BRIGHTON —There was a new face on campus July 25 at Brighton’s Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School – principal Tracy Downing.
But while Downing is indeed a fresh face, she’s not an entirely new one.
Downing lives in nearby Okeechobee, and has worked in the Okeechobee County School District for more than two decades.
She’s been a principal at three Okeechobee elementary schools, has worked in middle and high schools, and was previously a teacher and reading coach.
In other words, she knows a lot of students, parents, families and people in the community.
Before PECS (which offers pre-K through eighth grade) opened 13 years ago, a lot of Tribal students went to school in Okeechobee.
Downing was the assistant principal of Seminole Elementary School when she first remembers hearing about PECS.
It sticks out in her mind because she said about 100 of her students left Seminole Elementary to go to school there. (Okeechobee County and Glades County – where Brighton is located – neighbor one another).
Thirteen years later, she still knows a lot of them – students and parents alike. For example, Lewis Gopher – now the Tribalwide community recovery liaison for the Center for Behavioral Health – is one of the parents she knows through those years at Seminole Elementary.
Downing also graduated from Okeechobee High School and knows some of the PECS parents from those years. She went to high school with one of PECS’ founders, and now administrative assistant, Michele Thomas.
“I knew it was being built. I had good friends and teachers being pulled there,” Downing recalled.
Brian Greseth was one – PECS’ last principal who was at the helm for eight years.
Greseth is now the executive vice president of Charter School Associates – a group of 23 schools in Florida.
Downing said Greseth has been her friend and neighbor for many years.
Put simply, Downing knows a lot of people.
“My mom hates going to Walmart with me – I talk to almost every one,” she said, adding with a chuckle that she likely knows the most of Okeechobee’s 45,000 residents one way or another.
After Greseth left PECS earlier this year, there were more than a few people interested in filling the position.
Downing said that while it was a tough choice – she knew immediately that it was the right one.
“I came out and toured and saw the facility and started learning about the resources, the curriculum” Downing said. “This is a really unique, special place.”
Downing said she was also attracted to the position due to the school’s technology, teacher-to-student ratio, materials, supplies, resources and support from all of the stakeholders, including the Tribe, CSA and community.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen,” she said. “There is a feel when you come here; just a strong sense of community and everyone is working toward one goal. I’ve never felt that before. Now I feel like I’m part of that.”
Downing interviewed before a panel that included Brighton Councilman Larry Howard, a member of the CSA, Thomas and a Tribal member.
She oversees dozens of staff members, including 38 teachers. There are currently 306 students enrolled at PECS and Downing said there’s room for 100 more.
“It’s a lot more than reading, writing and math,” she said. “We are preserving the language and cultural diversity of these children, and that’s going to impact them for generations to come.”
Downing’s father has passed away, but her mother, two brothers and one sister live in the Okeechobee area.
The family grew up on a small farm in Indiantown until Downing was about 15 – that’s when they made the move to Okeechobee.
“We grew and killed everything we ate,” Downing said.
Her mother made their clothes. They would have been considered poor, but were not destitute, she said.
“We had cattle and animals to sustain our lives. Going into town was a rarity. We’d get up and milk the cows before school; we made butter; made our own soap. It was a tough life, but good. It instilled a strong work ethic.
Family was important and education was important to my parents,” she said.
Downing earned a double major in English and English education at Florida State University. She’d go on to earn a master’s degree in education from Florida Atlantic University.
Downing has three kids of her own now – one girl, 15, and two twin boys in the eighth grade. All three go to school in Okeechobee.
When Downing isn’t working at PECS, you can find her reading historical fiction at home before turning in for the night. She’s up early for a session at CrossFit 426 in Okeechobee from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. before heading to work for the day.
At lunch, you might also catch her grabbing the area’s “best sweet tea” from Alice’s Restaurant not far from the school.
Downing said she’s always been active – she coached soccer when she was a teacher.
She’s also a volunteer firefighter with the Okeechobee Fire Department – one of 43 who train two times a month.
She’s ridden in ambulances and has been part of the emergency services provided at high school football games and rodeos.