Some students don’t contribute to classroom discussions because they’re not interested in the material. But at least some students at Santa Monica High School apparently aren’t participating for a different reason.

Many of their parents come from other countries, didn’t finish college or are not fluent in English. At the dinner table, interim principal Diana Garcia said, they communicate in Spanish and other languages.

“They come into a classroom and feel intimidated to speak up and engage in the conversations,” Garcia said. “The way to build confidence is to give them the tools to do it.”

Garcia and others stressed the importance of linguistic diversity at the local Board of Education meeting last week as Santa Monica-Malibu school district officials discussed plans to close longstanding academic achievement gaps along ethnic and socioeconomic lines.

A focus on language emerged as interim co-superintendent Sylvia Rousseau guided a discussion about how SMMUSD plans to implement the strategies recommended by education reformist Pedro Noguera to improve equity and access in the district.

Students, parents, staffers and community members said district teachers should promote the complexities and formalities of academic English while also appreciating the skills and experiences that English learners bring to district classrooms. Speakers also said teachers must recognize that English learners bring with them not only other language skills but often other cultural backgrounds as well.

“Language is valuable no matter where it comes from — even though we know there’s a common language we know we’re trying to use,” Rousseau said.

Robbie Jones, a parent who has been a member of the African American Parent Student Staff Support Group, said she expects her children to practice code-switching by communicating in academic English at school even if they’re more comfortable speaking in Ebonics.

“You know you have the language you speak at home, and then when you go to school, that’s a different language that you have to learn. … It’s important for all of us. We’ve got to be open and willing to help them learn as well.”

Amy Teplin, the district’s new literacy and language coordinator, said it will be her job to meet with her colleagues to figure out how to help students navigate between multiple languages.

“How can we mark the difference for students?” she said. “Students need to be cognitively aware of the types of talk.”

Sarah Braff, president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association, said it’s about time for the district to recognize Ebonics as a distinct language.

“I hope we can also … start to look at ourselves,” she said. Sometimes there are bad feelings between people who come from Mexico and Central America and Argentina. That’s something we need to change. We know there are race issues and skin color issues within the community itself.

“We need to start looking at all of our education through the global viewpoint. That’s a change that we’re going to have to make. It’s always been about local, local, local, local. As we look at the world … we have to be more honoring of different types of people and what they bring at any level of language.”

jeff@smdp.com

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