Interviewee: Sharon Byrd Gaffney
Interviewer: Rosalyn Howard
27 April 1999
H: I am talking today with Dr. Sharon Byrd who is at the Ahfachkee School. And what is
G: We call it Director of School Operations. We choose that because it was real general -
real broad. And didn't really say anything. Because my role here is, you know we are
an independent school. We don=t work through a school system, per se, so what we do
is that everything that gets done, we do ourselves, here, so you=re are looking at the
G: Because we don=t have that level of bureaucracy over us, we get involved in a lot of
things, and it is very interesting. I think we had started to talk in the beginning about
when my husband first came out here and you=ll read the article very enlightening. I
recommend it highly, but..
H: Why don=t you tell us what that article is, and
G: OK. In a nutshell, the administration who had been here my husband was her >91->92
and had a nice quiet school year and everything was fine. Then, he left and went to
teach in University. And the man they hired was a very, very bright man, Harvard
educated, and had great ideas but as with a lot of idea people, he was not able to carry
through and do these things. And I think that progressively over the years he became
frustrated that he had the wonderful ideas and thought he had solutions but just couldn't
do anything. He began to withdraw stay in his office a lot. We think (we speculate)
drank a lot. And sold real estate over the phone while he was in there. And more and
more, a girl who had been here when my husband was here in A91->92, who had been a
very capable, special ed coordinator very nice person, very hard worker, he began to
rely more and more on her. And it was like something happened to her and she got
corrupted and she got real power-hungry. And the two of them began, in fact, having a
romance. They were both by this time single and it was just a nasty thing. They kids got
out of hand. There was no discipline. They yelled at the teachers; they yelled at the kids.
They wouldn't buy anything for the school. The whole program just went to pot. And
you=ll read in the article that the parents began to say >well, if you=re not going to run
the school, we are going to have to step in and take over=. And very literally, Leslie, the
tribal chairman=s wife and Missy Sanders, our parent involvement coordinator, now, that
we hired, began to step in as the leadership of the parent advisory committee and start to
take over the school and try to run it. They had to step in and do mundane, everyday
things like textbook orders. It was a mess! And the parent advisory committee and the
community meetings and they finally drove him out, the principle, out at about Christmas
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H: This was what year?
G: Uhm, Let= s see...>96. The 1996-97 school year. And then they just did not renew her
contract at the end of the year. So, about this time about two years ago about this time
they started looking for a principal and we are going to contact Dr. Gaffney is interested,
and see if he=d be interested in coming back and for a long time he said, ANo@, he
And finally, into the summer, he said, AYeah, maybe I would be.@ So they began
earnestly talking about it. Then, they say OK we will set up interviews and you apply for
the job and well interview. They did, and they hired him. But he asked me if I would
spend ( I was on an eleven month contract with Broward schools) my month off out here
look things over get an assessment of what was happening. Do basically an audit of the
program and the accreditation and where we stood with our grants and that sort of thing.
So I spent four weeks out here with him and at the end of that time and I said, AYou are
in real trouble. You have bitten off, probably, more than you can chew. Good Luck.@
So, he said, AWould you consider coming out here with me?@ OK, alright, let=s think
about it. So we did. They advertised. They created a position. Advertised, interviewed
and hired me. And it was a long process because this school was in one mess.
H: Tell me about your background and how you had the expertise to come in and change
G: Alright. Elementary Ed, then got a Masters in school leadership and a doctorate in it but
the doctorate had a slant of adult/community education and I=ve always had a big focus
on the community. I felt like that was the basis of the school strength was that
community out there. So, I had been a principal at the Chock Taw tribal schools where I
met him then came down here with him and went into the Broward schools and worked
as a community school administrator, assistant principal and acting principal. And there
Florida schools are very much on the cutting edge of school reform. And I had worked
with one of the foremost leaders in Florida as far as elementary reform goes.
H: Who is that?
G: Her name is Dr. Linda Bedel. She was principal at a school where I worked for four
years and I was assistant principal and then took over as acting principal after her and
learned a lot about school reform. A lot about the accreditation process. And when we
came out here the status of accreditation was in real trouble. See, there is a five year
cycle with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and every five years, you
have to have a site review. And we knew we were two years away. There was staff who
were not properly certified; there were people doing jobs that were not necessary to keep
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the accreditation or the jobs that were needed were not filled. There was no library here.
