Saying it has failed to adequately educate African American youngsters, the Oakland Unified School District has declared black English a second language, making it the first district in the nation to give the controversial dialect official status in programs targeting bilingual students.
The move to recognize the black vernacular--called "Ebonics" by some educators who consider it a distinct language spoken by the descendants of slaves--was approved unanimously Wednesday night by the Oakland school board.
The vote was called historic by some educators and policymakers, who said it opened the possibility that Oakland could vie for federal funding available to help students who speak languages other than English. But others sounded strong notes of caution, suggesting that the decision stood on weak ground educationally and could lead to a political backlash.
"We are not aware of any research which indicates that this kind of program will help address the language and achievement problems of African American students," state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin said Thursday. "If it does not--or worse, if it becomes a way of lowering standards for those students--then it is a bad idea."
Language experts predicted that Oakland's decision will be closely watched by other school systems nationwide, particularly large urban districts that long have struggled to improve the academic performance of minority students.
Some officials in the Los Angeles Unified School District applauded the Northern California district and said Thursday that they would consider a similar move. Since 1990, Los Angeles has offered a special program for blacks who speak nonstandard English.
Although the origins and history of "black speech" are disputed, linguists generally agree that there are about 50 characteristics that differentiate it from standard English. One of the most common is the wide use of "be" to denote an ongoing action, as in "He be going to work."
Such usage makes many people cringe and may prevent users from entering mainstream society--or getting jobs.
But supporters of the dialect say that to disparage it is to disparage a culture. And they view Oakland's move as a strategy to unstigmatize young users of such language while teaching them standard English.
"[Ebonics] is a legitimate language," said Barbara Boudreaux, the Los Angeles school board's only African American member, who vowed to propose that the nation's second-largest school system join Oakland in declaring it a distinct language.
But district Supt. Sid Thompson and others in Los Angeles said that Oakland's timing may be off, coming after voter passage of Proposition 209 and amid an ongoing debate about the value and cost of bilingual education.
"I think the English-only folks will now come and say, 'Just teach them in English,' " Thompson said. "It's too bad, but 209 and other things will enter into it."
In Oakland, officials said the decision to embrace black English was motivated by grim statistics on students' achievement.
Although African American students make up a slight majority of the 50,000-student district, they are overrepresented in programs for students identified as academically deficient. For example, 71% of the district's 28,000 black students are in special education classes and 64% are kept back a grade because of poor achievement. They represent only 37% of the students in programs for the gifted.
In giving black English official recognition, the Oakland board was acknowledging "that what we have been doing is not working," said school board President Lucella Harrison. "Someone said, why not just put these kids in remedial classes? My answer is, we had remedial classes in the '60s and '70s and they did not work. We must do something different."
The resolution adopted Wednesday calls for recognition of "the existence and the cultural and historic bases of West and Niger-Congo African language systems." It orders district officials to immediately devise and implement a program to teach African American students in "their primary language," black English, for the dual purposes of maintaining the legitimacy of the language and helping them learn standard English.
Teachers and aides would be certified in special teaching methods, and the teachers would be offered incentives to complete the training, including salary bonuses.
District officials are expected to present a plan for training and other aspects of the program by the spring.
Harrison said she knew of no plan for Oakland schools to apply for federal money earmarked for bilingual education. But she said it is likely that some black parents will press for it because they see the issue as one of equity as well as of culture and language legitimacy.
"Oakland is a very diverse community. When students come to school with whatever language--whether Filipinos or Chinese or Hispanic--funds are available to support them so they learn standard English. The African American community says, 'Why then aren't our students given that money and support if they are limited in English?' "
The U.S. Department of Education has neither granted nor received requests to give black English programs bilingual education funds, which are authorized by Congress under Title VII, spokesman Rick Miller said Thursday.
If Oakland or any other district made such a request, it would be considered, Miller said. But department policy has been not to recognize black English as a separate and distinct language, he said.
Norm Gold, who oversees bilingual education programs in the state for legal compliance, said no state or federal bilingual education money could be spent on the training programs or services that Oakland has decided students there need.
The district could, however, use federal funds already set aside for poor students or those struggling academically. And Gold said teachers should recognize that not all students speak standard English at home.
"You don't want to try to obliterate a variant of the language that is perfectly useful," Gold said. But "all of these kids need, of course, to master standard English."
The battle over black English has flared on and off for decades.
