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Playing Hooky on Ebonics

Despite experience with second language programs and obvious need, area schools go mum on the issue

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

While Ebonics played out as the latest hot topic on the talk show and Usenet circuit, few African-American or educational leaders in Santa Clara County public schools were making much noise about the issue--not publicly, at least.

It's not that there's no need for an effort to bring up African-American test scores and grade point averages in the Valley. Peter Margolis paints a dismal picture of the condition of African-American students in at least some of the Santa Clara County public schools. Margolis runs the Shasta Mountain education consultants of San Jose, which is currently doing work for the African-American Parents Coalition of Santa Clara County and recently did research for the East Side (San Jose) Teachers Association and the California Teachers Association.

According to figures Margolis has pulled from the Final Period 1995-96 Mark Distribution Summary, roughly 50 percent of the grades received by African-American students in college prep classes in the East Side Union District schools were D's or F's. The grades at Silver Creek High were even more shocking. Some 70 percent of the African-American students taking first year English at Silver Creek received D's or F's. Almost 80 percent of the African-American students taking algebra I received D's or F's. The significance of a D or F grade in a college prep course is that it knocks the student out of consideration for university acceptance.

Officially, public school officials were remaining neutral on whether the issue of Ebonics could reverse or even address the problem of bottomed-out African-American student grades. Maureen Munroe, Public Information Officer of the San Jose Unified School District, said that her office had no statement on Ebonics because "it's never come up in our district."

As everywhere else, San Jose area African-American leaders are divided on the idea.

Santa Clara County Alliance of Black Educators President Debra Watkins is a teacher at Pegasus High School in San Jose, where she specializes in providing special education classes for many of the same type of youth targeted by the Oakland plan. Although the Black educators alliance has not yet had the chance to discuss the issue, Watkins said that personally she was "vehemently opposed" to the Ebonics plan, calling it "an instrument of oppression." "I don't think that Ebonics is 'bad English,' " she explained. "I just don't think we ought to give credence to it as a valid language. It's not useful in preparing students for the real world."

And even those San Jose African-American leaders who support the Ebonics proposal do not appear to be organizing any efforts to bring the struggle into the Santa Clara Valley. Not yet, anyway.

San Jose NAACP past-president Tony Alexander said that from what he understood of the Oakland proposal, it was an "excellent idea--I applaud it. It's something that [the] San Jose Unified School [District] needs to look at because our black students aren't doing so well here, either." He said that conceptually, the Ebonics proposal was not much different from the second language programs in the Alum Rock School District, which has a student population approximately 65 percent Latino and 25 percent Asian, and where Alexander is in his second year as a school board member. "I guess when we first started some of our 'cutting-edge' second language programs, a lot of it seemed as radical as the Ebonics proposal, but now a lot of districts are copying what we started doing," he said. But Alexander said he had no plans to introduce an Ebonics proposal to the Alum Rock school board ("We've got a different challenge over here; we've got to figure out a way to bring all of our test scores up," he explained). And the San Jose NAACP has not yet met to formally discuss the matter.

James McGhee, president of the African-American Parents Coalition, said that "to the extent that the Ebonics issue brings focus to the issues which hamper African-American students in the classroom, I'm in favor of it. But Ebonics is only one of the issues. In Santa Clara County, the issue is that African-American children are doing miserably in all subjects. They're failing, and not enough attention is being given to that fact."

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From the February 27-March 5, 1997 issue of Metro

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