In the 1990s, I worked at KYUK — the public radio and TV station in Bethel — where we did many stories about the push for a Yup’ik language immersion school, such as the Ayaprun Elitnaurvik School, which was recently destroyed in a fire.
Some argued that while the Yup’ik language was strong in the surrounding villages, it had eroded too much in Bethel for such a program to work. While, at the same time, a small group of teachers and parents pointed to success stories of immersion programs around the world, including those involving indigenous cultures.
Twenty-five years ago, the experiment began. In the fall of 1995, A Yup’ik immersion school started with two kindergarten classes. Thereafter, the school expanded one grade level at a time. In the early grades, children were taught completely in Yup’ik, with English gradually incorporated. In 2002, the first sixth-grade class graduated, and many of its students excelled in academics at the Bethel Regional High School.
The school continually crossed into new educational frontiers, but perhaps its biggest accomplishment: It proved language erosion could be reversed — an important lesson for every community, whether it be Tlingit or Inupiaq, struggling to keep Native language alive.
In contrast to the early controversy surrounding the Bethel school, after the fire, there was a dedicated community-wide, even statewide effort, to resume classes as quickly as possible for the Ayaprun Elitnaurvik students, as well as for the Kuskokwim Learning Academy — the other innovative magnet school program housed in the same building where the fire struck.
In less than a week, the children were back at school in temporary classes. And the school’s namesake, Loddie “Ayaprun” Jones, was energetically leading her kindergarteners though their daily lessons. Although she was grieving the loss of the school, she said it was important for the children that the adults maintain a sense of normalcy.
Ayaprun is 68 years old and still infusing her classes with so much love, wisdom and joy, under some of the worst of circumstances. Earlier this year, we recorded an interview with Ayaprun, which is fun to watch. You’ll see why her students love her so.
We hope this week’s Frontiers program captures the “can do” spirit of the school, as well as the community of Bethel’s amazing resourcefulness. The Lower Kuskokwim School District’s staff and teachers have truly put the kids first.
Our guests this week helped shape the school’s early years — Steve O’Brien, the first principal, and Agatha “Panigkaq” John-Shields, who was one of the first parents in the program, and later a teacher and principal. They reflect on the school’s achievements.