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Council pledges support for extending language immersion program

fr kituwahWith the school year nearing its midpoint, sixth-graders at New Kituwah Academy in Cherokee are starting to ask an increasingly urgent question: Will I have to change schools next year?

“These kids don’t know if they’re going to be there next year,” Bo Taylor, father of one of the sixth-graders and executive director of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, told Tribal Council this month. “They don’t know and they’re asking. That’s kind of unsettling.” 

A Cherokee language immersion school, New Kituwah is still a somewhat young endeavor for the tribe, with this year’s sixth graders representing the first crop of students to have been surrounded by the language since they were babies. In a community in which just over 200 people are still fluent in the native language, that’s a proud milestone. 

“We’re not losing our language because of these children,” said Myrtle Driver, a Cherokee beloved woman and fluent speaker. “It’s our speakers that we are losing. And we’re leaving the burden of carrying on the language on the shoulders of these precious children.” 

Started in 2004, the school began with students ages 2 through kindergarten. Upon moving into its present building in 2009, the goal was to expand New Kituwah one grade at a time to cover birth through fifth grade. 

The school reached that goal in 2014, when it welcomed its first fifth-grade class. But the academy’s leaders didn’t rest long, approaching Tribal Council in March with a resolution asking that the tribe agree “to support the planning and development of an expansion for New Kituwah Academy.” 

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The expansion in question was development of a middle school, to be housed in the old high school building. 

Bill Taylor, then vice chair and now chairman of Tribal Council, said the idea was “just perfect,” an expression of support that the rest of council shared. They passed the resolution unanimously.

“I think this school and these children are the heartbeat of our tribe,” Councilmember Albert Rose, of Birdtown, said in March. “I’m just glad to be part of pushing this through, and you have my support on anything you need.”

Though the old high school building is not yet occupied, New Kituwah was able to add a sixth grade this year, but unfortunately the decision to expand into the middle school grades kicked off just as elections heated up for the offices of principal chief, vice chief and tribal council, as well as three school board seats. So nothing much happened between March and November, when Bo Taylor approached council asking that they start moving forward. 

“The building can be down the road,” he said. “What’s important is getting these positions filled. Their teachers need to be in place. What I’d really like to say is, ‘Are we going to school next year?’”

When faced with that direct question, council members were unambiguous with their support. 

“I think I can speak for all 12 members sitting up here. You all will be going to school next year,” Bill Taylor said as applause broke out from the audience. 

What’s still unclear, however, is exactly what that will look like. Council and Principal Chief Patrick Lambert support the work of New Kituwah, but different leaders have different ideas about how to go about the next phase. Can the immersion curriculum indeed continue on through the high school grades, or is that just not feasible right now? 

“It’s just simply a matter of having real, honest discussion about whether or not this is going to be an immersion school or whether it’s basically going to be a charter school,” Lambert said. The Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, he said, has a similar endeavor going on but opted not to carry the immersion program through the higher grades. 

“They discovered that full immersion for 12 years is, at this point in our history, just not possible to do,” Lambert said. How, for instance, do you teach college prep biology in a language that lacks words for many of the terms found in a standard textbook?  

On the other hand, said Councilmember Adam Wachacha, of Snowbird, what if council shifted its focus from upper-level language immersion to providing more opportunities for elementary immersion? 

“When we talk about saving a language, are we saving the language throughout the tribe, and that’s where my community comes from,” Wachacha said. “We’re not putting enough effort into the outlying areas of the tribe.” 

The Snowbird community, which Wachacha represents, is an hour’s drive from Cherokee. Kids growing up there, he pointed out, can’t partake in all New Kituwah has to offer without, as he put it, “taking part of their childhood away to save a language.” 

“If we’re going to save our language, we need to make sure each of them has an opportunity to learn it,” he said. 

With Bill Taylor’s verbal commitment to make sure that a sixth-grade class exists at New Kituwah next year, the students sitting in the audience during the exchange likely left feeling more hopeful than when they came in. 

But plenty of discussion — and perusal of Lambert’s suggested budget, which council was not ready to vote on at this month’s meeting — will likely take place before a final decision on the mechanics of fulfilling that commitment is reached. 

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