When Sarah Bass was growing up in Hooper Bay, her first language was Yup’ik. She began to learn English when she entered kindergarten. But that was 30-plus years ago. Before she left Hooper Bay for high school in Anchorage. Before she earned her Masters degree in Applied Linguistics. Now, English is the first language of the children in Bass’ Yup’ik Immersion Kindergarten class at Hooper Bay School.
Bass is one of five certified teachers and six teacher aides in the K-3 Yup’ik Immersion Program at Hooper Bay School. Yup’ik Immersion is voluntary but there are not enough teachers and aides to meet community demand. A shortage of certified teachers is also why the immersion program is offered only through 3rd grade, serving approximately 100 students this year. One hour of Yup’ik per day is offered in 4th through 6th grade, as well as to 3rd graders in the English strand.
Hooper Bay Principal Scott Ballard would love to see more teachers certified in the Yup’ik immersion program, but the challenges are significant. It’s not enough to be fluent in Yup’ik; the aspiring teacher must learn how to teach Yup’ik reading, writing, and math, and obtain Type A certification. Those most fluent in Yup’ik tend to be middle-aged or older and few are inclined to pursue a degree later in life.
Hooper Bay is the only school in the Lower Yukon School District that offers Yup’ik Immersion. Their program began in 2004, and there’s no special funding for it beyond the general school funds received from the state. The state doesn’t require school districts to report on their language immersion programs, so the Department of Education & Early Development can’t say how many are offered and where. The larger Lower Kuskokwim School District (3,900 students compared to 1,900 in the Lower Yukon School District) offers Yup’ik immersion for K-6 in Bethel.
School officials have not formally tracked and compared how the immersion students perform academically, but kindergarten teacher Bass believes Yup’ik Immersion gives students a boost.
“In my heart, I know they’re doing better. They learn all the core subjects – reading, writing, math – they learn it in Yup’ik. When I’ve looked at the scores of my former students, what I see is that they might be behind in their third grade proficiency scores, but they catch up and pull ahead very quickly,” she said.
Principal Ballard is also convinced of the value of Yup’ik immersion. “I think it’s essential to their cognitive development and it’s crucial to their identity. Plus, I think there’s quite a bit of evidence that children who learn more than one language do better,” he said. “Schools can play an important role in the survival of a language. This is a small step toward pushing back against the Western assimilation model that has been the norm for so long.”