It was an old I can=t even call it a library collection of really old books. They had
them in the smallest classroom. They had bookshelves stacked on top of bookshelves,
going all the way up to the ceiling. Had them bolted, together and had all those old
books on there. An elementary child can=t reach a book way up there. It was really a
mess. And it had no librarian since he left here in >92. So, as far as I am concerned,
they didn't have one. And I went back and the paper work was a shambles. They had
either shredded everything or had just thrown it to the winds. And we had to gather up
all of the records from this pile and that pile and that drawer and were missing big gaps
of information. I had to do things like call Washington and ask for different grants. I had
to call Southern Association and ask for copies of reports and annual reviews and such.
And pieced it together and basically they were fraudulent in their reports every year to
Southern Association because they were sadly out of compliance with a lot of things. So,
we began to rebuild it. We built first of all, well, let me back up. In talking to the people
in Washington about where were we with the grants and can you send us more copies of
things and such, they told us that because of our lack of compliance with the consolidate
school reform plan, they were going to fund us one more year and it was a Await and see
thing@. Can you guys pull it together. The only reason they continued to fund the
school one more year is because of the new administration. The prior administration -
had they continued on they would have pulled the funding that year.
H: What kind of funding do they provide?
G: About 40% I=m sorry 60% of our funding comes from the Bureau of Indian Affairs
through what they call the Indian School Equalization Program. It=s like any other state.
Every state has like a base student allocation. We give you AX@ amount for every child
who comes through the door and then we give you increments on that for different
services that that child needs, like special ed and such. We have the same set-up with the
BIA. We are covered by the 51st state which is the Federal Government. We are not a
part of the state of Florida, as far as schooling goes. All of the Indian...Bureau-funded
schools are considered to be in that 51st state and they have every state now has a
reform plan in place and our 51st state called the Consolidated School Reform Plan.
H: In this magazine, Hoofbeats?, that you shared with me, here, I see that it is published by
the National Indian School board Assoc. Is that affiliated with the 51st state that you
were talking about?
G: Yes, and no. It is not a government entity but it=s a free standing entity that, I think,
operates off of some government grants. But what they are they are not a school board
for us but they are an association that helps the Indian school, school boards. Our school
board for us is the tribal counsel, the governing body of the tribe. Other tribes will have a
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separate school board. When I worked at Chalk Tau, our tribal counsel also was the
school board so it is a common thing that the tribal counsel plays both roles. And this
association helps in training for school board members because very often well, the vast
majority are lay people in terms of education and don=t a lot about the workings of it.
So, they help with a lot of that. But, back up. The Consolidated School Reform Plan
required that these Indian schools write their own in-house school reform plan. And then
have to stick to it. This school had written a real nice one. Put it on a shelf; it got dusty;
nothing was ever done; and they were three years behind on it. So, I came in kept going
and said AYou said you=d do what?@ We had to do it because a lot of it was written into
the state plan that those things had to be done, therefore we had to adopt them as part of
our plan and do it.
H: So there is some overseeing of the schools by the state of Florida?
G: No, by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Our State. If we get their funding, we have to play
their game. Much like the state of Florida, if you got a public school, you got to do what
the state says to get their money. So, in a year and a half we had to bring this school up,
in terms of those obligations, and then, because this was an old outdated plan that had
never been looked at and never been polished up each year and brought forward, we
didn't feel like it was viable, anymore. And we set about writing a new School Reform
Plan using the National Study of School Evaluation guidelines for doing it, which is very
introspective look at what the school does. The work of the school, so they say and I like
that term, We look at who the community is, who it is we are serving; look at the
mission of our school; and then make sure that the mission of the school still is what we
want it to be. And we rewrote our mission after we studied who we were serving. Then,
you take a look at what you want the student to be. What do you want them we
visualized; our mental image was what do we want the students to look like, feel like, be
like, smell like, act like, do, when they walk across the stage at graduation.
H: In that vein, tell me what is the mission of the school.
G: The mission is to provide bottom line provide the best education possible, provide
what they call the white man=s education within the culturally sensitive environment
here to bring them up with the same quality education and then some but also to retain
their native ways. To honor that culture; to teach and restore the language; many of our
children don=t speak any of the language and we now have a cultural program that
teaches the ways and the language.
