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Black English Case: Language in the Courts

Tue, 04/23/2013 - 9:58am by Debbie G.

In the late '70s, Ann Arbor gained national attention for what became known as the Black English Case.

It started in July, 1977, when the Student Advocacy Center filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of 11 children at King Elementary school, charging the Ann Arbor Public Schools with failing to meet the needs of the children and misidentifying them as handicapped. The scope of the case was quickly narrowed and an accord seemed within reach. Six months later, the AAPS reading plan was rejected by the plaintiffs and the AAPS rejected a counter-proposal. The stage was set for a trial that would be defined by a term, "Black English" and what, ultimately that term means.

King Elementary students and teachers testfied and an array of experts in linguistics and education were called to testify. In early July the defense team for the AAPS rested without calling witnesses and the case was in the hands of Judge Charles W. Joiner. Judge Joiner issued his decision in mid-July, ordering the AAPS to develop a program to assist student who spoke "Black English." Controversy followed as the school board voted to appeal, then dropped the appeal. Eventually a curriculum plan was developed, then amended, and criticized.

In September, 1979, King Elementary teachers began training in a national spotlight. A year later AAPS reported to Judge Joiner that the program had been beneficial to students and teachers. The Black English case has remained a topic of debate and discussion in Ann Arbor and beyond.

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