Cultural Immersion

Topics: Equity and Diversity, Principal Leadership

With more than 20 years of service to the Lower Kuskokwim School District, Ayaprun Elitnaurvik Elementary School principal Joshua Gill stewards a unique educational model that’s rooted in the culture of the Yup’ik people.

The language and cultural school’s curriculum incorporates Western and Indigenous knowledge systems and immerses students in the Yugtun language, prioritizing family and community participation to build a culturally responsive climate that preserves Indigenous culture.

Gill led the collaborative development of a Yugtun curriculum and uses data to drive instruction. When discipline is warranted, he emphasizes that students learn from mistakes. “Learning looks very different in our school compared to the typical Western school,” he says. Principal magazine recently asked the 2023 NAESP National Distinguished Principal about the school, its curriculum, and more. Here’s what he said:

What are the goals you have for your school that drive your approach to the job?

I do everything I can to respect the Yup’ik culture and the school’s mission by supporting learning in a way that is culturally responsive. Using the Yup’ik values and a traditional calendar, I try to create activities that are culturally relevant and support the learning happening in the classroom.

What is your favorite part of the school day as principal?

Recess! I learn more about students on the playground and help them navigate the social aspect of school than anywhere else during the day. Students often seek me out to share exciting things happening in their lives—and the things that aren’t going well.

What is the best “leadership moment” you’ve had since becoming a principal?

The most recent is moving our school from K–6 to K–8. Guiding our board and staff to make this happen has been a fantastic process. Writing a curriculum and creating programs that help middle school students engage with the culture and academics has been uplifting.

How do you incorporate the Indigenous Yup’ik culture into the curriculum?

We have a placed-based curriculum that focuses on the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta and incorporates activities that are important to the Indigenous people of this area. Students leave our building ready to live in the area; they might be proficient in coding or processing a salmon.

What hidden talents do you have that aid in your leadership role?

I am a good facilitator. I help talk people through situations and come to conclusions that benefit students. It also allows me not to get burned out, because I don’t have to do everything. It helps staff take ownership and gives them leadership opportunities.

How do you help children learn from their mistakes when discipline is required?

All children make mistakes; helping students understand that discipline is about inappropriate actions and not about them as a person is essential in the learning process. Our ultimate goal is to change behaviors so they don’t happen again, not to punish kids. I want students to realize that once the consequence is over, it is done, and I support and care about them.