The gift of the child: Inupiat school thrives on love

The Inupiat Inuit of Kotzebue, Alaska have opened their own independent pre-school that immerses children in their aboriginal language.


The Arctic Sounder

KOTZEBUE, ALASKA — “Those kids,” sighed pre-school teacher Taiyaaq Ida Biesemeier as she entered the small kitchen of Nikaitchuat Ilisagvait for a short break.

“I love them.”

Piqpaksriliq Iyaalugruagnik, the Inupiat value meaning “Love for children,” is the cornerstone of this Inupiaq immersion school in Kotzebue, Alaska, which has 23 students between the ages of three and six.

That love was evident last week when, during nap-time, teachers stayed with the students, holding their hands, petting their heads, and helping them go to sleep.

Or when a grumpy, complaining child was gently taken by the hand and quietly led away from the class.

According to school founder Tarruq Peter Schaeffer, children cry when they have to leave school to go home at the end of the day.

“Those children are truly loved,” he said, speaking softly while surrounded by students’ artwork at the Kotzebue Indian Reorganization Act office. Schaeffer, whose gentleness puts others at ease, is executive director of the IRA.

The purpose of all this care and concern is, in Schaeffer’s words, “to seek the gift of the child.”

Love of learning

Schaeffer and his wife, Agnik Polly Schaeffer, and others started the school three years ago. In the mid-1990s a group called the Vital Team met locally to discuss educational issues, and from those meetings the idea developed to start an independent school — one that, unlike Yup’ik immersion schools in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region or the Inupiaq immersion program in Barrow, does not rely on state funding and therefore is not required to follow the state curriculum.

Schaeffer, who spent four years on the regional school board, believes that there are a lot of discipline problems at public schools that disrupt the classes, take teachers away from the students, and ultimately keep children from learning.

“One of the big reasons for starting the school was our concern about what’s happening in other schools,” Schaeffer said. For instance, children do not learn proper respect for themselves and for others.

But he found that affecting change while on the school board was difficult, and said that the path of least resistance was to start an independent school.

“We saw (Nikaitchuat) as an opportunity to develop a love of learning.”

The school receives about $250,000 in funding each year from NANA, the Northwest Arctic Borough, the Maniilaq Association, and the Kotzebue IRA, Director Igluguq Dianne Schaeffer said.

NANA also provides the building for the school, but Igluguq Schaeffer said that the school is bursting at its seams and can’t add students until the school finds a new facility.

This year the school received an additional nearly $200,000 in federal funds for curriculum development. It will continue to receive almost that much for the next two years.

Tuition for students is $350 each month for preschoolers. Tuition this year for first-graders dropped to $300 per month to help retain older students.

“We lost a few students this fall because they’re old enough to go to regular school for free,” said Igluguq Schaeffer, who is the daughter of Tarruq and Agnik.

There are nine students in both the preschool and kindergarten this year but only five first graders.

Cultural hope

Another big reason for starting the school — perhaps the biggest reason — was to instill Inupiaq culture and language from a very young age.

“Learning to speak Inupiaq — that’s something that we value a lot,” said Agnatchiaq Lulu Hunnicutt Chamblee, who with her husband, Carl, has two sons at Nikaitchuat.

“It’s hard to explain why we value that. It gets very emotional,” she said.

Chamblee, who is Inupiaq, but not a fluent speaker, hopes her children will become fluent.

“You know how parents always want what they didn’t have for their children,” she said.

At a Maniilaq meeting recently, Tarruq Schaeffer asked the assembled crowd of about 100 how many spoke Inupiaq fluently. About three quarters of the crowd, mostly middle-aged people and elders, raised their hands.

Then he asked, “How many of your children speak fluently?”

About 10 people raised their hands.

Tarruq Schaeffer looks at the Nikaitchuat students as “23 little ones that we will hang significant cultural hope on,” he told Canadian researchers recently at another meeting.

“We think investing in our younger generation is a key component of the recovery of our people.”

Nikaitchuat requires that parents become involved in that investment by participating in their child’s education at the school. The school, which maintains an open-door policy regarding parental visits, requests that parents come to bi-monthly meetings and volunteer at the school.

