BETHEL (AP) -- For the first time since it opened in 1985, Ayaprun Elitnaurvik School, Bethel's Yupik immersion school will have two principals -- one who speaks English and one who speaks Yup'ik.
Principal Chris Meier and co-principal Agatha Panigkaq Shields joined forces to make the immersion program work this month. Meier will concentrate on the English components of the program, including administration duties. Shields will focus on the Yupik-language instruction and staff.
Ayaprun Elitnaurvik School's advisory school board has always sought to hire a Yupik Eskimo principal fluent in the Native language. But qualified applicants have proven difficult to find, so this year the school created a co-principal position.
Shields will be working toward achieving principal status through an internship principal certification with the University of Alaska Anchorage educational leadership program, according to Bill Ferguson, Lower Kuskokwim School District superintendent.
The school has 188 students. The students spend their first three years learning exclusively in Yupik. After that, they divide their studies between English and Yupik.
''We're very much like any other school, except we teach in two languages instead of one,'' Meier said.
The program is challenging for teachers and administrators because it is new to the Lower Kuskokwim School District. Yupik teaching material must be created especially for the program.
Before Shields became co-principal, she was a Yupik-as-a-second-language teacher. She also developed Yupik course work for the school. Her position as co-principal will allow her to see the program on a broader scale, she said.
Shields always wanted to be principal, but attained her goal sooner than anticipated.
''I took the position when nobody else applied because I knew I could do it,'' Shields said. ''Any Yupik person can do it.''
Meier was grateful for the opportunity to concentrate on elementary students. Last year he was principal of Paul T. Albert Memorial School in Tununak, which served students from kindergarten through high school.
Meier, originally from Minnesota, taught in Toksook Bay, Newtok and Platinum before completing his internship to be principal at Tununak. The immersion school in Bethel has a stronger Yupik component than many other programs, he said.
''The position gave me the opportunity to be in a school that is recognized nationwide and to do something exciting with my life,'' Meier said.
The principals share a personal reason for support of the school.
Two of Meier's half-Yupik children joined the program after transferring from Tununak to Bethel.
''Being Yupik is part of their identity,'' Meier said. ''It is very important to me that they are familiar with that part of their identity.''
Shields has three children enrolled in the school.
''Being literate in the Yupik language and culture will allow them to learn more from their elders,'' Shields said.
The principals also share common goals, especially a new building.
Students in kindergarten through second grade now attend school in a building next to Mikelnguut Elitnaurviat Elementary. Grades third to sixth attend school at Kilbuck Primary School. Teachers and administrators communicate by phone, e-mail and staff meetings, Shields said.
Sharing the duties of principal is both a challenge and a reward for Meier and Shields. Meier is studying Yupik, though he acknowledges his goal of speaking fluently may take some time.
Shields is learning to communicate with many different teachers.
''I hope that my working in this position will open the door for other Native people in the future,'' she said.
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