H: Tell me about that. Who is involved in that and who are the teachers for that?
G: We have a cultural arts teacher who works in this room next door and she happens to be
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out at a workshop, or a conference.
H: This is Theresa Jumper?
G: Yes, Theresa Jumper... who is a trained cultural arts specialist; she is not a trained
teacher or a certified teacher but is trained as a cultural arts specialist and she is just a
natural teacher. She teaches it and then we have a language program that we have
devised that the classroom aides implement who are all Seminole speakers or Seminole
tribal members. So, they have a daily infusion of the language and the culture in the
classroom through he aides and in a twice a week they go to a cultural special. One is the
culture and one is the language.
H: Are they learning both Creek and the Muskogee?
G: They=re learning the Muskogee. This is, in fact, the brand, more or less, of the
Miskogee language that is unique to this area, too, because if you went to Brighton there
is more of the Creek influence. And if you went to Hollywood, or any of the other
reservations you would have a bit different flavor, I think. So this is more the local
version. But, we spent that long introspective period looking at who we were and what
we wanted the kids to be then we looked at what could the school do to support that.
What are the strengths what are the weaknesses? And from that we evolved a plan of
action which is our school reform plan. And, but during the year and a half all that was
evolving and we still had students in the middle grades that couldn't read and write. We
had kids who were in serious trouble with their education. So, we came in and started
some what we have called for the lack of a better term, band-aid strategies. Put them
in place to start bringing those kids along. Because we knew what needed to be done.
And our scores turned around so drastically, you=ll see in the little Hoofbeats article.
Now, we are getting National recognition for being a model school of reform. And I=ve
taken teams of people out and done some speaking on my own about how we reformed
this school. We=ve got a really nice Power Point presentation, we go do at the drop of a
hat. And we are really getting a lot of press about it. Because Indian schools tend to be
isolated. They tend not to have people who are on the cutting edge. We do.
H: What people? In what positions? What do you mean?
G: Particularly in the leadership of the schools. Very often these are old/ BIM employees
who have been out in the middle of nowhere for 20 years and haven=t been updating
skills. They are trying to do it like we did it in the >60's. They don=t know school
reform measures. And they don=t know the newer strategies and they are not current in
their thinking. That was where I had the advantage of coming in from one of the most on
the edge school systems (aside: >on the edge for a lot of reasons=) it terms of school
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reform. I had trained under some of the best. We have for the most part, a very young
staff here, in terms of the teachers who have very up-to-date training. The couple of
teachers that aren=t the new, young, just out of school types, have kept current. And I=m
not sure if that is because they are close geographically to a major metropolitan area or
just it=s just their personality, or what. But they, on their own, even through these hard
years, kept their skills pretty current. And then we cam in with a whole lot of training
and everybody just...everybody just sparked and went on with it. We were just able,
because the situation was so right, to turn it around so fast. I think it could be replicated
in other schools but we had the right setting and we had the community support. The
tribal leadership support. Basically, they told us, AYou go in. What do you need? And
let us know, well get it for you.@ They cut through all the red tape. Here it is. And that
was one of the big successes of this school it had operated under the tribes education
department. And that is a whole other can of worms big mess, but they were not
overseeing the school properly. That was part of the bargain: my husband said, AI=ll
come back but you=ll have to take us out from under the education department. We have
to be a separate, stand-alone entity, going directly to the tribal chairman.@ We answer
directly to him. And that just cut through all that red tape. We were set up for success.
H: Are you also in charge of the highschool?
G: Yes, we run the high school. It is ...this year K-12; next year, we are adding a pre-K, so
it will be Pre-K through 12. Fairly, also in the highschool we are adding a partnership
with, hopefully, Eckerd College. We are working to provide those concurrently enrolled
type classes and get the highschool kids doing dual course work to get highschool and
college credit at the same time.
H: So, Ahfachkee, this elementary section is K-what?
H: OK and the highschool starts at 9t. I was told that there was kind of an alternative
program, there. Can you tell me what that is about?
G: That=s what it is. Yeah, it is a computer lab that has, what we call PLAUTO software.
