BIG CYPRESS — Students at Ahfachkee School weren’t the only ones to start the 2015-16 school year at new desks.
New principal Guy Cooper, uniformed on opening day Aug. 17 in khaki pants and blue polo shirt, greeted students with fresh optimism and a pleasant but firm attitude.
One by one and in groups of brothers, sisters and cousins, students filed out of cars and into school as two school staff members flanked Cooper and provided him with too many names to remember – for now.
Cooper, who replaces acting principal Jillian Wilson, was introduced to Big Cypress residents at a community meeting a week before school started.
“We have big things to tackle,” Cooper said at the meeting.
Tardiness and truancy are at the top of the list.
“I want to make sure the children are in school … students need the maximum instructional hours,” he said. “My job is to make Ahfachkee a better school, but I can only do that if students are present.”
The school is in “corrective action status,” according to a 2013 Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) report, largely because of low academic scores and low high school graduation rate. By nature of Ahfachkee’s remote location and tribal school board leadership, it is considered a true “community school” to which Cooper is responsible for the education of all students for the good of families, the community and the Tribe.
Members of the Ahfachkee School Board are Chairman James E. Billie, Vice Chairman Mitchell Cypress, Big Cypress Councilman Cicero Osceola, Brighton Councilman Andrew J. Bowers Jr. and Hollywood Councilman Chris Osceola.
Cooper said he will utilize positive behavior intervention assistance, which he referred to as PBIA, to maximize instruction. In short, PBIA leads by teaching students rules of conduct and follows with actions that reward or punish behavior.
Cooper is what the U.S. Department of Education calls a “turnaround principal,” charged with dramatically improving student performance, even if that means the principal must replace teachers, change curriculum and scheduling, and set a higher bar for attendance, behavior and achievement.
Armed with a master’s degree in education leadership from Nova Southeastern University, a bachelor’s degree in special education from Florida Memorial University and two decades of experience, Miami-raised Cooper is poised for the task. Prior to Ahfachkee, he served as the administrator of Caddo Parish Ombudsman Alternative Education in Shreveport, Louisiana.
“You name it, I’ve done it. I’m a turnaround principal whose job is to go to a school and make huge changes,” he told 44 Ahfachkee high school students on the first day of school.