Opening Pandora’s Box: an Interview with Oakland school board Member Toni Cook
Nanette Asimov of the San Francisco Chronicle interviews Toni Cook, an Oakland School board member since 1990, who pushed her fellow members of the board to adapt the Ebonics policy. In the interview Toni Cook discusses the events after the Oakland Ebonics resolution, the reasons for passing the policy, and her understanding of Ebonics.
The purpose of this interview is to get an account of the events on the Oakland school board debate from an interior perspective, and it is designed to help others understand the reasoning behind the school board’s decision. Also, the interview gives details from Toni Cook’s understanding of Ebonics specifically what it is and its origins.
The interview begins with questions regarding the decision to pass the Oakland school board policy. Cook mentions several facts to support her position, claiming high African American dropout, truancy, and suspension rates were high, and 71% of African Americans were in the special education program because of “language deficiency”. Cook explains in the interview that the African American children in the school district were failing because of their lack of the Standard English, which is what ultimately lead the Oakland school board decision. In the interview Toni Cook also mentions the lack of education strategy for African American children as reason for changing their approach. When asked if teachers understood the students because they spoke Ebonics, Cook claims that because teachers had gone through the SEP program (Standard English Proficiency), they were able to communicate with the students more effectively. Evidence that supports this is given when Cook mentions teacher Carrie Secret who went through the SEP program and who experienced successful results when teaching children standard English.
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Another aspect of the interview involves a discussion on Ebonics, or Black English as it is called in the interview. Toni Cook believes that it certainly isn’t slang, and that it served a purpose for communication years ago. What’s most interesting about this part of the interview, however, is the social context of Ebonics. When asked whether or not parents and children resist Standard English because of sometimes being referred to as white English, Cook points out that though it is possible on some psychological level, the significant problem is the families living in poor conditions. She believes that families find little use to embrace two sets of a language variety when exposed to those conditions. Speaking Ebonics also relates to class, as Toni suggests. Being born and raised by educators, Standard English came naturally for Cook, which is evidence that class has an effect on Ebonics and language. Another interesting factor discussed is whether genetics plays a role in Ebonics. Cook doesn’t believe it is genetic but ancestral, yet paradoxically millions of African Americans don’t speak Ebonics.
In conclusion, Cook supports her decision for the Oakland resolution on Ebonics by referring to the children’s overall poor performance in school. Because of a high percentage of students being African American and speaking Ebonics, the school board, including Toni Cook, believed it best to include Ebonics as a way to more efficiently communicate with the children. This history of Ebonics is a remarkable one, considering the uniqueness in the language itself, and social issues also play a big role in the use of Ebonics.