Preserving Culture: 6 Early Childhood Language Immersion Programs
Tanya H. Lee
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Chairman Jon Tester, D-Montana, introduced the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act in January. If passed, the legislation would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to create a grant program that would make an additional $5 million available to improve the academic achievement of American Indian children by supporting the revitalization and preservation of Native American languages through language immersion programs. The legislation has been referred to Tester’s committee. Currently, federal funding for language immersion derives from legislation that includes the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act.
Language immersion schools have proved to be enormously beneficial for young learners’ academics. To quote Dr. Janine Pease-Pretty on Top, Crow, founding president of Little Big Horn College, “Solid data from the Navajo, Blackfeet and Assiniboine immersion schools experience indicates that the language immersion students experience greater success in school, measured by consistent improvement on local and national measures of achievement.” Early childhood language immersion programs must be adapted to the cultural and financial resources available. Here are some examples of how educators have done that.
The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma funds the Pumvhakv Immersion School, which serves five 2 and 3 year olds in a full immersion Maskoke language program. “Our teacher is actually a first language speaker who has an associate’s degree in early childhood education,” said Jenn Johnson, who is in charge of curriculum development for the tribe’s Cultural Resources Department. “She’s really a gem because it is very rare to find a first language speaker who has acquired the necessary teacher training…. The reason we chose to teach the language beginning with infants and toddlers is because language acquisition theory and early childhood research consistently finds that the earlier a child is exposed to a language, the more they will acquire it. The best way to acquire a language is through intergenerational transmission, from parent to child. However, within our community, the current parental generation is almost exclusively monolingual English speakers,” Johnson said. The school plans to add a kindergarten in 2016 and eventually expand to serve first through sixth graders.
The Cherokee Immersion Charter School, tsalagi tsunadeloquasdi, serves 145 children through grade eight, 30 of them in preschool and pre-kindergarten classrooms. The all-day total immersion program, started in 2001, and has 27 teachers and aides. Kathy Vanbuskirk, language program assistant, said the program is immensely important to the Cherokee people. Cherokee is “a dying language. We’re working real hard every day to keep it alive,” she said.
The Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is using all available resources to preserve the Ojibwe language at its Red Cliff Early Childhood Center, which serves 118 children ages 0 to 5 in its Early Head Start and Head Start programs. Dee Gokee-Rindal, administrator of the tribe’s Education Division and of the center, said “The Red Cliff ECC opened in 1994, and we started reclaiming our language and cultural identity. Those children are now our parents and they are driving our effort in language and cultural revitalization.”
The Head Start teachers are learning Ojibwe and using it in their classrooms with the help of a fluent speaker. “Fluent first language speakers from other communities have come forward to help us revitalize the language here in Red Cliff,” said ANA Ojibwe Language Project Director Reggie Cadotte. The ECC is moving toward becoming an immersion school. Every teacher and staff member at the ECC is working hard to learn and use the language with the children. The center is working with the Bayfield, Wisconsin public school district to establish a bilingual Ojibwe-English charter school in the next few years.
The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde has a three-classroom language immersion program with 19 children, ages 3 to 8, and five teachers. The program, which teaches in the Chinuk language, functions under the tribe’s Education Department. Birik Thorsgard, education department manager, says, “We are increasing the language competency of the community starting with the children. Our language is our culture and both will survive together.”
The Tamalúut Language Immersion Project on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation teaches ten 4 and 5 year olds in the Umatilla dialect of the Ichisain language. Two language teachers and one teacher’s assistant have the children six hours a day, five days a week. Annie Kirk, program director, said, “It’s been a dream for our elders for a long time to have a new generation speak the language. We’re finally getting started on it. Right now we’re looking for ways to have the program last longer than the ANA grant period. Maybe we’ll receive funding from the tribe.”
Hearts Gathered is a private nonprofit language immersion school on the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. The school, which serves 17 children, ages 3 to 8, has two teachers, one fluent and the other a language learner, and two aides, also learners. “Children are taught their Native language in a culturally relevant program that helps them become better learners and confident in who they are. They really flourish here,” said Executive Director Melissa Campobasso. The school is adding a grade each year (next year is third grade) and plans to get at least to the eighth grade, but some advocate going all the way up to 12th grade, Campobasso said. Hearts Gathered is funded by federal grants, tribal support, other agencies and private foundations.