There’s a transformation taking place near Exit 4 on I-81 in Jefferson County.
It is both the culmination of a vision and the launch of a new ideal. It marks the changing of both the physical landscape of the Jefferson-Hamblen county border and the metaphysical concept of private Christian education in East Tennessee.
After two years of construction, Lakeway Christian Academy’s Jefferson County campus is set to open next month and administrators and educators are ready to put the new facility to good use.
And that use is to educate Lakeway students in the mind, body and Christian spirit
“Our Christian faith is woven throughout out all disciplines, said Dr. Bob Brown, executive director of Lakeway Schools.
The goal is to prep students for the next level, but one of the challenges in creating this new school is the wide range of needs and experiences of its students, Brown said.
“It’s a fairly rigorous course although we have been committed to trying to help folks where they’re at. We have so many stories for our folks to tell,” he said. “Students come in with a lot of different educational backgrounds and experiences.
It’s a variety of subject matters. We have a program called equip for those that do come in who are deficient or behind. We work to help people get up to speed. We have high expectations for our students … and they have by and large performed.”
Brown said educators recognized that not every student needs to go to college to be successful, hence the creation of the Career Technical Education program.
“We’re unique in this regard we are in the process of developing a strong CTE program for kids who want to look at exploring trade school when they get out,” he said. “We’re talking to the Tennessee College of Applied Technology. We’ve got a culinary arts room with an incredible kitchen. We have a shop where we’ll do metal working – but that won’t be operational this first year. We want to expose kids to being an electrician, robotics.
“The academic course is strong and varied.”
But the Lakeway Christian mission extends beyond state of the art classrooms and computer labs and first rate educators. The new school includes a beautiful 1,200 seat performing arts center, band and choir rooms. It includes first class athletics facilities as well as top-rate coaches. The goal, Brown said, is to provide an excellent, well-rounded education.
“It’s all part of our desire to be excellent in all things,” he said. “In everything that we do, we do for the glory of God. He deserves our best.”
That’s why, Brown said, the idea of faith and Christian ideals is woven throughout the mission. Students aren’t simply asked to go to Bible class and then spend the rest of their time being educated in a secular fashion.
“We talk about God’s hand in chemistry and mathematics,” he said. “Integrating technology. Integrating real world type of situations … just trying to prepare kids for 21st-century Christian life.”
That means equipping students to have meaningful discussions about faith and education even after they leave the relatively comfortable confines of a private, Christian school.
“We’re preparing kids to succeed in college, if you’re going to a secular university you’re going to be faced with a different perspective,” he said. “We’re preparing kids to be able to discuss hot-button topics in a way where they feel prepared. We like to prepare kids for life.
“It goes back to that’s who we are. We really do believe God’s hand and inspiration is in all facets of life.”
Those facets include education in art, Brown said.
“The performing arts, the fine arts, are all part of that. We have an art classroom that is just fantastic both at Cornerstone and at Lakeway,” he said. “We have co-teachers for the band, a husband and wife team, and they’ve just done a fantastic job, putting together from nothing. The sky’s the limit there. Our band room is very spacious and the program is very strong. We have a choral group – the teacher there that is heading that up has years of experience of choral schools in Knoxville.
The performing arts center will be the crown jewel of the students music and theater programs.
“We’ve spent a lot of time and effort and resources. The acoustics should be excellent,” he said. “There’s not a bad seat in the house. We have a couple of Lincoln boxes on the side and a large stage. We worked with bandit lights, nationally known for lighting. Our sound system is state of the art.”
Brown added that every piece of the center will be used for educational purposes.
“We tried to be good stewards and wise in everything we do,” he said. “One of the things we want to do is train our students how to run the sound board, the lights and manage the stage. We put a row of green rooms in the back to give our students an opportunity to work in what would be a Broadway setting for makeup.
“It’s a pretty impressive place to look it in.”
Brown said school officials consulted with the Niswanger Performing Arts Center in Greeneville during the design phase. The Lakeway performing arts center will be run by a director who can focus simply on the center.
When student events aren’t scheduled, the director will bring in outside groups to perform for the community, and manage the facility in cooperation with the school.
Even before a single brick had been laid on the new school, Lakeway Christian made a splash on the athletics scene. Coaches hired include stars from major NCAA programs like Virginia and Tennessee as well as some of the most-highly touted prep coaches in the nation. That, combined with top-notch facilities, has made Lakeway Christian an attractive option for serious athletes in a variety of disciplines.
