The 19 students who every day wander into room E-1 at Eva B.
Stokely Elementary School enter a different world.
Here, the kindergartners are expected
to listen to, speak and write Navajo for the full school day.
In this room, children learn the intricacies
of a language so difficult their grandfathers used it to form an
unbreakable code during World War II. The famous Navajo Code Talkers,
however, were among the last generations of Navajo citizens who
predominantly spoke the native language.
"There was a lot of need in the community
from parents who wanted their children to learn Navajo," immersion
teacher Marlena Shepard said Thursday as she supervised classroom
activities. "Studies said that it was disappearing, and there
was a really need to revitalize it."
Only 50 percent of Navajo ages 17 and
younger were able to speak their native language at all in 2000,
according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Even fewer could write it.
Although it is the most-spoken American
Indian language north of Mexico, with more than 100,000 people speaking
it, its use and fluency among the younger generation is on the decline,
and many consider it to be an endangered language.
Statistics like these have prompted the
Central Consolidated School District to launch its first Navajo
immersion program. The program, limited to a single kindergarten
class, is expected to grow annually until it spans the elementary
grades, Eva B. Stokely Principal Mark Madsen said.
"Eventually what we want is a kindergarten-through-fifth-grade
program," he said. "Because if you think about it now,
what do you do with older students who want to learn? The opportunity
is not there."
The district introduced the program at
the start of the school year, and parents must make a special request
for their children to be enrolled, Madsen said.
Navajo language classes exist at all 17
of the district's schools, but this program was the first to completely
immerse students in their native language.
District leaders, in conjunction with
the governing board and the new Heritage Education Center, formed
the class as part of a 20-year language revitalization program.
They put at the helm Lucy Charley, who taught at Nataani Nez Elementary
School until it closed last year.
Charley attended boarding schools as a
child and was punished for speaking Navajo. She retained a love
for her native language and culture, however, and taught bilingual
education in the school district for 27 years
Charley retired in December after an extended
Shepard stepped in to lead the class through
the end of the year, Madsen said. The district plans to hire two
permanent Navajo language teachers for next school year one
for kindergarten and one to follow this year's immersion students
into the first grade.
Shepard, who grew up in Shiprock, also
attended boarding schools, she said. That was where she learned
English, and where she was prohibited from speaking her first language.
Her learning experience was the opposite
of what she hopes to accomplish in the classroom. Most of her students
did not speak Navajo at all when they enrolled in the immersion
class, she said.
"Some of the parents said they wanted
their children in this because when they were children they missed
out on it," Shepard said. "They don't want their children
also to miss out on learning Navajo."
Much of the learning gap that claimed
the generations that went before these kindergartners came from
boarding schools that swept Navajo children from their homes and
The language revitalization program aims
to curb that trend and reverse it, Shepard said.
"It's a lot easier to learn Navajo
as a child, or as a first language," she said. "Right
now, (the students) are still doing some communicating in English,
but ultimately this classroom will be all in Navajo. I think these
students will be the ones to teach the next generation of children
and continue the language."
The Navajo, or Diné, language uses
a combination of glottal stops, nasal tone and high tone diacritical
marks on vowels. It's a language Madsen said still confounds him.
"I've been here 25 years and I still
don't know it," he said.
In room E-1, however, students like 5-year-old
Shiloh Frazier are becoming naturals. Frazier, while participating
in a verbal repetition activity with teacher's aide Peggy Phillips,
pushed his tongue into the pocket behind his front teeth
the necessary position to form a glottal stop.
"I don't know how he does that,"
Frazier is part of a pilot program district
officials hope turns an important page in the book of native learning.
The district encounters a disadvantage on state and federal testing
standards because of its high native population, including many
who are learning two languages.
But the native language and culture were
too important to ignore, Madsen said.
The result is a kindergarten class that
is pulling double duty.
"These kids are expected by third
grade to take the same test all the other third-graders in the state
do," Madsen said. "That's a lot of work."
Yet bilingual learning may prove to jump-start
academics for these students.
"Studies show this helps with the
other subjects in school," Madsen said. "The goal is to
learn language and culture, but studies show by the fifth grade,
students like this are catching up to their peers, even surpassing