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Ayaprun Elitnaurvik Principal Joshua Gill receives national recognition

Ayaprun Elitnaurvik Elementary School

Joshua Gill started as principal at Ayaprun Elitnaurvik Elementary School in 2021. Two years later, he won the National Distinguished Principal Award, a prestigious honor from the National Association of Elementary School Principals. This fall, the 37 recipients of the award were honored in Washington D.C. 

Gill grew up in Maine. That’s also where he had his first teaching job, working with fifth graders. When he moved to the Yukon-Kuskokwim (Y-K) Delta in 2003, he continued as an elementary teacher before moving over to administration a few years later.

In 2015, he was serving as the director of personnel and student services for the Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD) when the Yup’ik immersion school, Ayuprun Eliknaurvik, burned down. The school had to relocate to a retail space.

"We're not just in a movie theater, we're in a grocery store. And at the end of the day, this building was built to be a grocery store. And we're trying to make it a school,” said Gill.

The building, previously a Swanson’s Alaska, currently serves as the local Suurvik movie theater in addition to housing the elementary school. The district is working on constructing a new school, which is expected to open in August 2024.

"I think the staff has done an amazing job," said Gill. "But sometimes it presents its challenges as you walk through the building. You hear a lot of good noise, a lot of learning going on."

Before he took over as principal at Ayaprun in 2021, Gill took over as principal at Bethel’s other elementary school, Gladys Jung, in 2020. He became the interim principal after the previous Gladys Jung principal was arrested and charged with possession of child pornography, attempted coercion of a child, and sexual abuse of a minor. The tumultuous moment was followed by the start of the pandemic a couple of months later. After a year and a half at Gladys Jung, Gill moved over to become principal at Ayaprun.

While Gill is not Yup’ik, he said that he was attracted to the school’s unique mission. It’s the only Yup’ik immersion school in the district. Students aren’t taught in English until the third grade.

"I got into this role, being out here in the [Y-K] Delta for several years and really getting invested in the culture and the language,” Gill said. "It just seemed like a right fit for me to come over here."

But Gill started as the principal in 2021 when students were learning remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many didn’t have reliable access to the internet, so they used take-home packets. 

"It was really, I think, a low point. And it was from the pandemic. And this school’s capacity, as you know, they're very much into the hands-on and subsistence activities, and incorporating the language into that,” Gill said.

That was hard for both the students and for Gill, who says that his favorite part is watching kids learn. He said that it’s a relief to be back in person.

"Just day in and day out," Gill said. "Having kids come in and smile, excited to be here."

The school teaches language by engaging in traditional activities. Its calendar centers around the Yup’ik seasons of subsistence, and the school engages in subsistence activities during school hours.

This year, the students started the year learning about silver salmon and how to harvest and process them. The students learned about blackfish trapping, and in the winter they’ll go ice fishing and harvest a moose. 

"We'll incorporate as many of the subsistence activities on the calendar so that students can learn in their natural environment. But they're learning the same skills of how to read, how to write, how to do addition, and geography, and again, the science process,” said Gill.

Gill said that he believes that the school has a responsibility to take a different approach in order to uphold the Yup’ik language and culture.

"Often with Western education, I feel that sometimes those things kind of take a backseat. And really just keeping them as the priority in the forefront. You've heard about the [Alaska] Reads Act. That's a prime example. It's not about how we learn to read and write English here. It's about how we learn to read and write in Yup'ik here," said Gill.

The school got an exemption from the statewide Alaska Reads Act assessments. Kindergarten through second-grade students at Ayaprun Elitnaurvik didn’t take the literacy screeners. Instead, they took a Yup’ik language assessment: a standardized test that the district has created to help meet the district’s mission to ensure bilingual and culturally appropriate education.

The test is unique, not only measuring reading and writing, but assessing the students’ grasp of the Yup’ik worldview.

Rosalie Lincoln, one of the expert Elders at the district’s fall conference who helped create the new test, explained that measuring cultural competency is another tool in uplifting it.

"For the parents to see the data can be something that say ‘hey, our culture and language is diminishing, let's do something about it.’ This is our culture and language needs, needs to stay alive. Because it's being lived out there. It's still out there. We really haven't lost that. We haven't lost it,” said Lincoln.

"But a fluent Yugtun parent has children, young children, and they're speaking to them in English. And, you know, with these studies they can say, ‘hey, you know, I'm gonna keep my language and culture alive. I'm going to speak to my kids,’" Lincoln said.

Gill said that he sees himself as a facilitator to help staff support the students in meeting these goals. He said that one of the keys to his success was investing in his staff and honoring their work. And he said that one of the hardest lessons was learning to truly listen and be reflective in his practices and approach to leadership.

"I'm not leading myself, I'm leading a school," said Gill. "And we need everybody on board, no matter where we go."

Gill took the reins in trying times and put his force behind upholding the cultural priorities. 

"We're valuing all the Yupik values that people bring to the table here and, you know, bringing Elders in to teach that, and bringing community members into support that, and having them be part of the process. There's no better learning,” Gill said.

Gill said that he thinks he won the National Distinguished Principal Award because of the staff and students and how they’ve displayed their culture for others, loud and clear. And he said that he thinks the next principal should be Yup’ik, since the school's mission is to honor Yup’ik values. 

"We did dance for the first lady; we've danced for the governor. This school brings a pride and some expectations that, you know, we represent not just a school or district, we represent a culture. And it has a lot of weight,” Gill said. "But the kids really step up and are amazing how they portray their culture, their values. It is exciting to watch them do those things."

Gill said that his personal favorite times are when he’s witnessed little learning moments, like when he took students out on the Kuskokwim River for their first time this fall. What drives his day-to-day is the excitement about the memories still to come.

Sunni is a reporter and radio lover. Her favorite part of the job is sitting down and having a good conversation.