“We wanted to be excellent in athletics. Part of that is a philosophical point of view as well as practical,” he said. “Some of the most influential people in my life and growing were coaches. Good or bad, they were influential.
The goal is to provide well-rounded excellence.
“It’s a chance to be guided by Godly men and women who are guided by not just wins or losses – although they’re very competitive,” he said. “Some of the life-lessons you learn - how to deal with winning how to deal with losing – we wanted those kids throughout the school to have a sense that they really matter.”
Brown said having the resources to go get big time coaches is nice, but in several cases, it wasn’t money that brought the coach and school together, it was the combination of mission, timing and opportunity.
“Sure, we’re making a big investment in athletics. We have been able to attract and hire some great coaches,” he said adding rumors about coaching salaries have been wildly exaggerated. “But it has been a complete God thing. There’s no way in the world some of the guys and some of the women we have hired would have come to us, if it had not worked out in a providential manner.”
The athletics program created one of the larger misconceptions locally about Lakeway’s mission in the early days, Brown said. There were rumors Lakeway was recruiting athletes, giving athletic scholarships and planning dorms to attract top-flight players from around the country like some other private institutions.
“It’s because we’re new, nobody really understood it,” he said. “We’re not recruiting, We can’t recruit. And we have a big target on our back because we’re new. The way the TSSAA writes its rules, we can’t recruit anyone. All our financial assistance is need based.”
Brown noted financial aid is determined by an independent third party, FACTS.
“No one was ever out trying to pay people to play sports,” he said.
Brown said in the early days, he had a prominent member of the community confront him about “stealing our kids.”
“The last time I checked, they’re not your kids,” he said. “We provide exceptional facilities, exceptional coaches. That’s the parents’ choice. I believe in public schools. We’re a Christian school. It might not be a match for you.”
Lakeway Christian uses third-party provider FACTS to determine the amount of financial assistance each student may receive. FACTS works directly with the child’s parents to determine the level of need. Lakeway officials have no input and only receive the final report from FACTS.
“We use FACTS. We can’t give anyone money to come here,” he said. “All our financial assistance is need based. We can give up to what FACTS says to give. We can’t give a penny over.”
The amount of aid varies for each student. Brown said the school has roughly 20 students from the Kingswood Home foster system.
“That’s been a fun thing to watch,” he said. A lot of these kids come from difficult situations.”
Brown said school leaders do believe in having some skin in the game. That’s why FACTS is used to identify what level parents can contribute.
“We do recognize that this area is not flush with cash laying around,” he said. “But we believe we want to provide a Christian education opportunity for anyone who wants to do that and is willing to make financial sacrifices themselves.”
One of the unmistakable advantages Lakeway has over other schools in the region – private or public – is that it has a comparatively robust budget. It’s not that the school has an unlimited budget, but there is funding available to meet any identified need agreed upon by school educators and the board.
“We are blessed with resources to be able to build this facility,” Brown said. “And when we finally open the doors and children start coming through the doors, there will not be any debt incurred to the parents. Many private Christian schools are under a heavy debt load. In this case, we were able to build this because of the passion, the vision, the generosity of those with resources to be able to provide those. In addition, we continue to be blessed with resources that have allowed us to set up financial aid …
“We’ve been blessed in that regard.”
Brown said predications on the school’s enrollment at launch vary because of myriad of possibilities created by the coronavirus. The school has gone from 170 students system-wide to 350 to 518 last year, but its unclear what enrollment will be this year.
“It’s just hard to say,” he said. “There’s a lot of fear, especially with the younger children. That’s a challenge for moms and dads. But we’ve got a lot of people in the queue. We’re giving tours every day.
“They got to the website. There’s an admissions tab. They can call the office and set up a tour. We funnel everything through the admissions process … Our admission officer is very busy right now with getting folks in there.”
The plan is for the school to pen at its regular time, Aug. 7 for Cornerstone and Aug. 10 for Lakeway but will be subject to change if necessary.
“We’ve done our plan for COVID response, the board is considering that right now,” he said. “We’ll try to work as best we can with the community. You kind of have to make micro decisions based on your own community but you’re not in a vacuum … Right now, we’re not planning to have children wear masks but it’s always subject to change.”
Brown said Lakeway is prepared to go to online education if necessary. All the kids in Lakeway have tablets issued through the school and they were able to conduct online learning last year when schools were closed.
“We were pretty aggressive in doing that and it worked really well.”