The name, Nkm’aplqs isn’ma’ma’ya’tn klsqilxwtet Language and Cultural Immersion School, means “a learning place towards and in the direction of our indigenous Okanagan ways.”
The idea started in 2001 when Bill Cohen, one of the school organizers, was doing a research project and saw how students who learned in their indigenous languages in New Zealand and Hawaii, improved their academic performance.
“The first reaction to the idea of an Okanagan immersion school was that some people were very interested and some thought we were crazy,” he said.
Cohen, who has three children in the school, found out that parents wanted their children to attend an immersion school for access to their traditional language and culture as well as for a standard academic education.
“I saw it as extremely important to create an option that didn’t exist, a place where the Okanagan language and identity were key. It was tough to get started. We had no fluent Okanagan speakers who were teachers or qualified to teach a second language and no teachers with Okanagan language and cultural background,” he said.
It was decided that the school would take an extended family approach. The staff members include two teachers, two assistants and elders who are fluent Okanagan speakers. The school opened in September 2006 and now has 30 students in two classes, Grades 1-3 and 4-7. The Language Nest, for four- and five-year-olds, provides school preparation in Okanagan. This is the second First Nations immersion school in the province. There are Okanagan language nights once a week where children and parents or grandparents or any interested community members can attend.
“We follow the provincial core curriculum and fit a lot of the science and social studies into the Okanagan language portion. We have immersion school in the morning and other subjects in English in the afternoon,” said teacher Marlene Johnston.
Traditional activities are included in other subject areas.
“The students spend time in the environment, exploring traditional territories and learning land stewardship and history and geography. They study nature around us,” said Lorraine Ladan, school principal.
Cohen points out that while there was some concern that students might fall behind the provincial curriculum, that has not happened.
“Research is very consistent that a second language enhances academic achievement,” said Cohen. “The kids are using the language in the home and in the community. When I was a kid growing up, my parents would talk Okanagan when they didn’t want us to know what they were saying. Now, some of the younger people speak Okanagan when they don’t want their parents to understand.”
He would like to see more material written in Okanagan and to have the school go to Grade 9 because he thinks at that point the students will retain enough language to last their lifetime. He thinks students should be in provincial schools for Grades 10-12 to be prepared for career choices and have more extra-curricular activities.
He is pleased that the community has embraced the school.
“The first event we had after the school opened was the Christmas concert and supper and we thought that maybe 50 people would come but 250 showed up and packed Head of the Lake Hall,” he said. “It was the first time many of the elders had heard songs in Okanagan in decades and it was an emotional time for them. Being able to pass on their language gives the elders a real sense of pride.”
Pauline Gregoire-Archachan is one of the elders who teaches at the school.
“Nobody was speaking the language and we thought it would be lost. I like my language and I like to teach it to the kids and to Chad,” she said.
Language assistant Chad Marchand learned Okanagan as an adult.
“I didn’t realize how important this was until I started learning the language and realized that it could have been lost. It’s tough to learn but it’s fun and it’s awesome to see the kids figure things out,” he said.
Cohen praised Gregoire-Archachan and Marchand.
“Pauline was our lead elder from the start. She’s generated a grandmother role for the children and nurtures them. Chad has a gift for languages and a natural teaching ability. He’s committed to teaching.”
Ladan added, “We couldn’t do any of this without the elders.”
Dina Brown is a Grade 12 Seaton school student who wishes she had had the chance to go to the immersion school.
“I was too old when it opened and had that opportunity to learn the language and culture. I grew up with a fairly good sense of it, but there is so much more,” said Brown, who took an Okanagan language immersion course in school last fall.
“My grandmother used to speak Okanagan to me when I was very young and I think I have an ear for it. Speaking the language is a big part of having a sense of identity and knowing who you are. I think there is a gap in my generation and my parents’ generation but we are learning and people will become more aware of the great things that are happening. I want First Nations kids to be proud of who they are. I think my grandma (Rose Marchand) would be proud of what is being done in the immersion school.”
Brown plans to keep on studying Okanagan and go on to get a teaching degree so she can help other young people learn their language and culture.