Gale Courey Toensing -- Today staff
OKEECHOBEE, Fla. - When back-to-school time rolled around this year, elementary school students at the Seminole Tribe of Florida's Brighton Reservation had a choice: return to the public schools in the nearby towns of Okeechobee and Moore Haven, or enroll in the tribe's new charter school on the reservation.
On the first day of school Aug. 20, 146 students chose Pemayetv Emahakv (pema-YA-ta ema-HAG-ah) Charter School.
The enrollment exceeded all projections, Principal Russell Brown said. ''We were expecting 80 to 100 students to start the year with.''
Given the choice and the development of the school, most parents in the community opted for Pemayetv Emahakv, Brown said.
''I think a lot of people are uncertain about something new like this and may take a year to see how it runs, but I think once the families saw the teachers that were hired - they're the best teachers from the surrounding counties - and I think once they saw the physical facility was actually going to be completed on time, and there was going to be a school here in the community in their neighborhood, and once they saw the technology the school was going to have, I think that's where the change of heart and willingness to jump in began,'' he said.
Brown, who has worked in education in the area for years, personally recruited the best teachers he knew to come to Pemayetv Emahakv.
On Oct. 4, the Seminole Tribe held a dedication ceremony for the new Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School, which is the first American Indian charter school east of the Mississippi River.
Pemayetv Emahakv, which means ''our way'' in the Creek language, serves primary school students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
The charter school emerged from a need and desire to teach and preserve the tribe's culture and language, said Louise Gopher, director of the tribe's education department.
''It started out when my daughter was in school,'' she explained. ''She was in the gifted program and she was pulled out of regular class one day a week. So when we were talking about how our kids were losing their language and culture, she said, 'How come we can't pull the kids out of school one day a week and keep them on the reservation and teach our language and culture?'''
That question led to what the community called the Pull Out Program, which allowed Seminole students attending nearby public schools to remain on the reservation for classes in the Creek language, culture and history every Friday during the school year.
The Pull Out Program began in 2001 and was considered part of the regular public school day. Teachers took attendance, gave grades and reported to the county school district. The Pull Out Program continued for five years.
Then the parents wanted more, Gopher said.
''So, I thought, well, the tribe has resources. They can build a school, and I was thinking it would be a satellite campus of the public school or something; but as we talked, it developed into the idea of a charter school, because then you have all the core academic classes but you can concentrate on a particular area of education, and in our case, it's our language and culture,'' Gopher said.
The tribe received approval from the tribal council, sponsorship from the Glades County School Board and state approval in 2005.
''We wanted to build in the first year, but we ran into a lot of red tape. We're out in the country and had to have a lot of environmental studies and this bird and that plant had to be OK'd and then back in November 2006, we had a groundbreaking,'' Gopher said.
The facility, a square building with a courtyard in the middle, was ready to open less than a year later.
''It's beautiful,'' Brown said. ''It has the appearance of an elab rate private school. The
furnishings are just phenomenal. The technology is the latest, state of the art, top-notch. We have an Apple Computer contract. All of our students have access to laptop computers, a program where they take them home. Our third-, fourth- and fifth-graders each has been assigned iPods and as they graduate from fifth grade they'll be able to keep those. Our teachers have been trained on podcasting and the use of the technology,'' Brown said.
There are 11 classroom teachers, and a teacher's assistant in each class. The teacher-student ratio is around 13 to 1. None of the teachers are American Indians, but the hope is that some of the Seminole students now in colleges will be inspired to become certified and teach at Pemayetv Emahakv.
As a public school, Pemayetv Emahakv received around $7,000 per pupil in state funding. The actual per-pupil cost is much higher, but that figure was not available at press time.
Pemayetv Emahakv gives preference to Seminole students, and the vast majority of the reservation children in K - 5 are enrolled; but as a public school, enrollment is open to the surrounding communities.
The Brighton Reservation consists of around 38,000 acres of largely agricultural land. Around 500 tribal members live in the community.
There are no plans to expand to middle school or high school at this point, but the facility is already bulging at the seams with the larger-than-expected enrollment. Gopher said a new classroom building will be added by next fall.
Educators at the Seminole reservation at Immokalee Reservation about 30 miles west of Fort Myers have been observing the charter school's development.
''Now we're meeting with them to open a school for them over there. I'm not sure if it's going to be a charter school or a private school, but we're talking to them about it,'' Gopher said.
So Pemayetv Emahakv may have started a trend?
''Uh-huh. That was the idea. The whole basis and focus of doing this is to retain our language and culture. I say, we've got to save it one more generation, you know? It's such a battle everywhere; it's not just us, it's all of Indian country,'' Gopher said.