In the fall of 2003, seven families opened a private Christian school in Dayton, Tenn., with 16 children in grades kindergarten through fourth and three state-certified teachers.
"My wife and I had talked about it for four or five years, but we didn't have enough faith to do anything about it until February 2003," says Tim Hostetler, founder of Rhea County Academy.
"We finally said, 'If we don't try it, we'll never know if that's what the Lord wanted. We had no teachers, had no building. We knew four or five people who were home-schooling their kids, so we had them for supper and proposed the idea. Three said yes, they would teach at the school," recalls Hostetler, who's also vice president of operations at Bryan College in Dayton.
He spent that summer preparing paperwork to meet state requirements. And in August 2003, Rhea County Academy opened in Grace Bible Church in Dayton. Just over a decade later, the school marked a second milestone on May 19: Its first senior class -- Judah Freuler and Amanda Tran -- graduated.
Though the class of 2014 was small, its commencement wasn't. Judah, valedictorian, and Amanda, salutatorian, had caps and gowns and diplomas, gave their commencement speeches and were even treated to a musical since the school's spring show was held in combination with graduation exercises.
Both students say they attended the academy for 11 years. During that time, the administration continued to add grades, and the student body grew to its current 85 students and 18 teachers. Julie Tran, the academy's dean of curriculum and instruction and mother of Amanda, says 30 homeschool students are also registered through the academy.
Nearby Bryan College partners with the academy, she says, to offer teaching experience to the college's education majors.
"It has become hard for student teachers to get placed in spring because public schools are preparing for TCAP," says Tran. "We had 20 students from Bryan's education department in our school this year because they needed a place to observe a teacher teaching and not just prepping for a test."
Tran says dual enrollment for academy students with Bryan College was established this academic year -- three courses in the fall, three in the spring. Professors came to the Rhea County Academy campus to teach.
"Sometimes there are parents who are leery of sending their high school students to a college campus; here, they take the class with other high school students," Tran explains.
Thanks to that dual enrollment program, Amanda and Judah will both enter college with enough credits to rank as second-semester freshmen. Amanda, who has earned 18 college credits, plans to go to Lipscomb University to major in physical therapy. Judah, with 21 credit hours, plans to major in marketing at Liberty University.
The pair say being the only two seniors naturally evolved into a good-natured competition for top grades.
"In middle school, we would run off with each other's tests to sneak a peek at each other's grades, and we always compared report cards. But, at the same time, we still often studied for tests together and worked together on projects," says Judah.
"We used to be competitive but, as we got older, we just tried our best," adds Amanda.
Both agree that being part of a smaller student body allowed them to get to know every one in the school well.
School cliques have never been a problem, Judah says, "because there weren't enough people to allow us to pick and choose who we were friends with."
Having small classes also allowed them more one-to-one instruction from teachers, he says.
"No one faded into the background or felt left out," he says. "On the flip side, though, it didn't allow us to develop skills needed to learn how to meet new people or 'put ourselves out there.' There were days when I wished I attended a larger school, but RCA came with a certain accessibility and humanity that would be missing from a large school. RCA was small enough that I could always turn to any of the faculty if I needed help or just needed people to talk to."
The academy moved to its current facility in March 2013. The facility was previously a church building that had gone into foreclosure. After purchasing the property, Rhea County Academy administrators added onto it before school began and made a second addition during the school year, says Tran.
A third expansion is already planned to meet RCA's projected fall enrollment of 120, adds Hostetler.
"Honestly, my first reaction is that I can't believe it," Hostetler says. "To start from nothing and now the school has its own facility is exciting. To see the school come together and keep going has to be something the Lord is involved with."
Contact Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.
Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...