Some proponents favor the label Ebonics--a combination of "ebony" and "phonics"--to denote a distinct language spoken by the majority of descendants of African American slaves, said John Baugh, a professor of education and linguistics at Stanford University.
Its standing as a distinct language was first tested in a 1979 federal court case brought by black parents who complained that the Ann Arbor, Mich., school district had denied a group of black children equal educational opportunity because of teachers' failure to recognize or accommodate the dialect. School officials were ordered to hold training sessions to sensitize teachers to the use of black English and to devise methods to teach youngsters who spoke it.
Six years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District established its Language Development Program for African American Students, which largely focuses on teacher training. Used at 31 inner-city schools, it costs the district $3 million a year, drawn from its general fund. Last year, Los Angeles recognized the special needs of students who speak other nonstandard dialects, including "Spanglish"--a mixture of Spanish and English--and Hawaiian pidgin.
Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris, who is African American, said Thursday that he rejects the idea that Ebonics is a separate language, seeing it instead as a form of slang that is not widely spoken.
Harris said he has received calls from business leaders who are concerned that Oakland's image will be harmed by the school board's decision. He tried to reassure them that the furor would go away and that the community would continue to set high academic standards, he said.
"Our commitment is to excellence in education . . . both in terms of language and mathematics, and we will not tolerate or support any form of substandard English," the mayor said.
The Oakland Education Assn., which represents the city's 3,500 teachers, counselors and other certificated employees, supports the district's recognition of black dialect. But it was far from certain Thursday that a majority of teachers would welcome the prospect of undergoing special training to instruct youngsters who speak it.
Priscilla McClendon, who teaches a combined fifth- and sixth-grade class at Oakland's Lakeview Elementary School, where 70% of the students are African American, said she thought that the board's recognition of Ebonics was a good move, but that teachers would feel burdened by requirements of additional training, especially if asked to attend night or weekend classes. "I have an 11-year-old, and with all the after-school meetings we already have, sometimes I'm not getting home until 5:30 or 6 anyway," the veteran teacher said.
San Francisco's Cesar Chavez Elementary School for two years has had a pilot program using bilingual instruction in black and standard English in three kindergarten-through-third grade classrooms.
Principal Pilar Mejia said the program is popular with parents and students. "First of all, it affirms that a child's culture and language need to be accepted in the school," she said.
Teachers and children speak Ebonics frequently in class, and read books and other materials written in black English. But teachers emphasize differentiating between black English and mainstream English.
"They may read a story written in black English or Ebonics and then the teacher will say, 'What is another way to say that,' or, 'If we were to say it in mainstream English, how would we say that?' "
Mejia said she has no statistical evidence that the program is accomplishing the goal of bringing African Americans into the mainstream. Supporters of black English programs cite research on other language groups, such as those whose primary tongue is Spanish or Chinese, to bolster their arguments that using the primary language to help learn English is an effective practice.
Curtius reported from Oakland and Woo from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Richard Lee Colvin, Amy Pyle and Lucille Renwick contributed to this story.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Black English, or "Ebonics"
The Oakland school board has declared black English a second language. Backers of the move say the district is the first in the nation to recognize "Ebonics" as the language of many blacks. Here are some descriptions of characteristics of the language, and samples of phrases in standard English and black English.
SAMPLES OF PRONUNCIATION CHARACTERISTICS
* Black English, or Ebonics, simplifies consonants at the ends of words. Thus, "hand" becomes "han."
* The final "ng" sound drops the "g"--so "walking" becomes "walkin."
* The final "d" is dropped after vowels--so "good" becomes "goo."
SAMPLES OF GRAMMAR CHARACTERISTICS
* Shortening of the third person present tense, as in "He walk."
* Use of "done" to emphasize an action has been completed: "He done did it."
* Use of stressed "been," as in "She been married" for "She has been married for a long time (and still is.)"
SAMPLE USAGE COMPARISONS
Standard English Phrase: Black English Phrase
"He goes to work.": "He be goin' to work."
"She will be first in line.": "She-uh be firs in line."
"You're crazy.": "You crazy."
"Six million dollars.": "Six million dollar."
"My mama's name is Mary.": "My mama name Mary."
"There are two of my friends who have just come.": "It's two of my friend, they just come."
Sources: The American Speech, Language and Hearing Assn.; Associated Press; Los Angeles Times research.