P-L-A-U-T-O, like the man=s name. The software has been designed and aligned with
the Florida Sunshine State Standards and the Curriculum frameworks so every course
that is on that computer software program, is the same content as you would get at South
Broward Highschool or any Ely Highschool, any of the area high schools would give you
the same content within their course work. So our kids come in and they have a
combination of direct instruction from the teacher and independent work on the
computer. So Lisa Pata, who is a tribal member,
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H: What is her name?
G: Lee Zepeda, the male teacher over there, and then the girl that was in here a while ago,
H: How do you spell that name?
G: Z-e-p-e-d-a. His Dad=s Hispanic and then his Mom=s Seminole so his had kinda a
unique name for this area. He teaches the history type courses, the social science-type
courses and then Allison McCollough goes over and helps with the reading and the
writing. And that is going to be part of our partnership with Eckert College to help with
the writing instruction. We are hopefully taking the kids in July, for a week-long
writers= workshop at the college campus and taste of campus life, you know. The kids
work at their own pace. And we feel like it is a very high quality, alternative program.
H: Is there any culture teaching going on, there?
G: They come over and are part of our special schedule, we call it. Our specials are the
cultural arts, the language, counseling, PE, and media at the library. They come over and
do they don=t do PE and they don=t have a special schedule that takes them into the
library but they use the library. So they come over and share with us, some of those
H: About how many student are here in K-8? And then in the highschool?
G: Yeah. At count week, last year, we had actually 127 students 15 of which, were
highschool. Now, our actual count numbers were not that high. They were in the upper -
like 118, 119 because all but a couple of our highschool students are only part-time so it
takes two of them to count as a full time equivalent for funding. So we got funded on
about 118 students but had about 127, all total.
H: And are they all Seminole children? Are there any outside children?
G: Yeah, as a matter of fact, we have two Hispanic children and, at this time do we have
any white children, now I=m trying to think...Oh, yes, we do have one little white girl.
We did have two others and we have had as many as five white children but they are
tribal employees= children that live here on the reservation.
H: Is that the same for the Hispanic?
G: Yes, her Dad runs the rodeo grounds. And they have been here she=s a seventh grader
and she had been here kindergarten. So she thinks she is one of them. She sings the
Seminole pledge of allegiance just like the rest of them do. And wears her clothes on
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Seminole Dress Day. And then we have a Cherokee and Omcocherokee. We have a
Sioux, we have a Miccosukee. We have other native American children. But the vast
majority are Seminole tribal members.
H: I@m curious about the one from Oklahoma is she related to a family here?
G: She, I think her Mother, at one time was married to somebody in this area and she came
here and liked it and stayed on.
H: What aspects of traditional Seminole culture do you teach here in the Ahfachkee school?
G: They teach, beside the restoration model of the language, they teach the basketry, the
patchwork design that they are so famous for and that's a nice example.
H: Really incredible.
G: Isn=t it gorgeous? That=s my best. One of them. Then we teach about the clans and
somewhat about the history. We are beginning to develop more fully the curriculum for
the historical part of it and we have a committee of people who are working on that at
this time. Because that is one of our school improvement goals is to teach more of the
culture. We feel like that is very important.
H: Do most of the children who live here on the reservation, do they attend school, here?
G: About 90-95% of the Big Cyprus children go here but they do have the option, because
we are within Hendry County, inside of the county (a nation within a nation), we can
send them out to Hendry County schools and there=s a small group that does meet the
bus down here and go into town. Yes, they go to Clewiston. And then we have a very
few who go away to boarding schools, particularly at the highschool level, which we
encourage because an alternative highschool is not for everybody. We don=t and can=t
meet the need of all the highschool students, so some of those students do go off, to
H: Vivian Crooks mentioned some of the programs that she refers students to, as far as
boarding schools go.
G: And does an excellent job of matching up the needs of the student to the school. She
wouldn't just take you and say AOh, they have an opening up here. Let=s put you up
there.@ She tries very carefully to match the students= need to the offering of the school
and the setting.
H: I don=t know how much you know about the history of attitudes about schooling. But
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there was a time when the Seminoles did not want their children to attend schools,
especially white schools or ones that taught a white kind of curriculum. And what have
you noticed about changes in attitude?
