Ahfachkee School enhanced and expanded

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
With joy written plainly on their faces, Seminole dignitaries cut the ribbon to welcome students and parents into the new middle/high school facility Aug. 13 on the Afahchkee School campus, where portable classrooms used to sit. The new high school and middle school buildings will be finished later this year.

BIG CYPRESS RESERVATION — Though not yet totally complete, the expanded and improved Ahfachkee School on the Seminole Indian Reservation was christened by an overflowing crowd for its ribbon-cutting celebration Tuesday morning, Aug. 13.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
An architectural rendering shows what the complex will look like when fully built, expected by mid-autumn.

Its new high school and middle school buildings, built by Pirtle Construction and designed based on students’ input, will be finished later this year. They house a brand new cafeteria and media center fully equipped with a computer room and an art studio/classroom. The spacious and bright dining area, as a focal point Tuesday where a luncheon was served after the speeches and ceremonies, was colorfully festooned with balloons and flowers decorating the new furniture. Completed parts of the new campus, which is specially equipped and adapted for 21st century learning styles, were open for public tours for a few hours afterward.

Occupying the second floor are seven classrooms for middle and high school students, plus laboratories with facilities for science, biomedical, MakerBot 3-D printing, media and television production studies, all pleasantly bathed in natural light from the open, big-windows design.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Ahfachkee School Principal Dorothy Cain leaves the stage after giving a short address while the audience applauds.

Tribe spokesman Gary Bitner said it is a state-of-the-art facility whose amenities will enable a strong focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects. When construction ends, renovation of previously existing facilities will begin.

Hundreds of colorfully, nattily dressed Seminole Tribe of Florida officials, Ahfachkee students, parents, graduates and their families, administrators, teachers and employees gathered for the ceremony at the new landmark in the heart of the tribal community’s downtown and capital, on Josie Billie Highway in the reservation 20-some miles south of Clewiston.

The program consisted of a lineup of speakers who told the crowd what an important investment in the Seminole Tribe’s future the millions of dollars that went into these new school facilities represents.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Quenton Cypress, a Class of 2014 graduate and the historical preservation officer at the Ah-Tah-Thi Museum, gave the welcome greeting and acted as master of ceremonies.

Quenton Cypress, an Ahfachkee graduate of the Class of 2014, welcomed the visitors and told little tales about his years of education at the school. Pastor Salaw Hummingbird gave the invocation, and then Mr. Cypress introduced the speakers.

Scheduled to give brief remarks were Principal Dorothy Cain, followed by Marcellus W. Osceola Jr., tribe chairman; Mitchell Cypress, vice chairman and president; David Cypress, Big Cypress councilman; Mondo Tiger, the former Big Cypress councilman who was integrally involved in the project planning; Joe Frank, Big Cypress Board representative; Lee Zepeda, executive director of administration from the Executive Administrative Office (EAO); Derek Koger, director of Tribal Community Development; Jose Murguido, vice president of Zyscovich Inc., architects; and James Armstrong, director of operations for Pirtle Construction.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Marcellus W. Osceola Jr., chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, makes some remarks.

Principal Cain then gave closing remarks before the ribbon-cutting, and finally the huge audience was able to stream through the cafeteria doors out of the sticky late-morning heat to take their seats for lunch in the cool air-conditioned comfort of the cheerily sunny cafeteria.

“Shap-he-chek aa-ta-cho-la-kash” — “We look to the future” in the Seminole language — was the phrase of the day and a common theme of each speaker. Most mentioned gratitude to God and their fellow tribal members, ancestors and tribal officials for the good fortune that enabled the construction of this two-story, 30,000-square-foot “tool to help educate your community,” as Councilman Tiger termed it.

According to a 2018 article in The Seminole Tribune, the tribe’s official newspaper: “The school is designed for the 21st century learning curriculum, which emphasizes group projects guided by teachers in which students work and learn together. The objective … is to prepare students to be active, successful and contributing members of society. Experts believe collaboration, digital literacy, critical thinking and problem solving are skills every student needs.

“Ahfachkee’s new layout includes spacious indoor areas outside of the classrooms for collaborative work. An abundance of large windows will bring in natural light and interior glass walls in the classrooms will make the school cheerful and bright. Additionally, it will allow teachers to observe students in the collaboration areas.

“Principal Cain believes the new building design will benefit the students by engaging them as they learn. Ms. Cain recently met with the Bureau of Indian Education at the school.
“Many of the BIE’s new schools have those collaborative areas,” Ms. Cain said. “They were pleased to see our school will also have those areas and are with us 100 percent.”

Once the construction of the new building is done, existing facilities will be renovated, and the primary grades’ classrooms, will also get these collaboration areas. The present science building will be remodeled for the Culture Department, whose chickees and gardens will stay in place.

The other words of the day were “Sho-Na-Bish,” or “Thank You!,” from the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

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