While some students dread returning to the classroom this time of year, children in Cherokee have been asking for weeks about when they would get to go back to school.
With the unveiling of The Eastern Band of Cherokee’s new school last week, it’s easy to see why. The giant yet graceful building sits on a sprawling campus cradled in a cove by the surrounding Smoky Mountains.
The school will serve 1,300 students in grades K through 12. The school came at a cost of $140 million, including the land acquisition, site prep and design. The construction alone cost $109 million, the lion’s share paid for with revenue from Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. Given the price tag, it makes Cherokee’s school the most expensive per capita endeavor in the region, if not the state.
“It’s gorgeous. When they said we were going to get a new school, this is not what we were expecting,” said Candice Crowe, a member of the Eastern Band, who attended a ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony last Friday.
In addition to the stunning architecture, the classrooms are outfitted with technology and features found in few college buildings, let alone public school systems.
Samantha Crowe-Hernandez, who is getting her teaching degree at Western Carolina University, is looking forward to doing her student teaching at the new Cherokee school this year.
“It is overwhelming,” she said. “It is more than you could ever imagine. If you could have a dream school, this is it.”
Crowe, who was Miss Cherokee in high school, is also majoring in Cherokee Studies and learning to speak Cherokee. The written and spoken language has been integrated into the Cherokee curriculum for all students. In fact, a wing of the new school is dedicated to Cherokee language learning.
“Everybody is sticking together to keep our language, and I want to be part of that,” Crowe said.
The school opening came just days after the appointment of a new superintendent, Joyce Dugan. Dugan served as the superintendent of the school system in the early 1990s, served four years as the chief of the tribe, then worked in upper management at the casino.
During her speech, Dugan thanked the tribal council, the governing body for the tribe, for its long fight to see the school to fruition.
“Thank you for believing in this project and giving it all the financial support that was needed,” Dugan said.
Chief Michell Hicks said he was proud of what the tribe is accomplishing, and the school is a testimony to their progress and priorities.
“When I walk through the hallways, I don’t have to question, ‘Did we do it right?’” Hicks said. “We did.”
Hicks said the school will help their people continue to grow.
“It is all about giving ourselves confidence, motivating our students, motivating our teachers, our administrators,” Hicks said. “This is not the end. It is just the beginning.”
Those in attendance agreed that out of all the positive change that has occurred for the tribe thanks to gaming revenue, the new school ranks at the top.
“The tribe has put aside a lot of money from gaming to pay for this,” said Patrick Lambert, director of the Tribal Gaming Commission. “It will be good for the tribe. It’s a good day.”
Several speakers lauded the approach of the joint campus, which keeps the tribe’s entire student body under one roof, albeit a big roof.
While the old elementary school and combined middle and high school were cramped and outdated, the sprawling new campus seemed a little too big to Aniyah Younce, a third grader, who was concerned that he might get lost. Aside from that, he gave it high marks.
“It has a different playground and it has elevators,” said Aniyah, who attended the dedication last week.
His younger brother, Osti, a first grader, had one word for the new school.
“Ten,” Osti said, as in a scale of one to ten.
The stunning architecture and high-tech classrooms aren’t lost on the older students, however.
“I feel like I am going to a fancy school now,” said Bradley Welch, a freshman. “I think it is really cool.”
Ideally, the fancy school will inspire students to invest in their own education after seeing their tribal leaders invest so much in them, said Martha Humes, a teacher in the middle school.
“The excitement and enthusiasm of a campus that looks like this will funnel into the classroom,” said Humes, who lives in Sylva.
As for getting lost in the halls, Humes is already prepared to swallow her pride and ask the students for help getting around.
“They will have the place mapped out before we do,” Humes said.
The school attempts to integrate computer learning into every classroom, not just computer lab time. What’s known as a “smart board” is mounted in the wall in most classrooms. A futuristic blackboard, it reflects whatever is on the teacher’s computer screen. It also acts like a giant mouse pad, allowing teachers to scroll and click by touching the giant screen.
“They are state of the art,” said R. L. Taylor, a computer lab teacher. The “smart boards” give a big boost to classroom participation, with students vying for a turn at the board, said Taylor.
Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, was among the speakers at the dedication.
“To your students, work as hard as you possibly can and the sky is the limit,” Shuler said.
Shuler, a pro-football player who got his start at Cherokee’s arch rival Swain County High School, joked about playing football for the “other school down the way.”
“I never would have guessed in 1991 that I would be a guest speaker at a ribbon cutting ceremony for Cherokee’s new high school,” Shuler said.
“Back in 1991, we didn’t ever think we would be inviting you either,” Dugan joked back.