Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, June 2, 2023

Skyuka Hall finally finds its home

School has a knack of bouncing back from adversity

A 5 a.m. phone call on July 17, 2018, woke Amber Beason from a deep sleep and delivered bad news: She wouldn’t need to report to work at Skyuka Hall that day because it would not be possible for her to do her job.

As director of admissions and communications at Skyuka Hall, a K-12 school for neurodiverse children, Beason decides if the families that would like their children to attend the institution are a match with its mission.

Although the students were on their summer break, the staff and leadership were spending their days preparing for the start of classes in four weeks. Then came the early morning news that a broken water main at their facility in the Four Squares Business Center on Mountain Creek Road had washed the contents of their building – including her office – into the surrounding parking lot overnight.

Beason remembers arriving at the school as the sun was rising to find an arc of water spraying from the broken main to where the roof of the school had been.

“As luck would have it, they had difficulty turning off the water, so it poured for four hours. The weight of it was so heavy the roof collapsed and the walls and windows blew out. There were LEGOs all over the parking lot.”

Beason recalls finding the Skyuka Hall’s head of school, Dr. Josh Yother, sitting on the end of his pickup truck calmly watching the drama wind down.

The school’s lease was up for renewal, and Yother fortuitously had been “dragging his feet” on signing the documents. Later that day, Beason says, he walked into the remains of their space, located the lease and ripped it to shreds.

While courageous, this act of defiance against the elements and the property company that managed the space left the school without a home one month before the start of classes. A flurry of meetings and site visits followed as its leadership looked for a new location, but their efforts were initially fruitless.

And then, Beason says, in “true Skyuka Hall fashion,” a solution emerged from the rubble.

“Dr. Yother received a phone call from a woman who said, ‘You don’t know me, but I’m going to give you a place to go.’”

A Chattanooga charter school that had been using a space in Eastgate Town Center was moving and searching for someone to take over its lease. Although the notion of moving into a space originally designed to be part of a mall was unconventional, Skyuka Hall was able to secure it at a pre-2008 recession price.

“We would have been priced out of it had it gone for what they would have asked outside of the recession,” Beason smiles.

The charter school was moving its furniture out as Skyuka Hall was moving its furnishings – much of which the community had donated to replace the water-damaged fixtures – in. Then classes began after a one-week delay.

Beason doesn’t use the word “miracle,” but her expression as she says Skyuka Hall lost only one family and no teachers during the transition suggests she feels like she saw one.

“Skyuka Hall holds a special place in this community’s heart,” she adds. “If anyone had ever doubted that before, they never would again.”

Exceptional students

Unlike local private schools that established themselves on verdant plots of Chattanooga soil and erected sprawling campuses worthy of an esteemed college, Skyuka Hall has always made do in the scrappy confines of aging business centers.

But the school’s accommodations have never deterred its staff from their mission of preparing nontraditional learners for a postsecondary education, Beason says.

“We’re not a school for children with behavioral, emotional or social challenges; we specialize in language-based learning disorders like dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia,” she explains. “These are syndromes that make a person learn in a different way. Our students are like the students you’d see in any school, only they’re struggling.”

These internal battles might be specific to reading, math or even larger concepts, Beason notes. For example, the school might enroll a sixth grader who’s reading at a third-grade level. Before inserting the student into a class, the staff will assess their progress and their abilities and identify a starting point for their reading teacher.

“Giving our students work they won’t be able to do will make them hate learning. You can’t do long division if you can’t add and subtract,” Beason says. “So, we find out where they are and then figure out the next step. That looks different for every child because they’re all in different places.”

While Skyuka Hall’s teachers excel at providing individualized instruction, Beason claims, students are placed in classrooms with their peers and learn the same content. This makes them part of a community, she notes, which helps them to see there are other youth like them and that they are capable of learning.

“We have kids who believe they’re not smart. But they are. They just need someone to help them make the right connections,” Beason says. “In a traditional classroom setting, their teacher might tell them to work harder and keeping reading, but that would be futile if they’re not processing and retaining information. Our children are the ones who are capable of doing the work but no one has tapped their potential.”

Unlocking a student’s abilities can be taxing on the learner, Beason says, so the school provides sensory relief areas where students can reset.

“Putting effort into learning something when learning is hard can be exhausting,” Beason says. “So, we have a cozy corner where our students can recharge. Stress and worry are barriers to learning, so we do everything we can to remove them.”

As a result of its approach to instruction, Beason says, some of Skyuka Hall’s students have scored a 32 on the ACT and been accepted at the colleges of their choice – after others had told them they’d never be ready for a postsecondary education.

Other students are finding a different but equally gratifying and productive path, Beason continues, including one young man who was “as dyslexic as the day is long and as sweet as could be.”

“Processing words was hard for him, so he wanted to work with his hands, since that would allow him to see what he was doing. He specifically wanted to be a plumber, so we arranged for him to do an apprenticeship with Jake Marshall (a local mechanical contractor). He’s now working full time for Marshall and loves it.”

Exceptional teachers

Skyuka Hall is housed not just within a former mall but within that former mall’s outer limbs, where an expanse of asphalt bumps up against Interstate 24 rather than a verdant stretch of grass and trees and an athletic field.

