After more than 20 years, an Iñupiaq immersion program has returned to Utqiaġvik to serve its youngest students. Soon, other youths across the North Slope might get a chance to work on their fluency too.
The North Slope Borough School District this year restarted the Iñupiaq immersion program Uqautiluŋa Iñupiatun — which means “Speak Iñupiaq To Me.” The pilot program started for preschool students at Fred Ipalook Elementary School, but the district plans to expand it to more ages and add a grade level each year.
“We’re focusing on recentering language, culture, history,” said Qaġġuna Tennessee Judkins, director of Iñupiaq education at the district. Judkins said the district is doing all it can to ensure that “we reflect the students that we serve, we reflect the families that we serve, we reflect the community that we reside in.”
Since August, about 20 students who are 3 and 4 years old have been attending the program, Judkins said.
“They love it,” said Robyn Burke, whose two children, ages 3 and 4, are enrolled in the new class, where they enjoy coloring, counting and singing activities. “They are excelling, they’re doing great. They really have caught on to the language really quickly.”
The 4-year-old students arrive in the morning and attend school all day while the 3-year-olds join them at midday, Judkins said. This allows the 4-year-olds to receive more direct instruction at their developmental level and to guide some of the younger students.
The main approach in the immersion classroom is centered around play-based learning strategies, hands-on activities, immersive language settings and repetitious routines, all in Iñupiaq, Judkins said. For this age group, the commands and routines include starting play time and lining up to go home. The program also includes exploring topics relevant to students, such as family, whaling and hunting.
“It has direct cultural relevance to specific times of the year — season, hunting, migration patterns,” Judkins said. “Animals that you might see in the sea, animals that you might see on the land, animals that you might see in the air.”
The idea behind the immersion class isn’t new: The school district ran such a program from about 1994 until the early 2000s. At first, the immersion program focused on developing listening skills in students and expanding their vocabulary, said Elder, educator and language expert Martha Ikayuaq Stackhouse, who taught first grade in the original program.
“The kids loved it,” she said. “They were understanding and they were really good readers, they knew their numbers and the songs that we taught.”
With time, the program shifted the focus to speaking so that students could develop their fluency, Stackhouse said.
Despite the program’s success, it was discontinued in the early 2000s because some of the parents worried that focusing on Iñupiaq would hinder students’ English-based learning, Stackhouse said. The worry was unfounded, she said.
“They did learn English” and other subjects, Stackhouse said about her former students. “By the time they were in middle school, our kids were going to state science fairs, so they were really flourishing, they were really good, and they had good testing scores.”
In addition to academic success, Stackhouse noticed that many of the program’s students are also successful as leaders. For example, former student Robyn Burke is now a school board member and Josiah Patkotak is the borough mayor.
“There is different forms of leadership that they’ve taken on,” Stackhouse said. “I think they became more confident. I really, really enjoyed (teaching the immersion class) and I saw the results in the kids all these years.”
Judkins also said that children who learn through an immersive setting in their home language are more successful academically in the long run.
In recent years, community members, Elders and parents asked the district for language revitalization efforts to be grounded and centered in the education system, Judkins said, so the district re-opened the program, starting with the youngest age group.
“It’s not the start to implementing immersion — this is a restart,” Judkins said.
The initiative is a part of a bigger trend, Judkins said.
“There’s a dire need for us to focus on language revitalization,” she said. “The quickest way to increase fluency is in an immersive setting, and you must spend a minimum of 10 hours a week, fully immersed in the language, solely speaking that language — in this context, Iñupiaq.”
Restarting the program required the district to find teachers and make sure the parents have time and materials like dictionaries and grammar books to support their children during the program, Judkins said.
So far, the response from parents has been great, Judkins said.
Burke said she is grateful for the opportunity to practice Iñupiaq with her children.
“I think it’s important,” Burke said. “It’s our culture. It’s our identity to be able to speak the language.”
Next year, the school district plans to keep the immersion program for 3- and 4-year-olds and open a new kindergarten class that can hold the current 4-year-old students.
In the long term, district officials want to expand the immersion program, and they’ve started recruiting and training local teachers and gauging interest from villages, Judkins said.
“It is a 14-plus-year plan where we would love to have immersion classrooms and immersion programs in every one of our villages in all grade levels,” she said. “It’s a big goal, but it’s exciting.”