Cherokee Immersion School Strives To Save Tribal Language

By | on Feb 4, 2013 | 0 Comment

By Cathy Spaulding – Muskogee  Phoenix.

Race Relations: Third and fourth grade students at the Cherokee Language Immersion School learn their native language before learning English. Photo Credit: cherokeephoenix.org

Race Relations: Third and fourth grade students at the Cherokee Language Immersion School learn their native language before learning English. Photo Credit: cherokeephoenix.org

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) – Visitors to the Cherokee Immersion Charter School are told not to speak English in the classrooms.

Notices throughout the school say “You are entering an endangered language habitat, the only existing habitat where children are being taught Cherokee.”

Cherokee is spoken, heard, written, and read in each classroom of this school which goes from pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade. Charts show South American countries, planets, parts of the body and the Pledge of Allegiance in letters from the Cherokee syllabary.

“Our purpose is to save the Cherokee language and to revive the language,” Principal Holly Davis said.

The only encounter most students have with the English language is through the state mandated tests. And they haven’t done that well in their first round of tests.

The Department of Education said that in 2012 state tests:

– 11 percent of the school’s sixth-graders showed proficiency in math, and 25 percent showed proficiency in reading.

– 31 percent of the seventh-graders showed proficiency in math, and 87 percent showed proficiency in reading.

– 50 percent of the eighth-graders showed proficiency in math, and 78 percent showed proficiency in reading.

Too few students in grades three through five took the tests to show results, state statistics showed.

In January, the Oklahoma Department of Education listed the charter school as a Targeted Intervention school, meaning the school was identified as a low-performing school, but has not been identified as a Priority School.

The school made a C, or a 2.33 grade point average on the state’s A-F report card system. The report card shows the school getting an F in mathematics achievement and mathematics growth, a C in social studies achievement and a D in reading achievement. However, the state gave the school an A in reading growth and student attendance.

“The C we made is tremendous,” Davis said. “There is no English instruction in our school’s younger grades, and we gave them this test in English.”

The grade is based on test results and attendance from the 2011-2012 school year. The school begins some teaching in English language in the fifth grade.

Davis said that when the state first announced it would use the A-F Report Card, she would have been satisfied with a D grade from the state. She said she expected the low grade because it was the school’s first year as a state-funded charter school.

The Oklahoma Department of Education lists eight language immersion programs in Oklahoma schools. Eisenhower International School in Tulsa is Spanish and French Immersion. Henry Zarrow International School in Tulsa is Spanish Immersion. Both those schools received A’s on the state report card.

The other immersion programs are offered as part of a school’s curriculum, so not all students at the school are involved in the program. Those schools include Jenks East Elementary, Spanish; Jenks Southeast Elementary, Mandarin Chinese; Thoreau Demonstration Academy in Tulsa, French; and Ronald Reagan Elementary School in Norman, French.

In the history of the tribe, this is the first graduation for Cherokee speaking students from a Cherokee school,” said Dr. Neil Morton, Cherokee Nation's executive director of education. The 2012 graduates completed pre-kindergarten through sixth grade at the Immersion School and will now be able to transition to Sequoyah Schools' existing seventh grade classroom, where they will have the opportunity to take more Cherokee language classes and continue their educations. Photo Credit: nativenewsnetwork.com

In the history of the tribe, this is the first graduation for Cherokee speaking students from a Cherokee school,” said Dr. Neil Morton, Cherokee Nation’s executive director of education. The 2012 graduates completed pre-kindergarten through sixth grade at the Immersion School and will now be able to transition to Sequoyah Schools’ existing seventh grade classroom, where they will have the opportunity to take more Cherokee language classes and continue their educations. Photo Credit: nativenewsnetwork.com

Maridyth McBee, assistant state superintendent for accountability and assessment, said all Oklahoma schools follow the same standards. She said all Oklahoma tests are given in English only.Unlike other immersion schools, which have easy access to French or Spanish curricula, the Cherokee School has limited resources. Davis said books and educational materials are often translated and printed at the school.

Candessa Tehee has three children in the Cherokee Immersion Program, one each in pre-kindergarten, third grade and sixth grade.

“My oldest came in as a fourth-grader in the fall of 2010, and at the end of the first year he was conversant in Cherokee,” Tehee said.

She said her oldest child learned English quickly, as do many other students in the Cherokee program.

Cherokee is a more complex language, making English a comparatively easier language to learn, she said. The Cherokee syllabary has 85 letters, compared to 26 in the English alphabet, she said.

Also, a verb might be conjugated in hundreds, maybe thousands of different ways, she said.

Tehee said an object has six different “handling categories:” Neutral, liquid, flexible (such as a tissue), long/rigid and animated. As a result, the English phrase “hand me a pillow” might be translated differently than “hand me the baby” or “hand me the dollar bill,” Davis said.

The Cherokee Immersion School received state charter status in the 2011-2012 school year.

“Being identified by the state department as a charter school gave validation to parents that we were a real school,” Davis said. “We follow all the same guidelines as other public schools.”

The designation also qualified the school for state funding. The school received $559,580 from the state for the 2013 school year.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

Article reprinted with permission of USAonRace.com

Featured Photo Credit: tulsaworld.com

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