EHS students Danielle Schunneman and Maurice Alvarado

A group of 48 students from Eureka High School will be joining students from schools throughout Humboldt County tonight to be recognized for receiving the California Seal of Biliteracy. Of those students, two will be the first in the nation to receive the seal of biliteracy in Yurok.

“I’m proud of them,” Eureka High Yurok language teacher James Gensaw said of the students receiving the award, Maurice Alvarado and Danielle Schunneman, who are both of Yurok descent. “They dedicated four years not only for their education, but because they feel a responsibility to keep this language alive.”

Gensaw said that because of the Yuroks’ traumatic history of massacre and forced assimilation by white people, today there are very few people left who speak the language.

But language programs like the one at Eureka High are helping to ensure the Yurok language is preserved. Gensaw has been teaching Yurok at the school for six years and he says the program has existed for seven years, a relatively short amount of time compared to the other language programs.

And this is the first year any of students have met all of the many requirements to receive the bilingual seal. Gensaw said that in order to be eligible for this award, the students usually have to take and pass four years of the language. They must also have received a C or better in all of their English classes and have passed the English portion on the standardized CAASPP test.

Each language program has a slightly different format for how they evaluate the students’ proficiency. For the Yurok students, Gensaw said they need to write an essay in Yurok, do a ten-minute “immersion interview” conducted completely in Yurok by panel members, translate some written Yurok text into English, listen to an old Yurok audio recording and translate what the elders are saying into English, and translate a written English story into Yurok.

“It’s a lot that we’re asking of them,” Gensaw said. “But I think it’s necessary.”

Gensaw said they really want to be sure that the students are competent in the language both written and conversationally before saying they are bilingual. The bilingual seal is highly regarded and will help the students get into college and receive scholarships, he said.

In addition to praising his Yurok students, Gensaw wanted to say that all of the students at Eureka High and in the county have worked very hard to receive this recognition and he is proud of them all.