Terri Menecker
Dept of ESL
University of Hawai‘i
Honolulu, HI 96822 USA

A Visit to CAP

Last April I had the pleasure of spending a day at Evanston Township High School in Illinois at the Caribbean Academic Program (CAP). Coming from Hawai‘i, where there are still many struggles in the schools resulting from negative attitudes towards the local language variety (Hawai‘i Creole English), it was heartening to see the kind of program some of us envision carrying out here being successfully implemented for speakers of Caribbean English.

I had read about the program while in Hawai‘i (Fischer 1992a, 1992b) and was excited to find it doing well twelve years after its inception. Kathy Fischer (founder of the program) graciously agreed to my visit and I was able to observe classes and talk with her, other CAP teachers and CAP students.

The student body of Evanston Township High School consists of students from a wide range of socio-economic, cultural and racial backgrounds. There are speakers of a variety of immigrant languages as well as African American English and Standard Midwestern English. Ten to fifteen percent of the students are speakers of Caribbean English Creole (CEC), who are mostly from Jamaica, but include some from Belize and Barbados.

CAP uses a language awareness approach (cf. Siegel 1997) to promote positive student attitudes towards CEC while making salient the differences between CEC and Standard English (SE). Students learn about the histories of both CEC and SE with attention to relevant issues of language and power. They use a contrastive analysis approach (focusing on pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar) to promote separation of CEC and SE within the students’ verbal repertoires. Readings in CEC are incorporated into the curriculum and students engage in translation activities from CEC to SE and visa-versa. CEC is also used in oral discussion by students and CEC-speaking instructors.

Students spend part of the day in their CAP classes and the rest in regular content courses. In addition to attention to language issues, CAP serves as a cross-cultural bridge for students and a place to get advising and other types of support. CAP staff also offer training sessions to inform the rest of the schools’ teachers about CEC and effective strategies for helping CEC-speaking students.

When Kathy Fischer first arrived at the school, a disproportionate number of the CEC speaking students were dropping or flunking out of school or being placed in special education classes. At that time, attitudes at the school toward CEC were negative, with many students denying that they were CEC speakers.

What I saw at the school in 1998 was a much different picture. Attitudes towards CEC seemed quite positive. The numbers of CEC-speaking dropouts and students in special education had reduced dramatically with many students moving on to honors classes and going on to college.

During one of the classes, I watched a student video presentation in which CAP students had interviewed other students at the school about their knowledge of CEC and their attitudes towards it. The CAP students’ pride in and understanding of their language came through clearly in the video and in the subsequent discussion. CAP students seemed to be well aware of the type of misunder-standings about language that were common in the general population and took pride in their own grasp of the issues.

Evidence of the increased status of CEC was apparent in the video-taped interviews mentioned above. For example, one of the interviewees was a white student wearing dreadlocks who proudly demonstrated his knowledge of CEC and was rewarded by the female CEC-speaking interviewer with the comment that he was cute. The CAP program is surely an important contributor to this turn-around in attitude. Other factors which may have played a part are the higher status of CEC brought about by the popularity of the music of its speakers and the kinds of social and sociolinguistic processes which Rampton describes in his 1995 book.

My visit to the school was brief but all indications were that something quite positive was happening. Some of the discussions I participated in with the CAP students about sociolinguistic issues were at a level at least as sophisticated as those that take place in university-level linguistics courses.

Since returning to Hawai‘i, I have thought often about the CAP program and the possibilities for a similar program here. Ironically, we may face more barriers here towards acceptance of the stigmatized local speech variety (HCE) than of CEC. The CAP program has been able to avoid controversies such as those surrounding Ebonics, HCE or other indigenous varieties of English, by classifying itself as a program for speakers of an immigrant language rather than a variety of English. For example, there are no programs similar to CAP for the many African American English speakers at the school, nor for that matter are there CAP-type programs in Jamaica (though they would likely prove quite helpful).

No doubt part of what has made the CAP program so successful is the quality of the teaching staff who not only have an in-depth knowledge of the relevant linguistic issues but also themselves possess high levels of bilingualism and biculturalism. This would be another challenge to reproducing such a program here in Hawai‘i or elsewhere.

I have tried to relate as accurately as possible what I have learned about CAP through my visit and other sources but my perspective is obviously limited. For those wishing to find out more about the program, I suggest reading Kathy Fischer’s articles or contacting her or the school directly. Perhaps like me, you will find it a motivating example of what is possible for pidgins and creoles in education.

Fischer, Katherine. 1992a. Educating speakers of Caribbean English in the United States. In Jeff Siegel, ed. Pidgins, creoles and nonstandard dia-lects in education. Melbourne: Applied Linguistics Association of Australia (Occasional Paper no. 12), 99-123.
––––––. 1992b. [Report]. Pidgins and Creoles in Education (PACE) Newsletter 3, 1.
Rampton, Ben. 1995. Crossing: Language and ethni-city among adolescents. New York: Longman.
Siegel, Jeff. 1997. Using a pidgin language in formal education: help or hindrance? Applied Linguistics 18, 86-100.

Back to top