DENVER Indian tribal elders would be able to work in public schools as teachers of their native languages, under a bill that advanced Wednesday at the state Capitol.
Senate Bill 57 authorizes schools to hire people fluent in native languages, even though they might not have a teaching license.
The tribes have such a great opportunity to get the tribal elders involved in the program, said Ernest House Jr., secretary of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs and a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
Although Southwest Colorado has the states only two Indian reservations, the bill is modeled on a program in Denver Public Schools. Denver has the states highest Indian population, including an especially large group of Lakota people.
DPS has been offering Lakota language classes for seven years, said Rose Marie McGuire, the districts Indian education program manager.
Schools used to discourage children from speaking their native languages, and when McGuire was a girl, her teachers would wash her mouth out with soap when she didnt speak English.
Today, though, she said educators know better.
Native students who have a strong foundation in their language and culture do better academically, McGuire said.
The Senate Education Committee approved SB 57 unanimously. The sponsor, Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, initially ran into problems with a federal law requiring each classroom to have a highly qualified teacher.
Williams rewrote her bill to require unlicensed Indian language teachers to be paired with a licensed language teacher.
House hopes the bill will allow Four Corners school districts to help a new generation of Ute and Navajo children.
English was my first language. Ute was my fathers first language. There was a bit of (a challenge) trying to connect with my grandparents, House said.
But he has seen changes for the better. More Ute children are learning their ancestral language at home now, and House hears the Ute language frequently when he visits the reservation.
The bill now goes to the full Senate. If it passes to the House of Representatives, the sponsor would be Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio.