Kennedy: Skyuka Hall raises holiday cards to an act of love

Staff photo by Mark Kennedy. Josh Yother, head of school at Skyuka Hall in Brainerd, has an annual ritual of writing each student a personalized letter on a holiday card. The project takes about three weeks, said Yother, seen here on Tuesday.

Southern Living magazine recently asked its readers if sending Christmas cards is a dying art. Sixty-three percent of the respondents said yes, the holiday card tradition is dying.

Meanwhile, at a small independent school at Eastgate Center on Brainerd Road, the holiday card tradition is on a different trajectory.

Deep inside a property that was once a movie theater -- and later a country-western nightclub -- Skyuka Hall Head of School Josh Yother sat in a windowless office with a stack of blank holiday cards waiting on his desk.

The 48-year-old educator said he was about 10% through a stack of correspondence that will take him three weeks and countless hours: Writing personalized holiday cards (letters, really) to the approximately 120 families who comprise the school for students with different learning styles.

"I write something individually about each child that would put a smile on their face and let them know their school misses them while they are gone (on holiday break)," he said.

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Indeed, these are more than season's greetings. In a way, they are Yother's final exam. In order to do this, he has to know each of his student's personal story -- which means he has to care deeply and listen a lot.

Unlike students at some schools, many students at Skyuka Hall (formerly Scenic Land School located on Mountain Creek Road) miss school during holiday breaks, Yother said.

"I have parents tell me that when it comes to calling off school for snow days, they say, 'My child is sitting here begging that you not cancel school,'" Yother said in an interview at the K-12 school last week.

Students at Skyuka Hall have such challenges as ADHD, dyslexia and other learning differences, Yother said. Still, the school has been so successful that it is now attracting applicants from overseas. It has the same accreditation as the best private schools in the region, he said.

"We celebrate (students) for who they are," he said. "We see these so-called 'disabilities' as 'abilities.' There are plenty of dyslexic millionaires. Their ability to see things differently is why they make so much money."

Yother has a doctorate and has experience as a pastor, missionary and classroom teacher. His family leads the Coat of Many Colors ministry here providing clothing for the poor, and he has helped build churches in Africa and South America.

"I'm a preacher, not a teacher," he once told a school principal who was trying to recruit him into the classroom.

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That was many years ago, and Yother not only became an award-winning teacher, he has helped turn Skyuka Hall into one of the fastest growing independent schools in Tennessee.

Someone once asked him how would he know if the school got too big. Simple, he said. When he could no longer know enough about every student to write them a holiday letter that acknowledges their challenges and accomplishments.

In the beginning, it was easy. When Yother took the job to lead the Judeo-Christian school in 2014, there were only about a dozen students. Money was so tight he had to ask for a donated gift card to take the small staff to lunch.

He said he once asked the school's board chairman, "Did you hire me because you thought I was going to do something with this school or because you thought I would finish it once and for all?"

Yother seems to have answered his own question. The school is unmistakably on the rise with tenfold enrollment growth in the past nine years. It is funded through tuition money and foundation support.

Yother attributes that growth to a decision he made early in his tenure to drop any pretense of being a fancy educator and to concentrate on a single virtue to fuel the school: love. It's love, he said, that drives his holiday card project.

Indeed, there is something providential about a school that survived a great flood (in 2018 on Mountain Creek Road), has a pastor as a head of school and has a student body full of true believers.

"Skyuka Hall can't be explained," Yother said, "it can only be experienced."

"Life Stories" is published on Mondays. Contact Mark Kennedy at or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPcolumnist.