A Komatsu backhoe sat idly in the background as Choctaw Central High School students Adam Bell, Karsyn Wallace and Ansen McMillan sang “The Star Spangled Banner” in their native Choctaw tongue to a large crowd gathered at the groundbreaking for the new Choctaw Central Middle/High School campus on Dec. 18, 2023. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians dignitaries and Choctaw Tribal Schools officials sat with state and local government leaders in neat rows of white folding chairs placed in the freshly leveled red dirt. Others stood on the bright cool day watching the historic scene as a row of colorful Choctaw community flags whipped near them.

“I didn’t understand it at first, but when I saw the (number of) alumni wanting to be at the groundbreaking, something that I thought was just plain and simple, that’s when it hit me,” Director of Schools Delnita Jones told the Crirec. “It’s more to our community than that. It’s more than just the education. This is one step further into that self-determination that our tribe was founded on.”

Guests listened to speeches, perused renderings of the new campus buildings and enjoyed refreshments to celebrate the start of construction.

“The need for a new campus for our middle and high schools has been discussed for two decades,” Tribal Chief Cyrus Ben said in a Dec. 18 press release. “In that time the Justice Complex was built in 2007, and a new Choctaw Health Center in 2015, both built to accommodate our growing population. Now, it is great to finally meet the educational needs of our Choctaw Tribal Schools, Choctaw Central High and Middle School students. Today, we celebrate the build of this state-of-the-art campus for our students to learn and grow in the safest and best possible environment.”

Plans for the new school have been underway for several years. In addition to securing funding, school officials visited schools across the state to determine the best design for the new facility.

“If someone said this school in Mississippi is state of the art and is 5 years or 10 years old, we went and looked to get ideas,” Jones said. “For safety, we included Homeland Security in our plans. Safety was probably one of the top priorities in designing this new school.”

The new campus will include an academic building, a Career and Technical Education building, a two-story basketball arena, a bus barn, a turf football field and locker rooms. Photo courtesy Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians

The new campus will have a smaller footprint. It will sit on 35 acres of Tribal land on the corner of South Oswald Road and Highway 16 West in Choctaw. Unlike the current school, which has classrooms spread across buildings, the new construction will feature one central building to house academic classes for all of the school system’s 7-12 grade students. Door card readers, cameras and a guard shack will add extra security to the fenced campus. More than 800 students attend school on the current campus, and Jones said school leaders anticipate an uptick in enrollment in the coming years.

“The old campus is spread over 53 acres, and the cafeteria is detached from the main buildings, so there’s a lot of issues as far as kids going from class to class and building to building,” Interim Assistant Director of Schools Trina Cheatham told the Crirec. “We have always struggled with being able to corral everything so to speak on the current campus. The new campus is going to be a little bit more compact.”

The two-story academic building will house 71 classrooms, a state-of-the-art media center, updated labs and new technology. There will be a separate music suite, and another building will provide more space for an updated cafeteria and dormitory. The construction will also contain a new Career and Technical School. The current one is located off-site and students have to be bussed there for courses. Many of Choctaw Central’s championship sports teams will play in new facilities including a turf football field and a 2,000-seat, two-level gymnasium.

School officials plan to incorporate Choctaw-themed, culturally relevant symbols and artwork into the school’s interior design. The group will also transfer plaques of quotes from tribal leaders from the current school to the new one.

“(The school) is going to have the features and the patterns of the tribal culture, like the diamonds, the quotes and the stickball sticks,” Cheatham said. ”We have pictures that we’re going to move from the old school that outline the different cultural things like pictures of ancestors who have done the cooking and (ones that) explain how the cooking was done.”

The construction will include a new state-of-the-art bus barn designed to also accommodate electric buses. The United States Environmental Protection Agency awarded MCBI $3,555,000 in the Clean School Bus Program’s first round of funding in 2022. The funds are allocated for the purchase of nine electric school buses and the infrastructure to maintain them.

“We’ve never had a bus barn before,” Cheatham said. “It will be state of the art, and we will be able to work on our buses there and house all our buses in one place, (the) electric buses also.”

Tribal Chief Cyrus Ben speaks at an outside podium with the US flag to his right
Tribal Chief Cyrus Ben spoke about the history of the current Choctaw Central School building and the need for a new facility during the Dec. 18, 2023 groundbreaking ceremony. Photo courtesy Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians

The Bureau of Indian Affairs built the first Choctaw elementary school in the 1920s and 1930s. Before that time, the tribal members had lived with little access to education. Segregation prohibited Choctaw students from attending the Black or white state public schools. Choctaw students had to attend federal boarding schools in North Carolina, Oklahoma, or Kansas for an education.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs built the current Choctaw Central High School in 1963. Later, Congress passed two pieces of legislation – the Indian Self-Determination Act in 1975 and the Tribally Controlled Schools Act in 1988 – paving the way for the tribe to take charge of its own educational programming. In 1988, the Choctaw Tribal Council serving as the official school board contracted the schools to be tribally controlled and took governance of the school district from the BIA. The Mississippi Department of Education accredits the district and the schools must fully comply with all federal requirements for the Every Student Succeeds Act, special education, and other federal programs.

The Choctaw Tribal Schools include six elementary schools in Newton, Neshoba and Leake Counties. Choctaw Central Middle and High Schools are located on the Choctaw Indian Reservation. A student must have at least ¼ degree of Indian blood verified by a valid Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood to attend a tribal school.

“The other community schools, through the last 30 years (since) the tribe contracted our schools to be tribally controlled and took governance of our schools have had new buildings built,” Cheatham said. “The high school and middle school buildings are the oldest, and so it was their turn, and Chief Ben’s Administration is trying to make that happen, is making that happen.”

The $134-million project is expected to be completed in time for the start of the 2026-2027 school year. This year’s freshman class would be the first to graduate from the new high school.

Torsheta Jackson is MFP's education-equity reporter, in collaboration with Report for America. She is passionate about telling the unique and personal stories of the people, places and events in Mississippi. The Shuqualak, Miss., native holds a B.A. in Mass Communication from the University of Southern Mississippi and an M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Mississippi. She has had bylines on Bash Brothers Media, Mississippi Scoreboard and in the Jackson Free Press. Torsheta lives in Richland, Miss., with her husband, Victor, and two of their four children.