New Native language bill targets school districts

Posted: Monday, May 15, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- State Sen. Georgianna hopes a new Native language education law will prompt school districts to move beyond teaching the simple phrases and songs that are currently the extent of many Native language programs.

The measure sponsored by Lincoln, a Rampart Democrat, was signed into law by Gov. Tony Knowles last week. It requires school districts in which more than 50 percent of students are Native to establish local Native language curriculum advisory boards.

If such an advisory board recommends establishing a Native language curriculum, the local school district may start one.

Although the law makes it optional for districts to provide the curriculum, Lincoln thinks the fact that advisory boards must be established to consider the issue will spur action.

''This is not to teach words, this is not to teach phrases,'' Lincoln said. ''This is to teach a language so a person will be fluent in that language, so a person would be able to read and write that language.''

The bill is one Lincoln worked for years to get through the Legislature. When she first introduced it, the bill didn't give districts a choice about providing Native language curriculum. It said they ''shall'' do it.

''I darn near got it through -- oh gosh, nine years ago -- and I was stubborn and I would not change the 'shall' to a 'may' and consequently it didn't get through,'' she said.

Some of the opposition came from school districts that didn't want to be pressured to provide what they considered an unfunded mandate.

For the next several years Lincoln tried to get the bill passed with language that simply said the districts ''may'' provide the curriculum, but it wasn't until this year that it made it through.

A number of Southeast schools have been moving, to varying degrees, in the direction the new law tries to point them.

In Kake, students have been receiving Tlingit instruction from a local speaker for 15 years, Superintendent Bill Hopkins said.

''All of our kids are exposed to it,'' he said. ''We don't have any speaking total Tlingit.''

Hydaburg schools have a Haida art program, which is supposed to include some language instruction, Hydaburg principal Roger Prater said. The school district will probably try to beef up the language element of that program, he said.

The bill, however, envisions more extensive programs. It calls for the use of certified instructors to deliver the curriculum and the possible use of distance-delivered instruction and materials from the University of Alaska.

Lincoln said some village schools teach German, Spanish, Russian and Japanese, but not the local Native languages.

Those languages are on the verge of extinction. Only two of 20 Alaska Native languages are spoken fluently by children today. A University of Alaska Fairbanks linguistics professor, Michael Krauss, has predicted that unless some action is taken by 2055 only five of the 20 Alaska Native languages will be spoken by anyone.



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