Bay, AK - When Robert S. Gutierrez applied for the principal's position
at the Naparyarmiut School, he promised to promote the local Alaska
Native culture. Now he's keeping that promise.
The school started weaving traditions
and culture of the local Yupik Eskimo population into its curriculum
last year. It established a Native dance group and is looking at
implementing a Yupik-language immersion program for its kindergarten.
The changes are an attempt by the administration
to bridge the gap between the school and the community.
"There's been minor friction between
the community and the school because a majority of the teachers
didn't understand our traditional way of life," said Rachel
Fultze, acting general manager of the Sea Lion Corp. and a Yupik
Eskimo raised in Hooper Bay.
The school's relationship with the community
isn't bad, but as is common in Bush communities where cultural differences
between Native villagers and non-Native teachers often lead to misunderstandings,
there's always room for improvement, Gutierrez said.
"I won't say we've had problems,
but communication isn't what it should be," he said.
The school's attempts have been welcomed
by a community that's concerned with the loss of its Native language.
"A lot of these children are losing
their language rapidly," Fultze said. "To get back to
our roots, we'll have to reintroduce our traditional culture to
An informal survey of parents of kindergarten-age
students by the Lower Yukon School District found that at least
half supported developing a Yupik-language immersion program that
would include lessons based on local Native culture.
"What we've done so far has failed
and we want to do something different," Gutierrez said. "We
want our students to be successful, and we think linking with the
community will help us do that."
Gutierrez and his staff are integrating
the Yupik culture into the school's curriculum wherever possible.
Earlier this year, the school invited elders into the classroom
during the three-day Louie Bunyan Festival to teach students how
to make traditional crafts. Students worked with elders to make
sleds, grass baskets, mukluks, parkas and other Native arts.
"We're doing more things students
can relate to in their own community and culture," Gutierrez
The most popular program has been the
Native dance class, a yearlong elective worth one credit for high
school students. James Gump, a Yupik elder, teaches students songs
and dances of their ancestors.
The class helps lessen the gap between
the school and the community, said high school teacher Scott Ballard,
who works closely with the student dance group. It also keeps kids
interested in school.
The school sent 11 student dancers to
Fairbanks earlier this year for the Festival of Native Arts put
on by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It was the first time
the student group performed outside of Hooper Bay.
The school hopes to start a Yupik-language
immersion program for students entering kindergarten in the fall.
Gutierrez said the immersion program would grow with the class of
2015, with a Yupik-language program developed for each grade level
as the students progress.
"We want to promote the language
because of the role it plays in preserving the culture and traditions
of the area," Gutierrez said. "And more importantly, it
improves the self esteem of the students."
Twenty-six students are signed up for
kindergarten in the fall. Parents would be able to choose to place
their children in the immersion program or a traditional English
"Down the road, long range, well
be able to see if there's any difference in the results," Gutierrez
Hooper Bay is the only school in the Lower
Yukon School District considering a Native-language immersion program.
Gutierrez acknowledged that the school's test scores on the state's
high school exit exam are low compared with other schools, but he
believes a bilingual program will improve student performance.
School officials said the program will
be relatively inexpensive to implement. They plan to have Native
faculty members translate existing curriculum into Yupik.
"We're talking $5,000 to $10,000,"