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Brighton breaks ground on new buildings

Tribal leaders, elders, family members, students, tribal employees and PECS’ administrators and staff marked the groundbreaking of soon to be built facilities. (Photo Damon Scott)

BRIGHTON — The Seminole Tribe’s Brighton Reservation is known not only for the Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School (PECS), which opened in 2007, but also the unique Creek language immersion program it initiated in 2015. Now, after years of planning and effort, the school and the program will see a big boost with new facilities that are now under construction.

The Brighton community gathered for a groundbreaking ceremony May 24 to mark the occasion of a building that will house the immersion program – which is now using portable classrooms – and a separate complex that will host a new Boys & Girls Club, library and community cultural center.

The entire project also includes an expansion of the school’s cafeteria, a chickee village for cooking and special events and additional parking. The new development, at 26,000 square feet, is located just west of the school and is expected to be completed in late 2023.

“All these buildings that are going up – they’re all about preservation – knowledge, identity, the language – and all those things that make us Seminole,” Lee Zepeda, the tribe’s executive director of administration, said.

It was noted at the groundbreaking that many tribal leaders, elders, parents and employees past and present played a part in the creation of PECS, it’s immersion program, and now the construction of new facilities. But it is three Seminole women in particular that were held up as having the most influence on it all – Jennie Shore of the Otter Clan, the late Lorene Bowers Gopher of the Snake Clan and the late Louise Jones Gopher of the Panther Clan.

The trio is credited for imagining a charter school on the Brighton Reservation in the first place – and one with culture and immersion programs. The three took it from imagination to reality.

“The accomplishments of each of these ladies have left a lasting footprint in our tribal history,” Jade Osceola, the immersion program manager, said. “To us this is more than just buildings. It’s the perfect rendition of the past meeting the present in order to preserve our future.”

Shore has taught Creek for decades and helped implement an initial “pull out program,” wherein tribal students attending local elementary schools were pulled out of class once a week and taught Seminole language and culture. But Shore and others soon realized that one day a week wasn’t enough.

“Most know that there is a large gap in those who speak the native tongue and those that do not,” Shore said. “It is something that wouldn’t be learned unless the person is immersed in it. Now for the first time in a very long time, the children are learning and playing all while speaking the language. It makes me happy.”

Bowers Gopher, in addition to helping create the pull out program and the school’s Creek classes, also contributed to a Florida Creek dictionary.

“I’m glad this day’s here; I wish she were,” an emotional Deanna Osceola, her granddaughter, said. “She never let me miss a Corn Dance to learn our cultural ways and I’m very thankful to have that from her.”

Similarly, Jones Gopher was a force in the development of an early cultural education program that led to the formation of PECS. Her family said her focus was always to help retain Seminole culture and keep children in school.

“She worked tirelessly to help preserve our culture and our language. Her whole life was education,” her daughter, Rita Gopher, said. “She always encouraged and pushed for the children to learn their language, learn their culture, learn who they were, where they came from.”

Part of the excitement among students, teachers and staff is the forthcoming stability the new state-of-the-art facilities will provide. For example, there will be no more need for dilapidated portable classrooms – and the Culture department and Boys and Girls Club will have a new, permanent home.

“The young kids I see here today are the future leaders of this tribe, way beyond when I’m gone,” Brighton Councilman Larry Howard said. “We’re blessed. There are people in this world that will never see something like this. So don’t take it for granted.”

Councilman Howard asked former Brighton Councilman Andrew Bowers Jr. to speak at the groundbreaking. Both have worked over the years to help bring the project to fruition.

“I’ve been thinking about what I want to say and what came to my mind is three Seminole ladies. I would focus on what they did, not what I might have done,” Bowers said. “They saw that the Seminole way of thinking, Seminole way of living, Seminole way of talking, was being lost. So they started out thinking: how can we teach this and continue this?”

Brighton Board Representative Helene Buster previously taught in the immersion program for two years. She said she’d like to do it again someday.

“Every day was a learning experience and the children were just sponges soaking up everything we were teaching them,” Rep. Buster said. “I know that we’re blessed as a tribe and as a community to have this school here.”

Jade Osceola, the immersion program manager, started teaching Creek at PECS in 2016. (Photo Damon Scott)
Rita Gopher spoke about her mother, the late Louise Jones Gopher. (Photo Damon Scott)
Brighton Councilman Larry Howard talked about the project’s impact on the community. (Photo Damon Scott)
Jennie Shore helped to establish PECS’ immersion program in 2015. (Photo Damon Scott)
Former Brighton Councilman Andrew Bowers Jr. spoke about the project at the ceremony. (Photo Damon Scott)
A nearby sign provides details about the immersion program building. (Photo Damon Scott)
Representatives of the PECS student council recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Creek and English before the groundbreaking. (Photo Damon Scott)
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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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