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FIU, Tribe enter partnership

Courtenay McClain, Florida International University’s director of Student Access and Success, speaks to students and parents Feb. 4 about the Seminole Tribal Scholars Pathway Program.
Courtenay McClain, Florida International University’s director of Student Access and Success, speaks to students and parents Feb. 4 about the Seminole Tribal Scholars Pathway Program.

BIG CYPRESS — Big plans are in the works to put teens on a fast path to college degrees at Florida International University.

“This will allow our kids to take college courses without going into towns 30 or more minutes away. They can go to college on the reservation,” said O’Hara Tommie, the Tribe’s Executive Administrative Officer.

Tommie, who is in charge of the Education Department among other departments, announced plans Feb. 4 at Herman L. Osceola Gymnasium in Big Cypress to nearly 130 students and parents for the new Seminole Tribal Scholars Pathway Program.

The multi-faceted program includes dual enrollment for high school juniors and seniors who are home-schooled or attending traditional high schools and for students who want to complete high school and attend college classes simultaneously on FIU campuses.

For younger academic achievers, the plan also includes opportunities for students beginning in sixth grade to start the college experience.

Summer enrichment programs, community service learning and continuing education opportunities are also available.

“By the time I become a senior citizen, you will be the leaders of the Tribe,” Tommie said to about 60 teens at the meeting. “Now, instead of just spending time playing video games or riding four-wheelers, you have the opportunity to learn about science, math, technology, engineering … we will build on our own resources, living off our land and under our own control.”

Tommie then addressed parents: “We need to put education in the right place and get our kids in college earning degrees so they can come back and work for the Tribe.”

Brenda Gillis, the Tribe’s former assistant director of Education and now the official liaison to FIU, said several universities were approached to create a higher education partnership but FIU was the only institution to step up with a program practically fit to order.

Similar to the FIU Panther Pathway Program, the Seminole Tribal Scholars Pathway Program will provide preferential treatment and mentorship to each student. The programs also offer more concentrated academic support and advising; cultural enrichment; leadership and professional development; and financial assistance.

According to Sonja Montas-Hunter, assistant vice provost of FIU’s Student Access and Success program, about 50,000 Florida high school students are in dual enrollment or academic acceleration classes at various colleges and universities.

“We (FIU) have students who graduate from high school and enter FIU as college juniors. It saves a lot of money and students graduate quicker. It’s very challenging but definitely worth the time and investment,” Montas-Hunter said.

Applicants should have 3.0 GPAs and 1300 SAT or 18-19 ACT scores, but because the program is specialized, students can be considered for admission on a case-by-case basis regardless of grades.

“We’re bridging our students with FIU,” Gillis said. The only absolute requirement for placement in the program is tribal citizenship.

The newly established relationship with FIU also opens doors for teacher training and staff development at Ahfachkee School, Gillis said.

Additionally, students with goals of becoming teachers will be identified and mentored toward teaching degrees.

Andrea Jumper attended the meeting with her children Blevyns, 18, and Ahnie, 16.

“I’m really glad that a university is partnering with the Tribe. The best thing is that they will not use test scores as the only measure for student success,” Jumper said.

Ahnie, a junior at American Heritage School in Plantation who is interested in early childhood education, special education and linguistics, filled in a portion of the FIU application during the meeting though she is undecided about where she wants to study and what her major might be.

Elisah Billie, a sophomore at Ahfachkee School, is also undecided about his future career, but he knows that college is the only sure way to achieve it. FIU is an option, but he is also interested in California College of the Arts. For now, he is a strong proponent for making Ahfachkee the best place for high school.

“I want a school where kids don’t wake up after the weekend and say, ‘Oh no, I have to go to school.’ Instead, I want them to be like, ‘Yeah, it’s Monday. I can’t wait to get to school,’ Elisah said.

That could happen sooner than later, said Big Cypress Councilman Cicero Osceola at the FIU meeting.

Ahfachkee is in the second phase of competition in XQ: The Super School Project – a $50 million effort to improve 10 schools across the country with $10 million awards promised by the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

“We’re the only Indian school in the nation up for the award. We will have a high-tech, wide-open school with every tribal department involved,” Councilman Osceola told students. “Education is so important because what if you are in my place one day? What if you want to be Chairman? You have to start pushing yourselves. You have to be ready.”

Gillis said the FIU partnership and refashioning of Ahfachkee School into a super school will change education tribalwide. Some unique opportunities that learning on the reservation could offer include cattle science, ecology, medicine and environmental robotics.

“With or without XQ, internal and external partnerships are being established. It’s the education of the future,” Gillis said.