boy, he be goin’ to school.” “She cain’t play till she do her homework.” “I ate my toas’, den I run to school.”

Most black students have a knowledge of a combination of black language and standard English structures to varying degrees, and some are able to make the transition to standard English for oral and written communication much easier than others, according to Ebonics authorities such as Orlando Taylor of Howard University in Washington.

Fewer Bridges Today

But Weber said that though some black students in San Diego city schools can make that transition, too many do not and end up as high school students who cannot functionally write or read standard English.

When Roache asked Weber how she managed her own transition as a student, Weber attributed her success to a combination of luck and the fact that she had black teachers throughout her schooling “who knew how to help me make the bridge . . . but that isn’t true today” for black students.

And, Weber added to a question from colleague Kay Davis, she still uses Ebonics in certain social situations, such as at times while talking with her children.

“You get to the point where you switch unconsciously, almost like coding, without having to think about it. . . . The ability (to make the transition) is tied to exposure, but often that is connected with” socioeconomic status, she said.

Weber emphasized to board President Susan Davis that she is not suggesting that Ebonics be taught similar to the way Spanish- or Vietnamese-speaking students receive social studies or math in their native language while they learn English.

“You couldn’t teach (Ebonics) in a classroom even if you tried; it’s not a written language, it’s not something you would want to learn,” Weber said.

Roache told Perry he wants to see some “objective assessment of the needs in the district. How many students may be out there? If there, we do have an obligation, so what are we going to do to address curriculum needs? And is there a curriculum out there we can use to do that?”