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Cherokee Central Schools offers programming allowing students to be career-ready

Jul 06, 2023 03:21PM ● By Randee Brown

Becoming a tribally-operated school in 1990, the Cherokee Central School is accredited by AdvancED, and a Board of Directors works as a policy-making entity to operate the schools. 

Serving preschool through 12th grade, Cherokee Central School served more than 1,400 students in the 2022/2023 school year. 

Conversely to many public schools, Associate Superintendent Beverly Payne said student enrollment continued to grow through the pandemic.

“The tribe took a stance to protect its people during COVID,” Payne said. “They closed reservation borders when infection rates went up. The Tribal Council watched numbers closely, and the numbers were lower within the reservation compared to outside.”

Comprising about 350 faculty and staff across all departments, Payne said 46% are enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, 4% are enrolled members of other tribes, and the remaining 50% are non-native. Superintendent Consul Girty said, “We are definitely one of the top employers on the Qualla Boundary.”

Funding for the school comes from a grant through the Bureau of Indian Affairs instead of the NC Department of Public Instruction, and according to Payne, the Tribal Council supplements quite a bit of that funding. Much of the supplemental funding comes from gaming dollars, and the Board of Directors approves the budget annually. While funding does not come from the state, she said CCS still follows the NC course of study and assessment system.

Girty said the preschool is directly tied in with the elementary school, and they try to follow a similar schedule so the kids are ready for Kindergarten. They eat in the same cafeteria and are familiar with the day-to-day schedule, and they have found this helps young students be successful.

“We just had our largest graduating class, 98 students, and this was the first graduating class that had students from the first year of the CCS preschool,” Girty said. “There were 15 or 16 from the original 39 in that first year, and both the Valedictorian and Salutatorian attended preschool here.”

Payne and Girty said they are at the tail end of an expansion project for CCS. They said the pandemic actually helped, as the project had just begun when the shutdown started. While learning was remote for a number of months, renovations began on existing buildings in addition to three new buildings being added on campus.

Payne said part of the expansion allowed the school to offer more programming. CCS offers several programs to develop career awareness to help keep students in local jobs upon their graduation. For the last three years, the schools worked in conjunction with the Qualla Education Collaborative to offer a Real Life Expo.

“It’s a simulation of ‘real life’ where tribal entities participate in exposing students to opportunities and careers,” Payne said. “In the simulation, students are given various careers and life circumstances, and can see how they are affected by different circumstances and see who can get to the end with money left over. They learn what it may be like to have certain jobs, and the program has a really high engagement with the students.”

There is a high school career fair and a variety of career awareness programs that allow students to visit job sites or tribal organizations and shadow leaders, according to Payne. This helps them learn what careers are available within different businesses and organizations. Tribal HR also works with students in conducting mock interviews and practicing resume writing.

Many career and tech education courses are available within the curriculum, and Payne said that is unusual for a high school of that size. Additional programs have been incorporated over the last couple of years via an American CTE program grant, which also allowed CCS to hire an ESTEAM director.

The curriculum includes a variety of middle and high school courses including drone tech, coding, digital design and animation, according to Payne. Skilled trade courses are also available for high school, such as culinary arts, agriculture, business, automotive tech, and health sciences.

“The high school has partnerships with Job Corps, which offers students additional types of career and tech ed courses to help get students career-ready,” Payne said. “The director is working on partnerships with another local organization offering different training such as masonry. We have these in place for interested students to take advantage of, and some of them even pay students to learn. It’s a great opportunity for our students.”