This column ran last year and received the New America Media Award for print journalism. However, although affirming Black students’ home language is critical for developing their full potential, neither Black educators, other Black leadership nor LAUSD responded. The purpose of repeating the column is to help push LAUSD and other local school districts to affirm and include the legitimacy of Black students’ home language in related policy and programs.
The failure of public schools to properly educate Black students is indisputable yet they remain at the bottom of virtually every measure of effective schooling. Sadly, Black parents and community are also silent on this critical issue.
Adding to the miseducation of Black students is the chasm between middle-class and poorer Blacks. The former have effectively abandoned the struggle for equity in public education. Middle class parents, like most others, seek alternatives in private and charter schools. However, their children’s exodus further weakens traditional public schools by leaving the push for educational excellence to those least sophisticated and able to challenge the education establishment. The caveat is middle-class participation is indispensable for holding the education establishment accountable; without the participation of all segments of the community, the downward spiral of Black students is likely to continue unabated.
Public schools have primary responsibility for educating students but it is parents, community and Black leadership’s responsibility to hold school districts accountable for providing an equitable, quality education for their children. Collectively, we must insist that education reform consists of policies and practices that address the specific needs of Black students.
Blacks are extremely resilient but paradoxically, have internalized the white majority’s values without full access to its benefits. For too many Blacks, challenging the education institution is tantamount to challenging themselves. This dilemma is at the heart of Blacks’ continuing reticence to hold school district’s accountable.
Individual attainment, financial or otherwise, is laudable. But Blacks tend not to distinguish between personal and group orientation; the former may work for individuals and at the same time, serve as a barrier to group progress. Unfortunately, Black leaders also often reinforce rather than challenge barriers to Black progress. But the unity, crucial for forward progress necessitates minimally, establishing common ground, i.e., explicit agreement on goals, objectives and if at all possible, values first.
As the foundation of culture and heritage, language acquisition is vitally important in reversing the miseducation of Black students. Culture validates and affirms non-standard English and is central to resolving the debate over non-standard English language, aptly termed “unacceptable language” by Dr. Sharoky Hollie, author of “Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning.”
Standard English learners (or SELs) are pupils of limited Standard English proficiency whose primary language, though classified as English, is comprised of phonological, grammatical and pragmatic linguistic features that do not match the standard English structure. Standard English learners, students for whom standard English is not native, come from home environments where the absence of standard English and/or academic English-speaking models during the primary language acquisition period significantly impacts their acquisition of standard American and academic English even prior to school enrollment.
The 1996 the Oakland, California Board of Education’s widely mislabeled “Ebonics Resolution” highlighted the issue of SELs as well as a potential solution to the institutional neglect of the “unacceptable language” of Black students and the massive distortion of the issue by both whites and Blacks.
An excerpt from the Oakland School Board resolution: “…..The superintendent shall immediately devise and implement the best possible academic program for imparting instruction to African American students in their primary language for the combined purposes of maintaining the legitimacy and richness of such language, whether it is known as “Ebonics,” “African language systems,” or other description and to facilitate their acquisition and mastery of English language skills.”
Within days, the resolution seemed to garner the attention of the entire nation, some arguing that focusing on Black students fueled racial tensions rather than promote the potential technical and educational merits of the resolution itself. Much of the public debate centered on the absurd claim that the Oakland School District intended to “teach Ebonics.” The “Ebonics” debate should also be understood as a discussion about the legitimacy of Black cultural expression.
Common understanding and agreement about the validity of Black students’ unacceptable language, particularly among Black educators and linguists are necessary to move boards of education to adopt policy and practices affirming that validity. Black students are often ostracized and continue to be denied adequate attention and resources simply because of the way they speak. Only sustainable collaboration and mobilization will generate pressure sufficient to cause school boards to adopt policy designed to accept Black children’s language as well as their life experiences.
Encouraging news: This semester, 60 LAUSD schools (k-12) have a grant for closing the achievement gap for African American students. This is very significant since none of the District’s previous programs targeting Black children have lasted, perhaps this one will. (The African American Education Task Force recommendations are a prominent part of the grant.)
Parents, together with Black leadership and the broader Black community, should insist that LAUSD affirms the legitimacy of Black students’ home language by adopting enabling policy and allocating the necessary funds and resources to effectively address these students needs. They deserve no less.