Ayuq Blanehett and Josaia Lehauli recieve awards for their work at the Tlingit Culture Language and Literacy program at Harborview Elementary School Monday morning. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Tlingit language and culture program expands its reach

The optional district program is extending to eighth grade, hiring full-time principal

Big changes are on the horizon for a once small optional Tlingit language and culture program offered by the Juneau School District and Sealaska Heritage Institute.

Each year for more than 20 years, the Tlingit Culture, Language and Literacy Program at Harborview Elementary has offered students in kindergarten to the fifth grade in the Juneau School District a place-based “school within a school” where the Tlingit language and culture are integrated into daily class instruction.

“It helps us interpret Haa Shuká, the way of our ancestors,” said Aurora Koal.a,Gisook Southerland, a fourth grade student at TCLL.

Last week the program announced that for the first time, it will be expanding its reach to students up to the eighth grade level along with hiring a full-time principal to lead the growing program after it was awarded federal grant funding in the fall that made the expansion possible.

Students from the Tlingit Culture Language and Literacy program at Harborview Elementary School dance in front of elders during the program’s Monday morning meeting. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Students from the Tlingit Culture Language and Literacy program at Harborview Elementary School dance in front of elders during the program’s Monday morning meeting. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

“I think things are going fabulous and are getting really exciting,” said TCLL interim principal Molly Box, a former Harborview principal who came out of retirement to temporarily fill the principal position. Box is set to remain as interim principal until a new full-time principal is selected by the district and is expected to start around July.

According to district Superintendent Bridget Weiss, the district is currently seeking candidates to fill the principal position and the hiring process will begin in the coming weeks.

“We are excited to support the expansion of this very special program,” Weiss said to the Empire.

TCLL currently offers three classes, one for kindergarten and first graders, one for second and third graders and one for fourth and fifth graders, and the around 70 students are led by the school’s current team of educators, which is composed of three elders, three language instructors and three classroom teachers who instruct by integrating biliteracy lessons alongside traditional knowledge and academic content taught in both Lingít and English.

Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire 
Students from the Tlingit Culture Language and Literacy program at Harborview Elementary School pose with awards next to the program’s elders Monday morning.

Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire Students from the Tlingit Culture Language and Literacy program at Harborview Elementary School pose with awards next to the program’s elders Monday morning.

Starting next fall, the program will expand to offer a sixth to seventh grade class to up to 24 Juneau students and in the following year it will offer an option for an eighth grade class with up to 12 Juneau students. With the new students, the program will also add an additional two classroom teachers, one language instructor and one elder to assist the middle school program expansion. The expanded middle school programs will be hosted alongside the younger grade levels at Harborview.

“The community is a really healthy thriving and tight-knit group of parents, elders and children and teachers and it’s growing — and it’s exciting that we have the capacity to grow,” said Jamie Shanley, education program manager at SHI.

Students from the Tlingit Culture Language and Literacy program at Harborview Elementary School dance in front of elders during the program’s Monday morning meeting. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)
Students from the Tlingit Culture Language and Literacy program at Harborview Elementary School dance in front of elders during the program’s Monday morning meeting. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Students from the Tlingit Culture Language and Literacy program at Harborview Elementary School dance in front of elders during the program’s Monday morning meeting. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire) Students from the Tlingit Culture Language and Literacy program at Harborview Elementary School dance in front of elders during the program’s Monday morning meeting. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Box said the addition of two new classes along with a full-time principal to lead the program will aid in the program’s goal of being able to offer a dual-language and culture learning opportunity to as many students and parents in the community who are interested in diving deeper into the Tlingit language and culture. Alaska Native languages were declared endangered by the Legislature and Gov. Bill Walker in 2018, and it’s estimated that there are about 200 fluent Tlingit speakers worldwide, according to the Endangered Languages Project.

“We’d love to be able to have room for everyone, but right now it’s limited,” she said. “Who knows what the long-term future will be as far as expansion.”

Box said the program is currently developing a workgroup that will figure out the nuts and bolts of the expansion, but emphasized that the middle school program will closely mirror the same rigor, responsibility and independence as the other middle school programs across the district.

Part of that means looking at culturally relevant elective classes and access to sports for middle school students, which Box said could include classes focused on traditional wood carving or subsistence-focused learning.

“I think this program is super important,” she said. “It’s really based on a dual language and biliteracy program, and we’re developing that and the Tlingit language and revitalization is a big part of this program.”

Shanley agreed and said as the program grows it offers more opportunities for people to learn the language and grow its reach to more people across the community, a major goal for SHI and the district.

“Teachers are getting training, more people are becoming better with the language, and I think there is going to be a shift not only in teaching Tlingit language but teaching content in the Tlingit language — it will take some time but that’s a key piece.”

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.

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