Oklahoma students learn Cherokee at immersion school
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) — In a country where the majority of the population speaks English, one school in Tahlequah is immersing its students in their native tongue.
Students at the Cherokee Nation's Cherokee Immersion Charter School have started their journey to a bilingual education. From age 3 to the fourth grade, everything students learn is taught in Cherokee: math, science, history and more.
Principal Holly Davis said the first day can sometimes be difficult for younger students, but this year, all of them appear eager to attend class.
"I didn't hear one crier today, which is very unusual," Davis told the Tahlequah Daily Press . "Usually, we have at least a couple who cry, because they don't want mama to leave. We actually had a little boy who came to open house last night, who cried because he didn't want to leave. So that says a lot for what those ladies in there are doing — they're welcoming and made them feel so comfortable."
As the years have passed, the number of Cherokee speakers has dwindled and there appears to be a gap between elders who are fluent in the language and the tribe's youth. Around 90 percent of the students at the Immersion School come from homes without Cherokee speakers.
Davis said the school's goal is to close that gap by teaching kids the language while they're still young. Many agree Cherokee is not easy to master, so teachers take a "sink or swim" approach by speaking Cherokee to the students from the moment they start school.
"The kids don't know any Cherokee," said Davis. "The teachers just start talking Cherokee and they just begin to pick it up. They're little sponges. They don't always speak a lot at first, but you can see they're listening. It takes them closer to first grade before they start speaking more of it. Then, you just hear them rattle it off. They just start talking Cherokee and it's amazing."
The school currently has 141 students enrolled. Two adults are in every classroom — a certified teacher and a fluent Cherokee speaker. Davis said the conversations between the two teachers help students pick up the language better.
Once students reach the fifth and sixth grade at the Cherokee Immersion Charter School, their days are split into half English and half Cherokee. In seventh and eighth grade, they are taught in all English, but are encouraged to continue Cherokee conversations. They also have elective programs to help them continue their Cherokee language education.
But because there is no high school dedicated to Cherokee speakers, Davis said CICS has to prepare the youngsters for an "English world." Taking courses at the school could also help them get enrolled at Sequoyah High School.
"They can kind of have first dibs as a freshman at Sequoyah," said Davis. "That gets very, very competitive. For their enrollment, they do a point system, and you can get points for being an Immersion student. So it helps those students get in and gives them a little step up on getting into Sequoyah."
Although much of the curriculum is taught in Cherokee, the immersion school is like any other. It offers athletics like basketball and softball and recently picked up a robotics program, as kids vied in the state competition for the first time last year.
"We try to provide every opportunity to our students that they would get in public school," said Davis.
School administrators haven't noticed any difficulties once it's time for students to transition from the immersion school to public school, either. Davis said sometimes parents are worried their child's English abilities will be hindered, but the school's data has shown students are either at or above grade level once they reach high school. The first-ever group of Immersion students graduated from high school in May, and many of them received scholarships to go to college.
Brandi Sanders said there were some obvious reasons why she enrolled her son in the immersion school, and while he just started kindergarten, he already knows a multitude of phrases in both Cherokee and English.
"For me, it's the fact that we have this available to us," said Sanders. "Not a lot of other tribes have these kinds of schools. We should take advantage of it, because we are losing our fluent speakers all the time. It's about taking advantage of the opportunities the Cherokee Nation is providing for our young Cherokee speakers. I think that's the most important thing at this point."
For many, the Cherokee Immersion Charter School is an opportunity few had while growing up. There were even times when students were not allowed to speak Cherokee in school. Meanwhile, more of them learned English and spent zero time learning Cherokee. By saving their language, the Cherokees might also save their identity.
Mandy Adair hopes her son, who is now in the sixth grade, won't just learn the language, but perpetuate it also.
"One of the most heartwarming things is that he can speak to my dad," she said. "My dad's first language is Cherokee, so to hear him and my dad speak together is amazing. It kind of gives me hope that our language will survive, because if we lose it, we lose our identity as a tribe."