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Yup'ik immersion school brings together aboriginal, western cultures

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Alaska's only Yup'ik immersion school brings together western and aboriginal cultures

More than 30 years ago, Loddie Ayaprun Jones pioneered a bilingual, Yup'ik kindergarten program in Bethel, a hub for the tundra villages that dot Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Today, the only Yup'ik immersion school in existence bears her name. Here, the "ACEs" take the place of ABCs: There are no B's or D's in the 18-letter Yup'ik alphabet. Student names like Angilan, Utuan, and Eveggluar are on self-portraits on the walls. "Every day our students are reminded that they're Yup'ik. They say 'we have life.'"

Yup'ik, spoken by the Native people of Western Alaska, is the strongest indigenous language group in the state, in part because of the region’s isolation. Yup'ik phrases remain at the heart of the subsistence culture—"yuungnaqsaraq" —and 51 percent of the children in the region are classified as Yup'ik-speaking.

However, television and pop culture challenge fluency. So in 1995, Jones and her fellow immersion teachers (called "elitnauristet") successfully persuaded a skeptical local school board to add an elementary program and in 1999, they successfully applied for charter school status from the Alaska Board of Education. Their charter renewal is coming up and they are ready to battle critics who question whether students learn best in their ancestral tongue or in English.

"We do have ignorant community members who think we're trying to go back to the old way of life—to using kayaks and living in sod houses—rather than trying to integrate the Western and Yup'ik cultures," says co-principal Agatha Panigkaq John-Shields. "When we hear negative comments from our opponents, we use that as a critique and strengthen our program. We show them, rather than fight," she adds.

While Ayaprun Elitnaurvik is the only Yup'ik immersion school in the Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD), 22 of the district's 27 schools have strong Yup'ik programs and one offers Cup'ig immersion. "What empowers people out here is the choices they have," says Abby Qirvan Augustine. "The district doesn't direct villages to have certain kinds of programs." LKSD also produces a wealth of Yup'ik storybooks and instructional materials that find their way into classrooms throughout the state.

At the immersion school, 10 certified Native instructors use Yup'ik exclusively in kindergarten through second-grade classes, 75 percent of the time in third grade, and half the time in grades four through six. The school's 189 students have reading and language arts classes in English beginning in third grade and add English-language health and math a year later. All other subject matter is taught in Yup'ik.

Teaching in an immersion program is different from teaching in a traditional classroom. "You use your whole body to demonstrate concepts, from the simplest to the most complex," says Jones. The teachers stress a "natural approach" to language acquisition—using Yup'ik in everyday situations rather than emphasizing formal rules and grammar.

Pride ripples out from these classrooms like a pebble thrown in the dusky Kuskokwim River. Parents who were never taught Yup'ik are beginning to pick up words from their schoolchildren. Elders beam at the students who perform traditional songs and converse in Yup'ik on visits to the nearby senior center.

This story is adapted from an article entitled “Charter school keeps native language alive: determined teachers enhance students' cultural identity” by Rhonda Barton, published in the Spring 2004 edition of Northwest Magazine, a special edition entitled “Native Students: Balancing Two Worlds”. The Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, in Portland, Oregon, provides research and development assistance to education, government, community agencies, business, and labor in the northwest US states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington.


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