Inside, a maze that leads to classrooms, a cafeteria and other spaces common to schools winds its way through what had been a movie theater, a YMCA and a cowboy bar throughout its 61 years.

Despite its topographical and structural limitations, Skyuka Hall has a basketball team, a track squad, an orchestra and a choir. The school also offers a STEM program that provides students with access to robotics, augmented and virtual reality technologies, and advanced video and audio recording and editing equipment capable of producing broadcast quality content.

Essentially, Beason says, Skyuka Hall has made good use of its humble space.

“Being the person who gives the tour, I’m met with mixed reactions when I say we’re in a strip mall. We’ve had families visit us after touring Currey Ingram in Brentwood, which looks like the academy in the ‘Harry Potter’ movies. But they still saw the value in our little school.”

That value is contained within the teachers and the rest of the staff, Beason says, who are dedicated beyond measure.

Skyuka Hall’s roster of educators includes a reading interventionist who’s returned from retirement twice, an art teacher who was an illustrator for Random House in New York City and a local media professional whose resume includes stints at WRCB (Channel 3) and WDEF (Channel 12).

Interestingly, Beason observes, many of the teachers at Skyuka Hall serve as role models for the students because they’ve been diagnosed with some of the same issues, including dyslexia and attention deficit disorder.

“We have a teacher who taught at Notre Dame High School. She’s been teaching math since the dawn of time. She could teach math to a rock. She’s autistic and sees math everywhere. And she knows how to teach her students to see it.”

While Skyuka Hall provides its teachers with professional training and support, Beason says the best tool they have their toolbox is their hearts.

“This work is near and dear to us because we’ve been there, or our kids have been there.”

Skyuka Hall has its roots in Scenic Land School, which was founded in the 1960s to serve children with learning differences. After the institution went bankrupt, a new board was assembled that then hired Yother and a handful of teachers.

The school also began to operate as Skyuka Hall. It’s named not after a benefactor or a nearby community but a remote trail on Signal Mountain, which one of the board members says is especially peaceful.

It’s not named after Chief Skyuka, a Cherokee who met a tragic end, Beason clarifies with a sigh, as though she’s answering a question about the school’s peculiar name for the umpteenth time.

Since relaunching in 2014 with eight students, Skyuka Hall has become accredited with the Southern Association of Independent Schools in advanced education and seen its student population increase to 111.

Despite this, its leadership turned down recommendations from the accreditation committee to increase tuition and instead has chosen to cap it far below similar schools located elsewhere in Tennessee.

For example, day tuition at Currey Ingram will cost $47,650 for grades K-12 for the 2023-2024 school year, according to the academy’s website. Skyuka Hall’s Day Tuition will be $17,727 for grades K-8 and $19,563 for grades 9-12.

Currey Ingram did award $3.6 million in financial assistance to 44% of its families in 2021-22, whereas Beason says Skyuka Hall offers only limited aid. Instead, the school sets its tuition lower than competing schools to be able to meet the needs of as many families as possible.

“Could we do more if we charged more tuition? We could hire more teachers and add more programs, but we’d also price some families out, and we prefer to remain accessible.”

A new home

While Skyuka Hall has found ways to accomplish its mission in unconventional lodging, its leadership has long wanted to improve its accommodations. To that end, the board enthusiastically welcomed a gift of 70 acres of undeveloped land near Highway 153 in 2019, as it would give the school its own verdant plot of Chattanooga soil on which to erect a permanent home.

Then the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 and the Easter 2020 tornadoes in Chattanooga – both of which limited the availability of labor and materials – forced Skyuka Hall to pause a capital campaign to fund the construction of the new facility.

As the potential cost of the campus swelled from $11 million to $22 million, Skyuka Hall’s new home began to seem like a languishing dream rather than an immediate possibility, Beason says. This grieved the school’s leadership, which had promised its families they could begin looking forward to dropping off their children at a new location.

And then, Beason says, in “true Skyuka Hall fashion,” a solution presented itself.

“We were looking for options when a beautiful house fell into our lap,” Beason says, looking again like she believes she witnessed a miracle. “Things always fall into place. It’s uncanny how that happens.”

Located on Noah Reid Road, the single-family farmhouse includes 12,000 square feet of space that builders will convert from eight bedrooms, nearly as many bathrooms and a four-bay garage into classrooms, offices, gathering spaces and a cafeteria.

Outside, a 16-acre stretch of grass and trees will greet students instead of an expanse of asphalt, creating outdoor learning opportunities. The property also comes with a soccer field and a pavilion.

Beason says the house will be perfect for Skyuka Hall’s students.

“The family that sold the house to us said they built it to be full of children – and now it will be. We’re not yet sure what it’s going to look like, but we’ll finally have a literal home for our kids.”

Beason says it’s unlikely the new facility will be ready by August, when Skyuka Hall will begin its 2023-2024 school year, but that won’t stop them from moving forward with their core mission.

“No matter where we are, our focus will be on our students,” Beason says. “Many of us have been where they are, and that’s why we’re here now. That will never change.”