BIG CYPRESS — The Ahfachkee School’s roots may be humble but its future could be spectacular.
The school was founded in a chickee, moved to a one-room building known as the Big Cypress Day School and was renamed The Ahfachkee Day School in the 1940s. Now the ever-evolving school has reached the pinnacle of 21st century learning with its new 30,000-square-foot state-of-the-art middle and high school building.
About 200 members of the community joined Tribal Council and the Board on Aug. 13 for a celebratory ribbon cutting on the shaded back patio of the new building.
“In the beginning it was a chickee school,” said President Mitchell Cypress.
The idea of expanding the school to retain and attract more students began with the 2016 XQ Super School Project, a national competition to move high schools into the 21st century.
“We have come a long way to get here. We have a fine staff and our students will get a top-notch education here.”
The Ahfachkee team worked with the community, teachers and students and came up with a plan for collaborative project based learning that mimics the real world.
Although the school didn’t win the contest, they were in the top tier of finalists and had a concrete plan for Ahfachkee’s future.
At the ceremony, former Big Cypress Councilman Cicero Osceola talked about the impact the XQ Project had on the school’s future.
“We didn’t win, but we accomplished a lot through that process,” Osceola said. “The kids came together and pushed for the school. They are leaving a legacy here.”
The design of the school fits the concept of collaborative learning. It features flexible furniture that allows students to move around, technology that puts information at the students’ fingertips and motivates them to learn, and an abundance of natural light that has been shown in studies to improve student performance in school.
“Our mission is to inspire students to have a lifelong love of learning,” said Principal Dorothy Cain. “Council had an unwavering commitment to provide the highest quality school, teachers and environment. The 21st century learning framework is about collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking. We have changed the landscape of the campus and it will inspire those students yet to come.”
The new building contains a cafeteria, art studio, music room and media center with a large computer area.
High school and middle school classrooms are on the second floor along with labs including science, engineering, robotics, biomedical, MakerBot 3D printing and TV production.
“I love seeing this completely done, its needed here,” said former Big Cypress Councilman Mondo Tiger, who along with Cicero Osceola facilitated the project. “I believe in education and this is one of the greatest investments the Tribe has ever done. You can’t go wrong with education.”
Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr. grew up in Big Cypress.
“This is a true testament of how God has blessed the Seminole Tribe,” Chairman Osceola said. “How fortunate we are to have modern, state-of-the-art classrooms for our children.”
Emcee Quenton Cypress is a 2014 graduate of Ahfachkee and is now the community engagement manager at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.
“I wish I was still going here because of this facility,” he said. “There is no other building in the Tribe like this one.”
Big Cypress Councilman David Cypress said the school was another example of the Tribe giving advantages to its students.
Big Cypress Board Rep. Joe Frank thanked everyone who had a hand in the school and said the Tribe gets the biggest bang for its bucks when it invests in its youth.
“This has been a long time coming,” said Brighton Councilman Larry Howard. “If you think about the things we want for our kids and are able to see them here today, we have to be grateful. It’s a happy day.”
Ahfachkee means happy in Elaponke, and many speakers made reference to it during the celebration.
“I love this community and I know the school has been on the minds of Tribal leaders for a long time,” said Brighton Board Rep. Helene Buster, who worked in Big Cypress for 15 years. “The structure and environment we come to every day makes a difference. It’s a wonderful day any time the Tribe can open a school for our children.”
The middle and high school building was the first phase of the Ahfachkee expansion.
Phase two will include the renovation of the existing building for the pre-K to fifth grades, move the culture department into the former science building and rework the administrative offices.
Jose Murguido, vice president of Zyscovich Inc., worked with the team of architects on the design of the school.
“We are celebrating the new school and new dreams and new futures,” said Lee Zepeda, the Tribe’s executive director of administration, who served as principal at Ahfachkee in the 1990s. “Students will discover their purpose here. Twenty years ago I used to greet all the students who came in; it’s no coincidence that Ahfachkee means happy. We can all be very proud of this school.”
“Many architects designed this building, but three students – Elisah Billie, Eyanna Billie and Dasani Cypress – had a vision for this school that shaped the architecture,” Murguido said.
The original goal of keeping students and attracting new ones to Ahfachkee seems to be working, in part thanks to the new facility and programs. About 220 students are expected this year.
The pre-K through 12th school already has a waiting list for its pre-K program and, in a break from previous years, many (18) sixth graders stayed at Ahfachkee instead of going to schools elsewhere.
“They are coming back,” Cain said. “Students are staying and they come from all over the place. We take students from Immokalee and off the reservation in Broward County.”
Tribal Council, Board Reps, Miss Florida Seminole runner-up Alycia Mora, Jr. Miss Florida Seminole Aubee Billie, Cain and Zepeda cut the red ribbon indicating Ahfachkee was open and ready to educate its students.
“It has been said that a man plants a seed for all other generations to follow,” said Hollywood Board Rep. Gordon Wareham. “This is just the beginning for Ahfachkee.”