G: Well, my time doesn't go back for a first hand look at it, but my observation and opinion
of it is that over the last twenty years as this tribe as literally come into the 20th century
from nothing they have begun to realize that A well, if we want to compete in whites
mans society then we=ve gotta have his education. We=ve gotta learn to play by his
rules.@ And they have really incorporated that into their thinking. They hold it very high
as one of their goals that their children all be educated. Now you will have a few people,
maybe within their family aren=t as into it, but in general, the tribe has a very strong
commitment to education. It is obvious. They spend over a million dollars a year on
this school, alone. On this school. Now, that's a lot of money.
H: That is. Is there any kind of vocation or technical education done in the highschool?
G; We don=t here. But we incorporate that into our counseling services. We do a lot of
career counseling, they call it. We take them out and look at schools that they might
choose after highschool. We take them to the areas of vocational schools on both coasts.
We take them to a lot of colleges in the area. Though, we are not doing it, we are trying
to prepare and encourage them to take that next step.
H: I believe you said that 60% of the funding comes from BIA. And so the other 40% is
what the tribe, the million dollars, you mentioned. Children who have attended the
school here and then they decide to go off to other schools, how well have they made the
G: Not well. We have a very high incidence of failure when they get out there. And that is
why Vivian is working really, really hard to get better and better at matching the situation
to the student.
H: What have been some of their problems that they have encountered?
G: Traditionally, I do not understand it, but traditionally, Indian children do not adapt well
to other situations outside their home. To take them to another community, they do not
do well. Even in situations where they go away to like an inter-tribal school, they call it,
which several tribes represented there, they go away maybe, to a school that is all
cultures, predominantly white, a lot of them. They don=t, they just don=t like it, they
don=t fit in, they don=t adjust well. And a lot of them come back. We wish they didn't.
We wish they could stay. And, we have one young lady doing, right now she=ll be a
success story but she finished her highschool here. Now, she is away at Haskell Indian
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Nations University. Majoring in elementary education. And this is nearing the end of
her first year and she is doing wonderfully. But this is a young lady whose parents did
the same thing I did when I raised my daughter, very involved in horses and they rodeoed
we horse-showed. They took these children all over the country to rodeos and
competitions and they viewed that outside world very differently.
H: ...then most of the children who have never had that exposure. Yeah.
G: And she will be a success story, we hope.
H: And do you think that is a key to helping them adapt is to get them involved in more
activities where they encounter the rest of the community.
G: And that's why we are working on this partnership with Eckert College where we will
start while they are still in 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grade. All through their highschool
years. Going away to that campus spending a week at a time and coming back. Going
over and spending three weeks at a time and coming back. And we hope that by the time
they graduate from highschool, it will be just very natural to go over there and stay for 10
months at a time and come back home go back for 10 months again until they have done
their four years or maybe graduate credits. So, we are hoping to kinda get one foot in -
like getting in cold water and getting used to it. That is the plan, anyway. Sounds good
in theory, doesn't it?
H: From the example you=ve provided, it sounds that it is something that could work.
G: It could. It very well could. And I would really like to see it happen. Because I came
here two years ago thinking, AI=ve been involved in education a lot of years, and I=ve
worked another Indian Reservation and a kid=s a kid. There are smart kids; there are
dumb kids; and there=s a whole lot of in-between kids, here.@ But I find that these
children have a very quick mind. They are very, very, bright. They are much brighter in
general, than I expected them to be. And I think that they have a real strong possibility of
a very bright, very well educated population here in generations to come.
H: What provisions do you make for children who are not bright like the special education?
G: We have a very strong special education program, here and have about 20 students in it.
But for the most part our students are speech ( and that's a very common problem when
you are raised in a bilingual setting) that you have speech problems. And another big
area are the learning disabilities. This and by the nature of the learning disability you
are a very bright child but you are having trouble in one or more areas. Then, there is
that discrepancy between IQ and performance. What is happening if you are a really
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bight child, why are you not performing? So you are looking at a bright population. We
feel like that they are.
H: What kind of parental involvement is there, here?
G: Nationwide, that's a problem. We don't We advocate parental support, in terms of
parents preparing their students and getting them to school, ready to learn. And then,
supporting the school in the work of the school. And we have a limited number of very,
very involved parents and then we have a great number who are uninvolved. But, we feel
like we are changing that, slowly, by having a lot of activities here at the school which
will bring the parents in.
