Yup’ik Immersion Program Gives Kids a Head Start

In a thoughtfully designed classroom nestled inside of the Alaska Native Heritage Center, a diminishing language is being given a breath of life. Executive Director of Cook Inlet Native Head Start Ethan Petticrew can hardly contain his glee about the Yup’ik Immersion Program that takes place here, “This is a big deal; we are literally changing the course of history.”

The history he speaks of is well-known among the Alaska Native Community. It is the story of cultural assimilation and how many Alaska Native cultures have been threatened by the endangerment of their languages — one of the most powerful resources to understanding the culture and history of a people. But history can be rewritten, and it is exactly what the Yup’ik Immersion Program aims to do.

When Petticrew was brought on as CINHS executive director, Jon Ross, chair of the board, provided a clear understanding of his vision for the organization: to support the mission of building strong foundations with Alaska Native families through Alaska Native cultures and education by focusing on language revitalization initiatives. Ross stated, “Language connects people to culture, and it is our responsibility to facilitate this connection. Children may not be able to speak for themselves right now, but when equipped with the tools of their Native languages, they may be able to speak for all of us in the future.” With that, Petticrew had the board’s support to pursue CINHS’s first Yup’ik immersion classroom for children 3 to 5 years old. There was no grant to fund this venture, but the CINHS Board of Directors insisted that it was a priceless initiative, and pushed forward, eventually witnessing the vision come to life in 2015.

In the time since this initial classroom was opened, CINHS has entered into partnerships with other programs and organizations to birth a collaboration that satisfies grant requirements and increases the capacity of the immersion program. The program operates in conjunction with the Alaska Native Heritage Center, Anchorage School District, and Clare Swan Early Learning Center — a separate Tribal Head Start program that is a subsidiary of CITC. Now, children from birth to 5 years can begin to learn Yup’ik in a classroom facilitated by language experts who speak their Native tongue 100 percent of the time.

To expand classroom capacity and intensify the curriculum, Petticrew connected with other community leaders who share his passion for language revitalization initiatives: Annette Evans Smith, president and CEO of the Alaska Native Heritage Center and chair of the board of the Alaska Native Language Preservation & Advisory Council; and Doreen Brown, senior director of Indian education for the Anchorage School District. All were unsettled by the fact that language immersion programs existed within Anchorage for Russian, Spanish, and German — to name a few — but that no such programs were offered for any Alaska Native languages.

Evans Smith has spent years securing grants and directing research around language revitalization projects. She took her advocacy to garner statewide support and funding to help offer Native language training programs — which are free and open to the public, and are utilized by the current Yup’ik Immersion Program teachers — and obtained board approval to repurpose space in ANHC to be designed as classrooms for the immersion program.

Brown has been instrumental in spearheading the effort to make Native language immersion programs available within the local public school system, which would allow students in the future to study in an immersion-style setting all of the way through high school, if they chose.

The combined passion and determination of these three key-players and their support systems has thus far resulted in the immersion classroom going from two half-day classrooms of 17 children, to one full-day classroom of 20; and from program offerings only lasting until children were 5 years old, to a continuation program that will begin next year at College Gate Elementary School!

Petticrew is proud of the progress he has been a part of, but doesn’t see activists like himself as the pivotal factor in this movement, “Most people look to adults and politicians to be the major advocators for language revitalization, but in reality, it’s the children. Kids are turning the tables; I’ve seen them scold their parents for speaking English in the classroom! They are the game-changers.”

The original vision was to honor the people of this land and offer a Dena’ina Athabascan immersion program at CINHS. Unfortunately, the search for Dena’ina Athabascan-speaking teachers was unfruitful, and the program eventually launched in Yup’ik. Petticrew stresses that CINHS is still looking to expand and teach more languages, the limitation being that they require two fluent-speaking teachers in each classroom to uphold the integrity of full-immersion — absolutely no English is spoken by teachers in the classroom. CINHS and ANHC are able to help applicants receive training and certifications to teach their Native language. If you are interested in becoming an immersion teacher or aide, in any Alaska Native language, contact CINHS Human Resources Manager Liz Parker at (907) 433-1642.

Southcentral Foundation is extremely grateful to those who continue to advocate on behalf of the preservation of Native language, specifically, the board of directors for both the Alaska Native Heritage Center and Cook Inlet Native Head Start. ANHC BOD: Jeff Kinneeveauk (Chair), Tabetha Toloff (Vice Chair), Will Anderson, Maude Blair, Matt Carle, Alisha Drabek, Susanne Fleek-Green, Haven Harris, John F. C. Johnson, Dorothy M. Larson, Brandy Niclai, Vanessa Norman, Aaron Schutt, and Roy Tansy. CINHS BOD: Jon Ross (Chair), Susan Anderson (Vice Chair), Amy Fredeen, Greg Razo, James Sears, and Ileen Sylvester.

For more information about enrolling your child in the Yup’ik Immersion Program, call Head Start Family Partnership Manager Mary Shanigan at
(907) 433-1624.

by Nikki Moss

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