Tlingit classrooms - a good report card

Emphasis is on English, Tlingit language instruction, Native culture

Posted: Monday, August 11, 2003

Students in Tlingit-oriented classrooms at Harborview Elementary generally perform as well as other students in the school district, and do better than Native students on average, a recent study shows.

"This whole emphasis on literacy is paying off," Annie Calkins, a former school district administrator who has studied the program, told the Juneau School Board last week.

Eunice James-Lee's son Hunter, 9, has been enrolled in the Tlingit program for three years.

"For the chance for our kids to succeed in school, to see them thrive, to see them develop, to grow in confidence - I wanted that for my children - and to know who they are, where they're from," she said.

Hunter "enjoys being in the class. He enjoys the teachers - just in general likes going to school," she said. "... Hunter has done wonderful."

The Tlingit classrooms have operated for three years, emphasizing English and Tlingit language instruction, and incorporating Native culture such as potlatches. Besides the classroom teachers, the program employs a cultural specialist and elders.

Native students suffer from low self-esteem, teacher Shgen George told the School Board. They tend to talk less and talk quieter, but children in the Tlingit classrooms are proud to be Tlingit, she said.

"I think that's the lowest, deepest root of this program," George said.

The program, which was funded in its first two years by a federal grant to the Sealaska Heritage Foundation, included a joint kindergarten-first grade classroom in its first year and a joint K-one-two classroom in its second year. Last year there were 41 students between a K-one classroom and a grades two-three classroom, and there was a waiting list, Calkins said. The program is funded now by the school district.

The classrooms are housed at Harborview downtown but are open to students throughout Juneau. About three-quarters of the students have been Native. In the past school year, four out of 10 students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. About one in seven were identified for special education services.

As in school districts across the nation, a smaller percentage of Juneau students who are from low-income families or from racial minorities perform well on standardized tests and other measures of academic success than other students.

Nonetheless, in many of the Tlingit program's grades in its three years of existence, a larger percentage of its students are meeting the state's academic standards than are other students.

But it should be noted that the test data for the Tlingit program combines its Native and non-Native students. The study reviews only reading and writing proficiency and not that of math, because the original grant was for a literacy program.

Moreover, in many cases the number of students, such as five or six, in one grade in the Tlingit program was too small to be statistically significant, Calkins said. "That's why the pattern and the trend is more interesting than the individual class," she said.

Of the four students who have been in the program for all three years and who started as kindergartners, three are reading books at their grade level or close to it. Of the eight three-year students who started as first-graders, seven read at least at their grade level and some read a grade above that, and the other student has special needs.

The students in the Tlingit classrooms also perform better on average on an oral language test than did a sample of 92 Juneau Native children in 1996.

Calkins attributed the program's test scores to high expectations from teachers, a strong sense of community, the strong presence of Native culture and language, parental involvement and dedicated teachers who have had to develop their own curriculum and materials.

This school year, the program will have a K-one-two classroom and a grades three-four classroom.

The school district is seeking a federal grant to expand the program to the fifth grade in the following year. The grant also would provide money to develop curriculum, train teachers, bus some kindergartners from Glacier Valley to be in the program and eventually set up Tlingit-oriented classrooms in a school in the Mendenhall Valley, said Assistant Superintendent Bernie Sorenson.

James-Lee, mother of one of the program's students, grew up in Angoon with parents who were fluent Tlingit speakers. She went to potlatches with them. The Tlingit classroom, with its potlatches and plays in Tlingit, gives her son Hunter the chance to learn some of the culture and language, she said.

"They learn phrases (in Tlingit). They learn colors. They learn counting. They learn how to introduce themselves, say their clan, their moiety. It's just really impressive," James-Lee said.

Eric Fry can be reached at

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