H: Yeah, I noticed on your board outside that there is going to be a dinner? Tell me about
what that is going to be for?
G: We have dinners about once a month. Maybe even more frequently than that where we
have a brief seminar parent seminar on different topics like this time it is going to be
test-prep. Last time, it was on building the self esteem of your child. Before that we=ve
had activities that you can do with your children at home to support the work of the
school. So we are trying to train the parents to be better supporters. We have a program
where we are going out and doing outreach with the parents to help them with their pre-
school age children do activities which will get those children boost their readiness
skills for school. And that's why we are implementing a pre-K program to back up
another year so that we have more control, you know, have the children under our thumb
one more year. You know what I mean. Add one more year of education to the process.
We are slowly evolving with that. We have a very limited number of people who come.
H: That is what I was going to ask you. How long have you been having these?
G: This year. We began it.
H: Like Jan.?
G: No, the beginning of the school year. In the Fall. And we will have given eight parent
seminars this year. This will be our first parent breakfast. We are trying to incorporate
this the seminar idea during the morning time thinking maybe if we don't get you at
night, maybe you'll come in the morning. But, we do the dinners, so that, we do dinner
for everything. We do dinners for parent-teacher conferences, we do dinners for
programs, we do dinners every time so that we, one get you out of your home and free
you up (not to have to be home getting dinner ready before you come to the activity). We
are trying to take away all of the road blocks to good parents. And it is working.
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H: And you have limited participation, did you say?
G: Yeah, but it is slowly, slowly growing. We were very disappointed in the beginning but
we feel like it is growing. We think it will just take time.
H: Well, great. I really appreciate you taking the time to meet with me here in your office.
G: Well, thank you. It is my favorite topic, as you can tell.
H: I just wanted to add, for the tape notes that the article you were referring to in the
Seminole Tribune that talked about trouble in Ahfachkee was May 23, 1997. Do you
have anything else you would like to add?
G: Only that the success that we have enjoyed here just an immediate, very rapid,
overwhelming success, almost, is because we had all the right ingredients here. We had
bright children, wonderful community support, support from tribal leadership and the
funding. Who could fail? It would take an idiot to fail, here.
H: Well, there was one who failed.
G: Oh, he did. He was an idiot. He really was. He told the children in fact, that they were
dumb. He did. We=ve got a lot kids here that will never get that completely out of their
minds that this man told them how dumb they were and reinforced it in everything he did
H: Oh, that= s tragic.
G: It is.
H: Good for them that you and your husband are here. You had mentioned him as Dr.
Patrick Gaffney, who I will also talk with. But, seems like you've got a wonderful
program going here.
G: We feel real good about it. It is nothing showy. We are pretty simple and basic but good
things start with good foundations and that is what we are trying to build here. A really
good foundation and then go on to more and more programs that will support the learning
of the children. We think it is going well.
H: Just one more question. I was thinking about the classroom size. What is that like?
G: Ohhh, that is another secret to success. They are small. Our average class has 10-12
students in it, maybe 15. And we have a certified teacher and a Miccosukee-speaking
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Seminole tribal member, as an instructional aide.
H: In every classroom?
G: In every classroom. So how can you fail? And I think that our Seminole aides are .
We=ve kinda gone through several that didn't seem to work out. And the group that we
have now most of them have a couple of years of college (and that= s another program
that we are going to try to work with Eckert College to finish them as certified teachers.
Every one of them has a very strong commitment to what they are doing here. And
intend to stay in it. We have one aide who is going to leave us at the end of this year and
go to Haskel and get her teaching credentials and come back. So she is not even going to
wait for our program to unfold and take her time. She is just going to go away and do it
and come back. So we=ve got some really good Seminole support staff and that's very
H: And for the children to see role models from their own culture is extremely important -
especially, as you said, after they got this terrible message from this previous principle.
G: Oh, I know. That was very destructive to them. And we just hope that we can overcome
it. Possibly, with a small group of the children the effects may never completely wash
out. But we hope, particularly with the younger ones, that we can overcome all of that.
H: I hope so, too. Thank you very much, again. Not I am not sure I mentioned the date. It
April 27, 1999. Thanks, again.