HOOPER BAY (AP) -- When Robert S. Gutierrez applied for the principal's position at the Naparyarmiut School, he promised to promote the local Alaska Native culture. Now he's keeping that promise.
The school started weaving traditions and culture of the local Yupik Eskimo population into its curriculum last year. It established a Native dance group and is now looking at implementing a Yupik-language immersion program for its kindergarten.
The changes are an attempt by the administration to bridge the gap between the school and the community.
''There's been minor friction between the community and the school because a majority of the teachers didn't understand our traditional way of life,'' said Rachel Fultze, acting general manager of the Sea Lion Corp. and a Yupik Eskimo raised in Hooper Bay.
The school's relationship with the community isn't bad, but as is common in Bush communities where cultural differences between Native villagers and non-Native teachers often lead to misunderstandings, there's always room for improvement, Gutierrez said.
''I won't say we've had problems, but communication isn't what it should be,'' he said.
The school's attempts have been welcomed by a community that's concerned with the loss of its Native language.
''A lot of these children are losing their language rapidly,'' Fultze said. ''To get back to our roots, we'll have to reintroduce our traditional culture to them.''
An informal survey of parents of kindergarten-age students by the Lower Yukon School District found that at least half supported developing a Yupik-language immersion program that would include lessons based on local Native culture.
''What we've done so far has failed and we want to do something different,'' Gutierrez said. ''We want our students to be successful and we think linking with the community will help us do that.''
Gutierrez and his staff are integrating the Yupik culture into the school's curriculum wherever possible. In April, the school will invite elders into the classroom during the three-day Louie Bunyan Festival to teach students how to make traditional crafts. Students will work with elders to make sleds, grass baskets, mukluks, parkas and other Native arts.
''We're doing more things students can relate to in their own community and culture,'' Gutierrez said.
The most popular program has been the Native dance class, a yearlong elective worth one credit for high school students. James Gump, a Yupik elder, teaches students songs and dances of their ancestors.
The class helps break down the gap between the school and the community, said high school teacher Scott Ballard, who works closely with the student dance group. It also keeps kids interested in school.
The school sent 11 student dancers to Fairbanks earlier this month for the Festival of Native Arts put on by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It was the first time the student group performed outside of Hooper Bay.
The school hopes to start a Yupik-language immersion program for students entering kindergarten in the fall. Gutierrez said the immersion program would grow with the class of 2015, with a Yupik-language program developed for each grade level as the students progress.
''We want to promote the language because of the role it plays in preserving the culture and traditions of the area,'' Gutierrez said. ''And more importantly, it improves the self esteem of the students.''
Twenty-six students are signed up for kindergarten in the fall. Parents would be able to choose to place their children in the immersion program or a traditional English program.
''Down the road, long range, well be able to see if there's any difference in the results,'' Gutierrez said.
Hooper Bay is the only school in the Lower Yukon School District considering a Native-language immersion program. Gutierrez acknowledged that the school's test scores on the state's high school exit exam are low compared with other schools, but he believes a bilingual program will improve student performance.
School officials said the program will be relatively inexpensive to implement. They plan to have Native faculty members translate existing curriculum into Yupik.
''We're talking $5,000 to $10,000,'' Gutierrez said.
Distributed by The Associated Press.
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