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Tribe starts immersion school

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) _ Although 3-year-old Kenny Sohns speaks English at home, Cherokee is his first language at school.

Kenny is part of the first class planned for a Cherokee language immersion school.

``To hear them say new words in Cherokee tickles me,'' said Lula Elk, Kenny's teacher.

The Cherokee syllabary, an 86-character alphabet created in 1821 by Sequoyah, is located in three areas of the classroom. Pictures of animals with their corresponding Cherokee names hang on a wall in the reading area.

Items such as chairs and tables are labeled in Cherokee, and Elk speaks only Cherokee to the children.

The preschool has 10 children. Tribal officials want to add another class next year.

``Our goal is to produce native speakers,'' said Gloria Sly, the interim director of the Cherokee Nation's cultural resource center.

``We want to hear the language again. We want to hear it at Wal-Mart, bingo halls, community groceries and church. We want it used robustly in meetings and in social situations.''

The tribe started the program with $150,000 for staff and supplies. It plans to expand the program each year.

It is the first American Indian-language immersion program in Oklahoma.

Other tribes have similar programs. The Blackfeet tribe in Montana teaches kindergarten through eighth grade in its language. One Mississippi program teaches preschool in Choctaw.

A Cherokee-language immersion school for children from age 4 through sixth grade is planned for completion in 2012. It will have an estimated 20 students per grade for a total of about 160.

The school is being established through Cherokee Nation Education Corp., which is a nonprofit corporation chartered under tribal code.

The tribe wants to establish the program as a charter school, which would allow state funding without heavy state regulation.

But the state's charter school law is limited to areas at least 500,000 people. Tulsa and Oklahoma City are the only areas that fit that description.

Tribal officials are working with the state Education Department to explore other possibilities through the law. If not, they may seek to change it.

It has been shown that students may become fluent in a foreign language by the third grade. Educators suggest continuing with language courses in later academic years.

``English will always be the dominant language; it is not going away,'' Sly said. ``They are going to learn English, no matter what. In other countries, a person is not considered educated unless that person knows two or three languages.''

Cherokee officials have modeled their program after Hawaiian language schools, established in 1984 with a preschool immersion class of 12.

The challenge for the budding school is finding teachers who are native Cherokee speakers.

Elk grew up speaking Cherokee. She needed an English translator when she entered public school, but she eventually learned to speak both languages fluently.

``The children are coming in here with no idea what is said. But I use a lot of facial expressions and acting out,'' Elk said. It doesn't take very long for them to catch on.''

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