“Unless you support the child, the child will have a difficult time,” Tarruq Schaeffer said. He is also trying to restore the status of elders as traditional teachers in the community and at Nikaitchuat. “We feel it’s their rightful place. (But) we have to create an atmosphere where they feel welcome.”

The best of both worlds

Deciding to place their children in Nikaitchuat was very difficult, the Chamblees said.

“We’ve discussed it at length. What would be best for our boys?” Carl Chamblee said.

“The method of teaching is somewhat different, and the curriculum is totally different. It’s like comparing apples to oranges,” he said, speaking of the differences between Nikaitchuat and June Nelson Elementary School, where he is the principal.

“Both programs offer a lot but having my children learn Inupiaq is something they couldn’t get at public school,” Agnatchiaq Chamblee said, adding that there are programs and learning opportunities at public school that her children can’t get at Nikaitchuat.

“What the decision comes down to is what, as a parent, do you want your children exposed to?” Carl Chamblee said.

The Inupiaq program at the elementary school, while not an immersion program, is good too, he said. Nikaitchuat first-graders are invited to after-school programs at the elementary school, the Chamblees said.

Fellow parent Calvin Schaeffer is also very happy with the Nikaitchuat.

And like the Chamblees, he said that at some point students have to start more rigorous academics. When Nikaitchuat students do enter the public school or other more Western educational systems, they should do fine academically, according to results from immersion schools in Hawaii and Barrow and elsewhere.

“Test scores are starting to indicate that the (immersion students) are performing as well if not better in some areas,” said Janna Harcharek, manager of the bilingual multicultural instructional department at the Fred Ipalook Elementary School in Barrow.

The immersion program there runs from preschool through fifth grade and is part of the public school system. It has been operating for seven years.

According to Igluguq Schaeffer, results from Yup’ik immersion schools indicate that for the first year after being in an immersion program, students are catching up with their English.

By the third year, academically and in their knowledge of English they are at the same place, or better, as their fellow students who did not attend immersion programs. In addition, the immersion students know a second language.

The Chamblees believe that by attending Nikaitchuat first and then going to a more western school, their sons will get the best of both worlds — fluency in their Native language and knowledge of their heritage, followed by a western education.

“He’s getting a good education where he’s at,” Carl Chamblee said about his oldest son at Nikaitchuat. “And it’s the right thing to do.

“I have no doubt about that.”

Anything is possible

Nikaitchuat, when translated from Inupiaq, means “anything is possible,” and Ilisagvait means “a place to learn.”

And anything is possible at this school, which because of its independence from state funding has full control over its curriculum ó a unique situation for an immersion school.

This control means that the school has the freedom to have a curriculum based on the seasons and on traditional subsistence activities. The students learn the Inupiaq way of life and way of relating to the world.

“Relationships are built on respect and proper treatment of animals,” Tarruq Schaeffer said.

“By respect for them, then there is respect for traditions,” he said. “So we have the little ones do what the community is doing to the largest extent possible.”

The students help with the seal harvest, getting their hands into the seal blubber and blood. They learn to render their own seal oil and then present elders and parents with a jar full of the traditional delicacy.

“We’re fitting all the math and science into what we do regularly,” Igluguq Schaeffer said. While learning about the subsistence way of life, the students also learn to identify the parts and organs of the seal and other harvests in Inupiaq — and then also learn English names for those parts.

They get to see the snout of the animal, the animal’s teeth and how it grinds up vegetable or other matter, and they get to help hunt rabbits, ptarmigan, geese, and ducks and look at differences in those animals’ digestive systems.

They can take fish out of nets and identify the separate species.

“Then they boil them for lunch, which probably beats the daylights out of corn fritters!” Tarruq Schaeffer joked.

But before lunch, another aspect of Nikaitchuat’s freedom from state-funding is in evidence. The large, open classroom last week came to an easy silence, and the students pressed their hands together and bent their heads.

All meals are blessed at the school, in keeping with the spirituality that is central to Inupiaq culture. The Arctic Sounder is a weekly newspaper that serves Kotzebue and Barrow, Alaska.

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