School puts focus on tribal language

Curriculum Coordinator Cyd Crue takes a photograph to document the progress of the Chief Tahgee Elementary Academy on Aug. 1 in Fort Hall, Idaho. The dual-language immersion charter school is slated to open this fall.

FORT HALL, Idaho - Reviving the Shoshoni, and, eventually, the Bannock language, is the goal of the Chief Tahgee Elementary Academy, a language immersion charter school opening this fall in Fort Hall.

"Our native languages are on the verge of becoming extinct because only the older people are speaking (them)," language specialist Merceline Boyer said. "Our younger kids are not picking it up; and it's important because language is our (cultural) identity."

Once the first language of the Shoshone Indians, Shoshoni was replaced by English as the tribe's primary language during the last 50 years. School officials estimate less than 20 percent of tribal members speak the native language. Fewer still, speak the native Bannock language.

School officials hope the charter school will reverse that trend. Although in the same language group, the languages are significantly different. As a result, students will chose to learn either Shoshoni or Bannock.

The school also is designed to better meet the needs of Native American students. Indian youth are among the lowest academically performing minority in Idaho's public schools, Curriculum Coordinator Cyd Crue said.

"Native children across the country are testing far-below white children on standardized tests ... there is a huge education gap in the public schools," Crue said. "We are expecting this will help close the gap ... the beauty of charter schools is we can develop them to fit the community."

Initially, the school will cater to 114 kindergarten- through sixth-grade students, but not everyone will enroll in the language immersion program. This fall, only kindergarten students will be part of the program. As those students advance in school, administrators will introduce language immersion to each successive grade over six years.

Learning the Shoshoni language will be pushed most in kindergarten. During an 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. school day, a class of 30, 5- and 6-year-olds will hear English spoken for only 40 minutes during a language arts class, officials said. All other subjects are taught in Shoshoni by bilingual educators.

As students get older, the percentage of English will increase. By fifth grade students will be taught in 50 percent Shoshoni and 50 percent in English.

"These students will have to take all the same state testing (as everyone else), but our goal is for students to be fully literate ... and fluent in both languages by fifth and sixth grades," Crue said.

One of the biggest challenges for educators is developing curriculum. Shoshoni originally was a spoken-only language. It became a written language during the last 50 years.

So, there are no ready-made textbooks, Crue said. School staff is developing curriculum based on state standards and a Navajo Indian/Spanish/English trilingual immersion school in Flagstaff, Ariz. New curriculum will be introduced as it is produced during the next six years.

Finding new teachers and aides who speak and write fluently in Shoshoni and Bannock also is an ongoing challenge for administrators, Crue said. The school has five certified teachers, but only one - the kindergarten teacher - is fluent in Shoshoni. The school also hired a kindergarten aide and a part-time language instructor, who both speak Shoshoni.

The school will be housed in three mobile trailers in Fort Hall. Additional trailers will be installed as the school's enrollment increases to its 180 student cap. Within three to five years administrators plan to build a brick-and-mortar school adjacent to the site.

Darrell Shay, has several grandchildren attending the school. He is excited to see how the school affects the Fort Hall community during the next 40 years.

"After 40-50 years of living a different lifestyle we are looking back and wondering what happened (to our language)," Shay said. "Now we are trying to turn it around ... and the best way to teach language is to start early with our children. As they get older we hope they'll use it; and this will having a lasting impact on our community."