SHIPROCK — The 19 students who every day wander into room E-1 at Eva B. Stokely Elementary School enter a different world.

Here, the kindergartners are expected to listen to, speak and write Navajo for the full school day.

In this room, children learn the intricacies of a language so difficult their grandfathers used it to form an unbreakable code during World War II. The famous Navajo Code Talkers, however, were among the last generations of Navajo citizens who predominantly spoke the native language.

"There was a lot of need in the community from parents who wanted their children to learn Navajo," immersion teacher Marlena Shepard said Thursday as she supervised classroom activities. "Studies said that it was disappearing, and there was a really need to revitalize it."

Only 50 percent of Navajo ages 17 and younger were able to speak their native language at all in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Even fewer could write it.

Although it is the most-spoken American Indian language north of Mexico, with more than 100,000 people speaking it, its use and fluency among the younger generation is on the decline, and many consider it to be an endangered language.

Statistics like these have prompted the Central Consolidated School District to launch its first Navajo immersion program. The program, limited to a single kindergarten class, is expected to grow annually until it spans the elementary grades, Eva B.


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Stokely Principal Mark Madsen said.

"Eventually what we want is a kindergarten-through-fifth-grade program," he said. "Because if you think about it now, what do you do with older students who want to learn? The opportunity is not there."

The district introduced the program at the start of the school year, and parents must make a special request for their children to be enrolled, Madsen said.

Navajo language classes exist at all 17 of the district's schools, but this program was the first to completely immerse students in their native language.

District leaders, in conjunction with the governing board and the new Heritage Education Center, formed the class as part of a 20-year language revitalization program. They put at the helm Lucy Charley, who taught at Nataani Nez Elementary School until it closed last year.

Charley attended boarding schools as a child and was punished for speaking Navajo. She retained a love for her native language and culture, however, and taught bilingual education in the school district for 27 years

Charley retired in December after an extended illness.

Shepard stepped in to lead the class through the end of the year, Madsen said. The district plans to hire two permanent Navajo language teachers for next school year — one for kindergarten and one to follow this year's immersion students into the first grade.

Shepard, who grew up in Shiprock, also attended boarding schools, she said. That was where she learned English, and where she was prohibited from speaking her first language.

Her learning experience was the opposite of what she hopes to accomplish in the classroom. Most of her students did not speak Navajo at all when they enrolled in the immersion class, she said.

"Some of the parents said they wanted their children in this because when they were children they missed out on it," Shepard said. "They don't want their children also to miss out on learning Navajo."

Much of the learning gap that claimed the generations that went before these kindergartners came from boarding schools that swept Navajo children from their homes and native cultures.

The language revitalization program aims to curb that trend and reverse it, Shepard said.

"It's a lot easier to learn Navajo as a child, or as a first language," she said. "Right now, (the students) are still doing some communicating in English, but ultimately this classroom will be all in Navajo. I think these students will be the ones to teach the next generation of children and continue the language."

The Navajo, or Diné, language uses a combination of glottal stops, nasal tone and high tone diacritical marks on vowels. It's a language Madsen said still confounds him.

"I've been here 25 years and I still don't know it," he said.

In room E-1, however, students like 5-year-old Shiloh Frazier are becoming naturals. Frazier, while participating in a verbal repetition activity with teacher's aide Peggy Phillips, pushed his tongue into the pocket behind his front teeth — the necessary position to form a glottal stop.

"I don't know how he does that," Madsen said.

Frazier is part of a pilot program district officials hope turns an important page in the book of native learning. The district encounters a disadvantage on state and federal testing standards because of its high native population, including many who are learning two languages.

But the native language and culture were too important to ignore, Madsen said.

The result is a kindergarten class that is pulling double duty.

"These kids are expected by third grade to take the same test all the other third-graders in the state do," Madsen said. "That's a lot of work."

Yet bilingual learning may prove to jump-start academics for these students.

"Studies show this helps with the other subjects in school," Madsen said. "The goal is to learn language and culture, but studies show by the fifth grade, students like this are catching up to their peers, even surpassing them."

Alysa Landry: alandry@daily-times.com