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Ahfachkee expansion reaches topping off milestone

BIG CYPRESS — The Ahfachkee School commemorated the structural completion of its new middle and high school building with a topping off ceremony Nov. 9. Tribal dignitaries, construction executives, architects, Ahfachkee administrators and workers attended the ceremony, which celebrated the accomplishment of the construction crew.

Lee Zepeda, executive director of administration, and Big Cypress Councilman Mondo Tiger tour the construction site of the Ahfachkee School expansion Nov. 9. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

“It’s finally happening,” said Big Cypress Councilman Mondo Tiger. “This is a huge day for this community. The school will give our kids the tools they need to get a good education.”

Reaching this milestone created a celebratory mood that affected all in attendance, including the construction workers who were about to feast on a barbeque lunch before returning to work.

“This is much more than just a building with a cafeteria and classrooms,” said Lee Zepeda, executive director of administration. “This is where the future will be made.”

Now that the structure is sound, construction will move to the interior of the two-story 30,000 square-foot building where the classrooms, labs, media center and cafeteria will take shape. Pirtle Construction, which specializes in school construction, worked from the Zyscovich Architects design.

Big Cypress Board Rep. Joe Frank and Councilman Tiger attended school on the same site as the new, modern structure.

“All the work you employees are doing will ensure a good product for generations to come,” Rep. Frank said. “Thank you and keep working safe.”

Councilman Tiger also thanked the workers for their hard work.

“I appreciate your heart and dedication to come out here in the middle of nowhere and put up a school for us,” he said. “We will start getting more students at the school with this new building.”

Speeches continued before a tour of the building began.

“Projects come along in our time, but this one is special for us,” said Jamie Armstrong, Pirtle director of operations. “This will have a huge impact on the Big Cypress reservation. Today is for the guys who are making a safe, quality product for the Seminole Tribe.”

Principal Dorothy Cain narrated the tour of the building, pointing out where an interior staircase will be built, enormous windows that will take advantage of natural daylight, the spaciousness of the rooms, the height of the ceiling and the plans for the classrooms.

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 focus on collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving will prepare students to be productive members of society.

The middle and high school building is the first of two phases of the Ahfachkee expansion. The second phase, which will follow the first’s completion, is the renovation of the existing classroom buildings.

Armstrong said the middle and high school will be up and running for the next school year. Although the building may be complete sometime in the spring, it is unlikely the students will be moved in at that time.

“We don’t want to disrupt the students’ testing schedule,” he said. “We are cognizant of what goes on within the walls we are building.”

The students won’t be the only ones eager to move into the new building, teachers will as well.

“We’re very proud of our new school,” said traditional culture teacher Mary Jene Koenes. “We’ve outgrown our old one, it’s so old fashioned. We are all looking forward to the new school.”

Workers on the roof of the Ahfachkee middle and high school building under construction next to the existing school building. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Big Cypress Councilman Mondo Tiger and Derrick Smith, TCD senior director of operations, like what they see as they tour the Ahfachkee School expansion project Nov. 9 during a topping off ceremony. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Construction workers at the Ahfachkee middle and high school celebrate the topping off ceremony on the site. (Photo Beverly Bidney)



Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at

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