Sherry Colley’s grandson posed for a picture with a great big grin, as he held a sign rimmed in gold glitter in front of College Gate Elementary School. It said, “First Day of Yup’ik Kindergarten.”

“I think I’m more excited than he is,” Colley said.

Her father was Albert Kawagley, a well-known Yup’ik scholar, who did not pass on his language to her, because there was a period in his life where he was ashamed of being Yup’ik.

But Monday was a day of pride for Colley, who has two grandsons enrolled College Gate’s Yup’ik immersion program.

The East Anchorage school opened its doors Monday morning to about 30 kindergarten students who will be taught in Yup’ik. The school district plans to add a grade a year, in hopes of schooling a generation of students fluent in Yup’ik.

“This is the first aboriginal language offered in the Anchorage School District,” said Darrell Berntsen, the principal at College Gate. “This is huge. The Native community has been wanting this for years.”

Berntsen hopes the Yup’ik immersion class at College Gate will lead to other indigenous language programs in Anchorage schools.

“We are the biggest little village in the state of Alaska,” he said. “This is powerful.”

Bernsten grew up in Old Harbor on Kodiak Island, where elders still tell stories about how they were punished in school for speaking Sugpiaq, also known as Alutiiq, instead of English.

Lorina Warren is the district’s first Yup’ik immersion teacher, a distinction she considers an honor.

“It means our language is going to keep going,” she said. “I’m very excited about that.”

Even before the students arrived in the morning, Warren was busy making sure the children would sit down to desks with their Yup’ik name on them.

Traditionally, children are named after elders in the community, who have recently departed -- to carry on their memory and bring comfort to the grieving. But some of Warren’s students did not have Yup’ik namesakes, so she researched the names of elders who died about the time these kindergartners were born.

Warren is intent on making the setting for learning as authentic as possible.

“I’m going to start out teaching these kids basic speaking, and we’ll progress from there. I want these kids to be speaking to me,” Warren said.

She hopes by the end of the year, she’ll hear children in the hallways and playground conversing to each other in Yup’ik.

“They’ll learn fast,” she predicted.

The children will spend half the day with Warren, learning all their lessons in Yup’ik. The other half of the day will be spent with Mary Bartz, who will teach reading, writing and math in English.

Bartz says she’s excited to be a part of the new program and will try to learn some Yup’ik words, so she can help make the transition between classrooms more seamless.

Bartz says she’s also interested in finding out how quickly these children in a bilingual setting grasp concepts in English.

“I think kids that are exposed to something like this, it really does accelerate their learning,” she said. 

On Monday, the children had lessons in both Yup’ik and English in counting numbers.

Parents like Kelsey Wallace are believers in bilingual education. Wallace graduated from the Ayaprun Yup’ik immersion school in Bethel, and enrolled her daughter in the Cook Inlet Native Head Start Yup’ik language program.

“She has a bilingual brain already, and she’s only 5,” Wallace said. “The more we keep feeding that, and the more we keep giving them the opportunity to speak and learn, read and write in Yup’ik, it’s really going to influence her and help her.”

Parents in the Head Start preschool program said the Yup’ik immersion program helped to promote good behavior, because the culture is embedded in the language.”

“The language is really the backbone of our Yup’ik people,” Wallace said.

The Anchorage Yup’ik immersion program has had the good fortune to tap the Lower Kuskokwim School District, which has spent decades creating Yup’ik children’s books and teaching materials.

The federal government will fund the Anchorage School District’s Yup’ik immersion program for three years. After that, the district will take it over.

Doreen Brown, senior director of the district’s Indian education and Yup’ik heritage programs, says there’s a lot of interest nationally in the Anchorage program – because few indigenous-language programs are in urban centers.

Brown says the Anchorage program is part of a national one that has been given an unprecedented amount of money – so the progress of the Yup’ik immersion program will be watched closely.

Brown says it’s taken decades of work to get to this point.

“I do this, and I get teary-eyed,” Brown said. “It’s my family. Our future generations. It’s a labor of love.”

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