Native Language Programs Running Afoul Of No Child Left Behind
Associated Press
22 January 2005


Mike Chambers


[Some western Alaska schools that for decades have taught and helped preserve the Native Yupik language are in a quandary over meeting new federal testing requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act.

In the Lower Kuskokwim School District, third grade children taught almost exclusively in the Yupik language may be required to pass federal tests written in English. In Alaska, where Natives speak 20 aboriginal languages and dialects, meeting a uniform federal law could ultimately be too expensive, conflict with Native cultural traditions as well as the local control that the rural villages treasure.

Not many states face the issues that we do, said state Education Commissioner Roger Sampson.

Under the federal law, students would be tested annually from grades 3-8 and again in high school. States could make accommodations for language barriers, but after three years in U.S. public schools the children would be required to take English-only tests. Aside from the Heritage Language programs in more than 30 rural public schools, Alaska's largest city of Anchorage has more than 93 languages spoken by students, Sampson said. Already cash strapped, the state can little afford to translate tests into more than 100 languages, education officials said.

And even if it could, the Yupik language, though spoken by thousands of Alaska Natives from Norton Sound to Bristol Bay, does not translate as completely as Spanish or other European languages.

For instance, mathematics to American children is based on units of 10, where increments of 20 are used in Yupik math and numerous English words have no Yupik counterparts.

The Lower Kuskokwim School District, which oversees schools in Bethel and surrounding villages has had an intensive Yupik language program for about 30 years, said Superintendent Bill Ferguson. A similar program instituted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in earlier years was seen as a progressive way to assimilate Native children into English fluency. Since then, it's become a way for Yupik-speaking Natives to sustain their language and culture just as other Alaska Native languages dwindle.

I feel strongly that our kids should speak Yupik fluently, said state Rep. Mary Kapsner, of Bethel. I really feel this isn't just an academic issue about benchmark tests, but about cultural and social well being.]