There were a few tears, but more smiles, as parents dropped off their children for the first day of class at the Cherokee Nation Immersion School Wednesday.
The school is growing as the tribe continues its mission to preserve and revitalize its language. Around 145 students are enrolled this year, and most of them will learn every subject that a public school would teach, but they'll learn it in Cherokee.
"Of course, our goal is continued growth, but we want to provide quality education, plus that language," said Principal Holly Davis. "Our first priority is language, and it's long-term."
The immersion program appears to have come full circle. The first class from 2001 recently graduated from Sequoyah High School, and one of the graduates is now a classroom assistant at her old school.
"We've got to train our replacements," said Davis.
From pre-kindergarten through fourth grade, students at the tribe's school will learn in all Cherokee. Once they reach fifth and sixth grade, the students learn in half Cherokee and half English. And then once they are in seventh and eighth grades, they learn in all English, but have a Cherokee class to continue their language education. There is also an after-school program conducted in all English.
"We know we have to address the English component," said Davis. "There's no way around it. We have to start preparing them for testing and they still have to succeed with the English language, because there's nothing for them to do in Cherokee after they leave us."
Many students at the Immersion School have parents who work for the tribe. Davis said that's kind of how it all started. However, the school is now finding parents outside the tribe's employees who are interested in helping preserve the language.
Sophia Lanai, who moved from Bixby three years ago to enroll her daughter at the school, said she had taken some Cherokee classes in Tulsa and learned about the tribe's mission to preserve the language, so she felt like it was something she and her family could participate in.
"She's always just been really good at language," said Lanai. "I started off teaching her sign language and she picked up on it really quick. So I thought maybe this was something we could be involved with, getting the language back."
Lanai likes the fact that it's a smaller school, adding that her daughter was excited to see her friends.
The first day of school can be nerve-racking for students, so teacher Marie Eubanks said she'll ease her kindergartners into the swing of things.
"Over the next three days, we'll just kind of get comfortable, go over everything, and see where they're at," she said. "They know a lot, but now we've got to put it into words and get them to speak more. They understand it, but they've got to speak. This bunch, you can tell them anything in Cherokee and they're going to understand it."
Eubanks said the students will likely be reading in Cherokee by Thanksgiving.
And while the school has been operating for close to 20 years, there are still very few people in the world who can speak Cherokee fluently; hence, the reason for the school. The tribe estimates that around 2,500 people around the world can speak it fluently, with several thousand more considered beginner or proficient speakers.
"We've got several programs in the Cherokee Nation that could also lead to more fluent speakers, with the Master Apprentice Program and everything else out there," said Davis. "We all go hand-in-hand and our purpose is the same thing: to save a language."
One problem that might stall production of more fluent speakers is the fact that many students who learn Cherokee now don't have family members or anyone at home who speaks the language. However, Davis said that once the students who have gone through the program grow up and begin having children of their own, "that's when we're really going to take off."