Published Online: July 14, 2010
Includes correction(s): March 23, 2012

NCLB Seen Impeding Indigenous-Language Preservation

Native American leaders pressed members of Congress and federal education officials this week to provide relief from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act that they see as obstacles to running the language-immersion schools they need to keep their languages from disappearing.

As part of a two-day national summit here on revitalizing native languages, three founders of immersion schools that are teaching children Cherokee, Ojibwe, and Native Hawaiian contended that some No Child Left Behind provisions present huge hurdles for language-immersion programs or schools and conflict with schooling rights spelled out in another federal law, the Native American Languages Act. That 1990 law says it is U.S. policy to “encourage and support the use of Native American languages as a medium of instruction.”

In a face-to-face interaction at the summit, the founders of immersion schools petitioned Charles P. Rose, the general counsel of the U.S. Department of Education, to give them a legal interpretation that exempts their schools from having to meet provisions of the NCLB law that require them to test their students in English, particularly in the early grades, and ensure that teachers are “highly qualified.”

Since the immersion schools typically don’t introduce English until the 5th grade, their founders argued that it’s unfair that those schools can be penalized if their students don’t test well in English in the early grades. They added that the federal law—the most recent version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—makes it hard for them to expand their schools beyond the elementary grades because to do so they must hire teachers who are both fluent in an indigenous language and “highly qualified” to teach math, science, or another content area.

Dwindling Numbers

The language advocates are also asking Congress to target more of the money authorized by the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act of 2006 to immersion schools rather than to less intensive efforts to teach the language. And they are preparing to ask President Barack Obama to issue an executive order that supports the revitalization of Native American languages, which is being backed by the National Congress of American Indians, a Washington-based organization for leaders of tribal governments.

A coalition called the National Alliance to Save Native Languages, founded in 2006 and based in Washington, hosted the July 13-14 summit. Sponsors of the meeting included the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Education Association, the National Indian Gaming Association, and Cultural Survival.

The United States has from 139 to 155 indigenous languages that still have fluent speakers, but for about half those languages, only a handful of elderly speakers remain, said Jennifer Weston, a program officer for Endangered Languages for Cultural Survival, a Cambridge, Mass.-based organization that aims to preserve the cultures and languages of indigenous peoples worldwide.

“About 70 indigenous languages in the United States have only about five to seven years with their elders,” Ms. Weston said in a presentation at the summit.

Donna Starr, an indigenous-language teacher at a school run by the Muckleshoot tribe in Washington state and the Bureau of Indian Education, an arm of the U.S. Department of the Interior, said that time is running out for her to learn from the only person in her tribe who is fluent in her tribal language—Whulshootseed. Ms. Starr said that person is a woman in her late 80s. Ms. Starr teaches an hour of Whulshootseed lessons each day to middle and high school students.

But for tribes that have a critical mass of fluent speakers, launching an immersion school is the best educational approach to prevent the disappearance of languages, language advocates said.

Leslie Harper, the director of an Ojibwe immersion school in Leech Lake, Minn., said that only about 1,000 of the Ojibwe living in the United States are fluent in their tribal language. She said her extended family lost its only fluent speaker of Ojibwe with the recent death of her grandfather.

“My parents just had remnants of the language,” she said, “It’s a common tale.”

But Ms. Harper helped to start an Ojibwe immersion school that now has 25 children in grades 1-6, some of whom are highly proficient in the language, she said. The school provides a place on the reservation where everyone speaks Ojibwe.

At the same time, Ms. Harper, who is in her 30s, and some others in her generation have worked hard to acquire proficiency in the language. She said that with the help of the immersion school, she’s raised her 10-year-old son to speak Ojibwe.

A Bureau of Indian Education school hosts the immersion school and requires it to adhere to all the provisions of the No Child Left Behind law, she said.

Cherokee School

Gloria Sly, the director of the cultural-resource center for the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, spoke at the summit about her tribe’s funding of a private immersion school, started three years ago, to teach Cherokee.

“The parents of our children are not speakers,” she said. The school now has 80 children in preschool through 4th grade who receive all instruction in Cherokee.

Immersion schools to revitalize the Native Hawaiian language have an even longer record than the schools aimed at saving the Ojibwe and Cherokee languages.

William H. “Pila” Wilson, the head of the academic-programs division for the University of Hawaii’s College of Hawaiian Language, in Hilo, helped start the first Native Hawaiian immersion school since public schools were barred from teaching the language in 1896. He said the school graduated its first high school class in 1999.

Mr. Wilson, who is not Native Hawaiian, and his wife, who is, both learned the indigenous Hawaiian language as a second language and speak it with their two children.

The College of Hawaiian Language creates curricula and certifies teachers for immersion schools in Native Hawaiian. Mr. Wilson said Hawaii now has Native Hawaiian immersion strands in 22 public schools.

But he said it can be hard to convince even Native Hawaiians that Native Hawaiian students have better academic prospects in the immersion schools than in regular public schools because parents are worried their children won’t learn English.

Mr. Wilson said he tells parents that their children are so surrounded by English in their lives outside school that they will succeed in learning English even though they are taught all their subjects in Native Hawaiian.

He maintains that intensive immersion is needed for youngsters to truly become fluent in an indigenous language and combat the powerful forces around them to speak only in English. Mr. Wilson noted that the immersion school his children attended had a 10-year record of having every student graduate up until this past school year, when one student dropped out to work in construction. Typically about 80 percent of students graduating from that school go on to college, he said.

Problem With NCLB

In a question-and-answer session at the summit, Mr. Wilson explained to Mr. Rose of the Education Department, a panelist, how provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act create obstacles for language-immersion schools.

He said students of such schools test well in English in the upper grades, after they’ve acquired literacy in English, but not in the lower grades, because at that point they’re receiving all their instruction in an indigenous language.

Mr. Wilson said parents at some of the immersion schools in Hawaii are refusing to let their children be tested in English because they believe the required testing in English is unfair.

The state, however, has not permitted the immersion schools to use tests in the Native Hawaiian language for accountability purposes under the federal law, according to Mr. Wilson, and when educators complain, the state officials say they’re just following the direction of federal officials.

On another point of contention, Mr. Wilson asked Mr. Rose for flexibility for immersion schools not to have to comply with the provision of the law on hiring “highly qualified” teachers because it’s hard to find such teachers at the middle and high school levels who are also fluent in Native Hawaiian.

Mr. Rose promised he would research Mr. Wilson’s observation that provisions of No Child Left Behind Act, which was signed into law in 2002, are in conflict with those in the Native American Languages Act. He said he would schedule an opportunity for more discussion about how the Education Department can address the issue.

Mr. Rose said he’s heard the message from tribal leaders across the country that the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act needs to be more supportive of helping Native Americans preserve their languages and cultures than the NCLB version is.

Across the United States, Mr. Wilson said, about 5,000 children are attending schools where they are fully immersed in instruction in indigenous languages. More than 2,000 of those children are learning Native Hawaiian, he said.

The immersion-school opportunity “is very rare and precious,” Mr. Wilson said, “and we need to support it.”

Vol. 29, Issue 37

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story misstated the number of fluent Ojibwe speakers. According to Leslie Harper, the director of an Ojibwe immersion school in Leech Lake, Minn., about 1,000 of the Ojibwe living in the United States are fluent in their tribal language.

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