Susie Thompson reads a traditional Cherokee story, the “Origin of the Strawberry,” to students as they learn how to say “peach” in Cherokee.

NSU, Cherokee Nation Partner to Train and Hire Language Instructors

NSU/Cherokee Nation

Students hoping to major in Cherokee Language Education at Northeastern State University will receive much-needed support thanks to a new grant relationship between the Cherokee Nation and NSU. Starting in January, a partnership between the university and Cherokee Nation designed to create a pipeline of teachers for the tribe’s Cherokee Immersion Charter School will become more student focused and create a direct pathway to employment in many of the tribe’s language programs.

“We are very much looking forward to the improvements to this partnership,” said Dr. Neil Morton, senior education advisor at Cherokee Nation. “We are happy to have helped get this program off the ground and look forward to updating our partnership to help bolster our language programs and produce many, many more certified teachers and Cherokee language department employees.”

For nine years, the Cherokee Nation has contracted with NSU to help fund the Cherokee language program, with the goal of training and certifying new Cherokee language teachers. The tribe operates a Cherokee language immersion school in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and has several Cherokee language satellite programs in schools across the tribe’s 14-county jurisdiction.

Under the previous funding structure, graduates were under no obligation to serve the Cherokee Nation upon completion of the program. In the past nine years, only two who completed the program became Cherokee Immersion School teachers. The tribe’s education services department has worked with Dr. Phil Bridgmon, NSU’s dean of the College of Liberal Arts, for six months on how to better meet the Cherokee Nation’s need for certified teachers. NSU and Cherokee Nation agreed to repurpose funding in the form of scholarships beginning next year.

“NSU is excited about writing the next chapter in our long history with the Cherokee Nation,” Dr. Bridgmon said. “This continued program partnership will help keep the Cherokee language an integral part of the tribe’s culture and identity. Our goals remain growing student enrollment and graduating Cherokee language teachers.”

Under the new funding structure, Cherokee Nation will provide scholarships for five students for four years each. After the first semester, students will sign a contract to work for the tribe upon graduation, either in the Cherokee Immersion Charter School or at one of the tribe’s satellite language programs offered at public schools in the Cherokee Nation’s 14-county jurisdiction. Scholarship recipients will be chosen by the Cherokee Nation Translation Department and be required to enroll full time at NSU. While completing Cherokee language and early childhood education coursework, participants will simultaneously complete 15 hours of student teaching at the immersion school and work with the Cherokee Nation translation staff to hone their language skills.

“We’re happy to redirect funding directly to the students in return for their service after graduation,” Morton said. “It’s a model that’s worked well in our directed studies program, which provides funding for medical degrees in exchange for those health care professionals working in one of our health centers for two years. We believe applying that same model to the language program will result in recruiting and hiring more teachers for our immersion school, satellite programs and many other language initiatives, ensuring the Cherokee language will live on forever through our young people. It’s a positive change for a program that needed updating for benefit of both the Cherokee Nation and Northeastern State.”

NSU will still offer degrees in Cherokee language and cultural studies. The service-learning portion of the new agreement is a welcome addition, paralleling the leadership portion of the university’s mission, which commits to serve, inspiring and preparing others to do the same.

The Cherokee Immersion Charter School serves about 140 students from 3 year olds to eighth grade. It has 11 state-certified teachers, with 12 fluent teacher assistants, two curriculum developers and two translators. The immersion school graduated its first eighth grade class in May 2014, who transitioned to Sequoyah High School as freshmen in August.

The school, operated by the Cherokee Nation, teaches students the state curriculum while immersed in the Cherokee language. Students are typically conversational in the Cherokee language by third grade and are fluent speakers, as well as can read and write the Cherokee syllabary, by sixth grade.

The Cherokee Nation offers multiple language programs for students of all ages and skill levels. The Cherokee Nation Tribal Council recently approved an additional $150,000 for community-based language classes, which can be requested by any community group in the 14 counties. The Cherokee National Youth Choir, online language classes and Cherokee Speakers Bureau are all important components to protecting and promoting the use of the Cherokee language.

Cherokee has also been integrated on numerous tech platforms. All Apple products, including the iPhone and iPad, offer Cherokee as a language option, as do the Microsoft Office Suite and Google’s Gmail, and it will soon be offered on Android phones. Earlier this year, the language was also converted to Braille for visually impaired Cherokees.

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