Alaska Though she stands barely five feet tall, Loddie Ayaprun
Jones is a formidable force. More than 30 years ago, she pioneered
a bilingual, Yup'ik kindergarten program in Bethel, a hub for
the tundra villages that dot the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Today,
the only Yup'ik immersion school in existence bears her namean
honor she wryly acknowledges by saying, "The parent who suggested
it told me you don't have to be dead to have a building named
Jones's sunny corner classroom, 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 call out from self-portraits
that adorn the walls. And, the Pledge of Allegiance is the "pelak."
Looking around, Jones remarks, "Every day our students are
reminded that they're Yup'ik. They say 'we have life.'"
spoken by the Native people of Western Alaska, is the strongest
indigenous language group in the state. The geographic isolation
of the region helped keep English at bay longer than in other parts
of Alaska, according to Walkie Charles of the Alaska Native Language
Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Yup'ik phrases remain
at the heart of the subsistence culture"yuungnaqsaraq"
and 51 percent of the children in the region are classified
that, fluency becomes more tenuous every year as television and
pop culture wash over the tundra. That fact fills Jones and her
fellow immersion teachers (called "elitnauristet") with
resolve and an almost religious fervor. They battled a skeptical
local school board to establish their elementary program in 1995,
after five years of study and lobbying. In 1999, they successfully
applied for charter school status from the Alaska Board of Education
in an effort to gain more autonomy and secure grants for the development
of materials. Now they are gearing up for their charter renewal,
ready to battle critics who question whether students are best served
learning in their ancestral tongue or in the language that dominates
the modern economic landscape.
do have ignorant community members who think we're trying to go
back to the old way of lifeto using kayaks and living in sod
housesrather 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 with steely determination.
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," notes Abby
Qirvan Augustine, another one of the school's founding members.
"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.
Lower Kuskokwim School District has created colorfully illustrated
books to increase Yup'ik language proficiency.
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.
voice rises with excitement as she explains the difference between
teaching in a traditional classroom versus an immersion program.
"Most of it is total physical response," says Jones, the
winner of a Milken Family Foundation National Educator award. "You
use your whole body to demonstrate concepts, from the simplest to
the most complex." Her fellow teachersAbby, Carol, Sallychime
in with their own descriptions: "heavy on hands-on, a lot of
singing, repetition, chants." They stress a "natural approach"
to language acquisitionusing Yup'ik in everyday situations
rather than emphasizing formal rules and grammar.
the teachers maintain that their students achieve at higher levels
than peers in English-only programs, the data aren't quite that
cut-and-dried. Bev Williams, LKSD's director of academic programs,
acknowledges that "English isn't the only factor," with
attendance, parental support, and social issues contributing to
research indicates that students who begin literacy and academic
instruction in their indigenous language, as they learn English,
and then transfer into English do much better academically on English
tests in the upper grades," notes Williams. "Also, students
in good immersion programs tend to do better academically in English
in upper grades." However, Williams continues, "The research
is unclear on what happens if students enter an immersion program
as limited English speakers and their only instruction is in the
target or second language."
whatever the end result, it's undeniable that 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.
me) walking into the halls of Ayaprun is like coming home,"
says Charles, one of the recipients of a million-dollar grant for
a career ladder program for Yup'ik paraprofessionals. "Ayaprun
Elitnaurvik's success comes from the commitment of teachers like
Loddie and Abby who are truly Yup'ik, who are academicians, and
who (can) take ownership and orchestrate something as powerful and
as humbling as a Yup'ik immersion program."