On Tuesday, the school district formally displayed the flags of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, above, and the Tohono O’odham Nation in the Governing Board’s meeting room.

Pascua Yaqui students at Cholla High School will have the chance to delve deeper into their tribe’s native tongue following the expansion of a Yaqui language course for next school year.

The TUSD Governing Board gave Cholla administrators the green light on Tuesday to roll out a second-year Yaqui language course — a “bold second step” for the district, according to Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo.

TUSD brought the Yaqui language, also known as Yoeme, to Cholla last August, Trujillo said.

The Cholla students currently enrolled in the first-year course will advance to the new second-year course next August. The school will not offer the first-year class to a new cohort of students next year, according to Graciela Garcia, who co-teaches the course at Cholla.

The 55-minute language immersion course has allowed students to improve their speaking, reading and writing skills beyond what was expected, Garcia said.

“The next phase is where we’re teaching them … to feel more comfortable speaking the language,” Garcia said. “I think that’s our target for next year: to not be shy and be comfortable.”

TUSD’s move to offer Yaqui language classes to Yaqui students is significant for many reasons, according to course co-teacher Emilia Gonzalez.

Now, students have a way to learn about and connect with their culture, language and heritage in ways they previously couldn’t in the public school setting, Gonzales said.

“They didn’t know where they came from,” Gonzalez said. “And now they know. And now they can translate. They can greet normally. It’s a norm for them today.”

It’s clear the students’ newfound perspective of their culture has empowered them to embrace their tribal identities, according to Juanita Mesquita, a student support specialist with TUSD’s Native American Student Services Department.

Teaching Yaqui youth how to speak, read and write in Yaqui matters, Gonzalez added, because the language is dying.

There are over 20,000 Yaquis between Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, Gonzalez said. But few Arizona-based tribal members speak Yaqui.

Eleven Yaqui-speaking elders have passed away since January, she added.

“That’s an example of why we need this in our schools,” Gonzalez said. “To continue our language and not let it go away.”

Cholla plans to work with tribal officials to expand its Yaqui course offerings in the future, Principal Frank Armenta said.

Currently, only Yaqui students can take the class, but down the line, Armenta would like to expand the course to all students, regardless of tribal affiliation.

TUSD started working with officials from the Pascua Yaqui Tribe to bring the Cholla’s Yaqui program to life, co-teacher Garcia said.

“We actually started the program with the former director of education (at the tribe),” Garcia told the Star.

Then-director Mario Molina wanted to offer the language courses at Cholla specifically because of significant Yaqui-identifying student population and its positive relationship with the tribe, Armenta said.

Contact reporter Brenna Bailey at bbailey@tucson.com or 520-573-4279. On Twitter: @brennanonymous.