The Oakland, Calif., school district has become the first in the nation to recognize "black English" as a language, not slang or a dialect, and is seeking bilingual education aid for the African American students who speak it.
Oakland's school board voted unanimously Wednesday to adopt the landmark new policy. It calls on the city's schools to create a system-wide approach for helping African American students better adjust to using standard English in culturally sensitive ways -- and not, for example, by being told by teachers that their language habits are wrong or ignorant.
Board members described the policy as an attempt to improve the chronically poor grades of many black students in Oakland's public schools by acknowledging that their language habits are rooted in a distinct culture and that they may need special help to learn standard English. Public schools nationwide routinely do that for immigrant students who do not speak standard English; Oakland now wants federal and state aid to provide bilingual assistance for some black students.
"All we're trying to do is accept that many of our African American students speak differently, and that it is clearly hurting them academically," said Jean Quan, an Oakland school board member. "We're not culturally respectful of that at times when we try to teach standard English. Teachers put students down for speaking that way, and it makes them more hostile to school. That's what we want to change."
Federal education officials said yesterday that it is unlikely Oakland could receive federal bilingual education funds through the new policy. Under current law, bilingual funds can be distributed only for students who a speak a language besides English -- and black English, or what some linguists call "Ebonics," is not listed as such.
"It is considered dialect," said Rick Miller, a spokesman for the Department of Education, "so I don't think we would be allowed to do it."
A slight majority of Oakland's 52,000 public school students are black. Oakland School Superintendent Carolyn Getridge, who backed the board's new policy, said that many of them are performing poorly "across the board."
In recent years, about 100 Oakland teachers have taken part in a trial project using classroom exercises that focus on helping African American students make the transition from black English to standard English. School officials said that the language scores of those students have improved significantly, which is why they want to extend that work across the district.
Some linguists say that the language they describe as Ebonics has distinct grammar and syntax patterns -- such as differences in forms of the verb "to be" -- that can be traced back centuries to Africa.
As part of the new policy, the school board wants Oakland's teachers to accord respect to that linguistic tradition, even as they promote standard English, and to develop programs that reach out to African American parents who also speak black English. Board members said those steps are necessary to help more African American students succeed in college and the workplace.
Some educators are sharply critical. "The idea of treating little black kids as bilingual is an abomination, and I say that as a black linguist," John McWhorter, a University of California-Berkeley professor, told the Oakland Tribune. "This is political correctness gone awry."
But others said it seems like a reasonable step. "This is not an attempt to give new legitimacy to what we know as black English," said Quinton Lawson, a spokesman for the National Alliance of Black School Educators. "It is an attempt to accept students where they are, and move them forward."