The plan to build an immersion program at St. Stephens Indian School in Fremont County had been years in the making. Immersion language programs use various techniques to encourage bilingual learning. This program was going to have three teachers in a classroom of around a dozen kindergartners. The teachers would teach kindergarteners everything they normally do, only half in English and half in Arapaho.
Dr. Tim Rush is a retired professor at the University of Wyoming. He taught linguistics. Rush and the late Dr. Burnett Whiteplume had been working on an immersion program for years.
"The late Dr. Burnette Whiteplume and I developed this model 10 to 15 years ago. The Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) liked what we proposed and funded it," Rush said.
Rush has been working with Wind River Indian Reservation for decades. The grant of $200,000 was enough to get started to research on how best to implement Dr. Rush and Whiteplumes immersion model.
They received the grant in 2019. But when the schools shut down last year they had to pivot how they were going to teach Arapaho to their students. It wasn't safe for students to spend long hours with each other. So, they decided to go virtual.
"At a meeting we had kind of an epiphany. We should be using a home school model. A digitized vehicle for engaging with the kids," Rush said.
Early in the pandemic, St. Stephens handed out internet hotspots for households that had bad or no internet service to better help with online learning. They bought laptops for students to make sure they could access their classes from home.
St. Stephens already has Arapaho language classes for all grade levels, but part of the problem is that so few young people are becoming fluent Arapaho speakers. While the language classes enforce the basics of the Arapaho language there are less than 50 fluent speakers of the language alive today. Very few of them younger than 30. The community has lost fluent speakers this last year due to the pandemic.
Macey Mortimore, a distance learning coordinator at St. Stephens, said she's concerned that the students might lose something if the program goes totally virtual and asynchronous.
"And right now we have language classes at the school, K through 12. But our students just aren't becoming fluent. And (the immersion program) is kind of the missing piece, I think, to the puzzle…. Ensure that the students learn the language on a much deeper level," she said.
While she sees the need to go mostly virtual she worries about how the students will retain the information they get in this new version of the immersion program.
"I just don't know if the learning is necessarily as deep and ingrained as when it is hands on based or, like I'm saying, the traditional practice of the language and repeating the language," said Mortimore.
A benefit to putting immersion language lessons online is that they will be an archive for future generations to learn from. The grant from the Bureau of Indian Education allows for the Arapaho Immersion team at St. Stephens to digitize instructional manuscripts that the Northern Arapaho tribe is in possession of primary documents that show how St. Stephens School have been teaching Arapaho since the 1900s.
Frank No Runner, the St. Stephens superintendent and a co-writer of the grant the Immersion program received, said he's especially excited about archiving the lessons.
"They could go back to this archive, this treasure trove of all the indigenous methodologies and language that we archive. So that's what I'm really excited about," No Runner said.
No Runner sees the language immersion program as a way to instill pride in the Arapaho language and culture. He said making the lessons virtual might not have been the first plan but he thinks that making the lessons available to the whole family at home is an excellent way to preserve the language and keep people safe.
"And I think we owe it to our ancestors and our descendants, to keep that cultural identity going moving forward. And to save our languages," No Runner said.
The virtual immersion program is slated to start this fall for all grade levels.