Native language may have little effect on schools

Posted: Sunday, May 14, 2000

Some Southeast school districts say they should have no problem meeting the requirements of a new Native language education law.

The sponsor of the legislation, however, hopes it will prompt districts to move beyond teaching the simple phrases and songs that are currently the extent of many Native language programs.

Senate Bill 103, sponsored by Sen. Georgianna Lincoln, a Rampart Democrat, requires school districts in which more than 50 percent of students are Native to establish local Native language curriculum advisory boards.

If such an advisory board recommends establishing a Native language curriculum, the local school district may start one. Doing so is optional, however.

Gov. Tony Knowles signed the bill last week.

``I don't think it'll have a dramatic effect,'' Hoonah School District Superintendent Bill Walz said. But the law will offer support and encouragement to Native language efforts, he said.

In Hoonah, Walz said, some Tlingit language is taught at the elementary level, and the school plans next year to offer Tlingit as an elective in high school.

An advisory board needs to be established, but he and other Southeast superintendents said parents already serving on Indian Studies and similar advisory boards can probably be asked to take on that role.

Virgie Eames, superintendent of the Chatham School District, which includes primarily Native schools in Angoon and Klukwan, said those schools already offer Tlingit language instruction in the elementary schools.

``But I think it's a good bill because I think there are many districts that haven't been able to do that for various reasons or haven't done it for various reasons,'' Eames said.

The bill is one Lincoln worked for years to get through the Legislature. When she first introduced it, the bill didn't give districts a choice about providing Native language curriculum. It said they ``shall'' do it.

``I darn near got it through -- oh gosh, nine years ago -- and I was stubborn and I would not change the `shall' to a `may' and consequently it didn't get through,'' she said.

Some of the opposition came from school districts that didn't want to be pressured to provide what they considered an unfunded mandate.

For the next several years Lincoln tried to get the bill passed with language that simply said the districts ``may'' provide the curriculum, but it wasn't until this year that it made it through.

Although the law makes it optional for districts to provide the curriculum, she believes the fact that advisory boards must be established to consider the issue will spur action.

A number of Southeast schools have been moving, to varying degrees, in the direction SB 103 tries to point them.

In Kake, students have been receiving Tlingit instruction from a local speaker for 15 years, Superintendent Bill Hopkins said. ``All of our kids are exposed to it,'' he said. ``We don't have any speaking total Tlingit.''

Hydaburg schools have a Haida art program, which is supposed to include some language instruction, Hydaburg principal Roger Prater said. The school district will probably try to beef up the language element of that program, he said.

In Klawock a cultural program includes a Native language component, Superintendent Bob Robertson said.

The bill, however, envisions more extensive programs. It calls for the use of certified instructors to deliver the curriculum and the possible use of distance-delivered instruction and materials from the University of Alaska.

``This is not to teach words, this is not to teach phrases,'' Lincoln said. ``This is to teach a language so a person will be fluent in that language, so a person would be able to read and write that language.''

Lincoln said some village schools teach German, Spanish, Russian and Japanese, but not the local Native languages.

Those languages are on the verge of extinction. Only two of 20 Alaska Native languages are spoken fluently by children today. A University of Alaska Fairbanks linguistics professor, Michael Krauss, has predicted that unless some action is taken by 2055 only five of the 20 Alaska Native languages will be spoken by anyone.

The loss of those languages is due, in large part, to past educational policies in which children were punished for speaking Native languages in an effort to assimilate them into Western culture.

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