When Josh Yother took over Skyuka Hall in 2014, the school once known as Scenic Land School had shrunk to only about a dozen students and was nearly out of money.
"We were in a financial abyss," recalled Dr. Yother, a former pastor who helped his father build churches in South America and aid local children in need with the Coat of Many Colors Ministry.
But Dr. Yother, who had previously worked as an award-winning instructor at Hixson Elementary and Ganns Middle schools, was convinced of the need for a local school to help students with learning differences. Over the past six years, Skyuka Hall has grown to more than 110 students, relocated into upgraded facilities and is preparing to graduate its first class of high school seniors this spring.
Skyuka Hall, like most other local schools, has suspended classes until March 30 due to concerns over the growing coronavirus outbreak. But the first seniors to graduate from the school are already preparing for a variety of college and career moves, Yother said.
"Students with learning differences are perfectly capable of excelling in their studies," he said. "By offering students an environment of love, support and enthusiasm for lifetime learning, children have the freedom to develop and prosper through lessons strategically designed to suit them individually."
At its Brainerd campus near the Eastgate Center where the school relocated nearly two years ago after a roof collapsed at its former location on Mountain Creek Road, Skyuka Hall offers a small, non-traditional setting to maximize the potential of children with a variety of learning differences.
The independent, private school has about an 8-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio in each classroom in an effort to better meet the individual needs of each student and is certified by AdvancED (SACS-CASI) and Southern Association of Independent Schools (SAIS). One-third of the students at Skyuka Hall are Merit Scholars, achieving over a 3.75 GPA.
"I'm a big proponent of public education, but I've come to understand that education is not a one-size-fits-all approach," Yother said. "There are kids who learn differently, and if we are not capable of developing an individualized educational approach for those individuals, we're going to lose them, not just academically but also socially and emotionally."
A learning difference is a condition in the brain that causes comprehension and information-processing difficulties as a result of dyslexia, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and more. In Chattanooga, about one in five students has some type of learning difference or challenge.
Yother said he relates to the students because he has a similar attention deficit disorder. Yother, a high-energy teacher and pastor who earned his doctorate in education and helped his father start more than 50 churches in South America, says he has struggled with attention deficit disorder his whole life and remembers often being the socially awkward child growing up. Yother says he is motivated by empathy, not sympathy, for the students in his school.
He balks at the term "special education," insisting that all students are special and each student just has differences in how they learn.
Yother brought the Coat of Many Colors ministry home in 1999 when he started handing out clothes and food to underprivileged children. It was with that nonprofit organization that he realized he needed to become a teacher after he began substituting at Hixson Elementary School.
"I quickly realized there is a bigger mission field two minutes from my house than there is in the Amazon basin," Yother recalled. "And seeing the impact that those clothes and the food actually had on the kids, the impact of academic achievement and the test scores, really made me start thinking that if clothes and some shoes and food could do that do to a child, what about a passionate person?"
In the classroom, Yother uses real-world applications to keep students interested. For example, when he teaches fractions, he talks about how to tip in a restaurant. He's also a bit of a performer, often standing on a desk to get his point across.
Tom Jones, a Lookout Mountain supporter of the school since its inception who now heads Skyuka Hall's board, said the school offers students with learning differences "a unique classroom atmosphere that corresponds with their abilities" and individualizes instruction for each student.
In addition to multisensory approaches in the classroom such as project-based learning, technology is heavily integrated throughout the Skyuka Hall curriculum. The school is a one-to-one laptop community with Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) labs and virtual reality computers, which enable students to tackle concepts through teamwork and communication using direct methods.
Over the years, Skyuka Hall has added such extracurricular programs as music, art, drama and leadership training programs.The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association recently approved the school's athletic plans for sports such as bowling and golf, allowing it to compete with other schools.
About 35% of its students get some form of financial aid, and Yother insists the school is a college preparatory school on par with Baylor School where he graduated in 1992.
"Individualized education should not just be a privilege for families with means to pay but should include all families who qualify based on their student profile and financial needs," he said.
Yother said without the proper environment, the challenges faced by those enrolled at Skyuka make educational requirements difficult. He said the social rejection of students who struggle in traditional classes because of their learning differences "also damages the heart." But ADD, ADHD and other disorders "can often be blessing or strength" in some areas.
"Those of us with ADHD are not disabled; we're just view the world differently, and it's a beautiful thing when you really get to know what we have to bring to the table," Yother said.
Contact Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6340.