A Montgomery County program designed to help black students speak standardized English has sparked complaints from some parents who say the program unfairly singles out and insults black children.
Parents of some students at Burnt Mills Elementary School in Silver Spring said yesterday they object to a letter inviting all black fifth-graders to participate in a voluntary after-school program to learn when to use standard English and when to use so-called black English.
In a letter sent last week to parents, Burnt Mills Principal William Snyder wrote that "many black students come to school speaking a language that is an important part of their rich Afro-American culture, commonly referred to as 'Black English.'
"However, the school and work setting use a language that is more formal," Snyder added in his letter.
One mother, whose daughter was invited to participate in the program, criticized the idea of such sessions as "very patronizing" and "very racist." The woman said improper English, poor grammar and slang were not unique to black children, but said that she liked some aspects of the program when she visited the first session earlier this week.
School officials, however, defended the program as one aimed at helping students to learn the communication skills they will need in life.
Wanda Carroll, a speech pathologist at Burnt Mills, said the program teaches students to be "bi-dialectical" by showing them when it is proper to use so-called black slang and when it is proper to use standard English.
Carroll, who is black, said she herself is "bi-dialectical," using standard English, for example, in the workplace but switching to dialect when she visits relatives in Charleston, S.C.
"Black dialect is an extension of the Afro-American experience," Carroll said, adding that the aim of the program was not to present one language as superior to another but to show, through drama, music and art, that each has its proper place.
Snyder said the program previously survived an exhaustive evaluation process, but said he was sorry some parents were offended by the way he publicized the program. He said because the program is geared toward black students, he wanted all black students to know about it and to let their parents make the decision about signing up.
"The fact of the matter is that this is a good program that helps students, and the last thing we wanted to do was to cause negative feelings," he said.
However, County Council President Isiah Leggett (D-At Large) said the mission of schools should be to "teach students how to speak good English -- period."
"Many blacks are offended by bad English and I object to this notion that it is part of our cultural enrichment," said Leggett, who is black. "I think the message we should be sending out is that there is no place for bad English by anyone."
Leggett said he has asked the council's Education Committee to look into the program and the way it was offered at Burnt Mills.
Brian Porter, a spokesman for the county school system, said the Burnt Mills program is in its second year. Similar programs were offered at three different schools last year, and officials said the response from parents and students was positive, Porter said.