Half a century without a school

From the early 1960s to 2010, the picturesque town of Lake Lure had much to appeal to new residents. But it was missing one essential component of all thriving communities — a public school. 

Leading a tour of the new Gymnatorium and Ball Fields are Gymnatorium Project Manager Russ Pitts (top left) and LLCA Executive Director Tom Keever (in glasses) for new executive director of the Chamber of Hickory Nut Gorge Laura Dostor (with bag) and chamber members Laura Krejci, communication specialist for the Town of Lake Lure, and former Lake Lure Mayor Bob Keith.

“The Town of Lake Lure lost its heart and soul when the public school closed,” said former Lake Lure Mayor Jim Proctor. The original school on Memorial Highway, which was shut down by Rutherford County back in 1961, had more than 500 students at the time.  

Lake Lure, along with its neighboring communities, lies within a deep gorge with many steep, twisting, mountainous roads separating it from larger communities, such as Rutherfordton, Hendersonville, and Asheville. These geographic challenges — combined with 90-minute to two-hour bus rides to the closest schools — created real obstacles to attracting young families to the area. 

“Combine this with the harsh reality that Lake Lure’s permanent residential population was either flat or declining at the time and it became obvious something had to change to protect and preserve the long-term economic health and vitality of Lake Lure and the communities in and around the Hickory Nut Gorge,” says Russell Pitts, founding board member and project manager for LLCA’s purpose-built facility and gymnatorium.

Realizing the town’s vitality relied upon new generations calling Lake Lure home, a small but steadfast coalition of community leaders and volunteers began brainstorming ways to rectify the situation. Our community vision was for Lake Lure and neighboring communities to bring back the residential heritage it enjoyed in the past,” says Mr. Pitts. “It was apparent a new community school was the best solution.”

A strong community push

Despite dozens of town council meetings where residents with children lamented how difficult it was to live in Lake Lure with schools being so distant — and strong backing for a school by Mayor Proctor and the Council — the County’s response was that a new public school in our area was just never going to happen.

So the tenacious group switched gears and started researching how to start a public charter school.

“This was no small feat considering North Carolina had a limit of 100 charter schools statewide, with only three open slots. The odds were very unlikely Lake Lure would be selected, ” says Mr. Pitts. “It was an even more amazing accomplishment considering we were competing with more than 100 other municipalities across the state for only three openings. I can’t tell you how many people told us we were wasting our time. It just wouldn’t happen!

“However, with plenty of hard work, persistence, and passion from a handful of folks, Lake Lure was ultimately considered by the State as top choice for deserving a charter school charter,” Mr. Pitts says.

A series of swift successes

Following the State’s decision came the enormous job of creating something from nothing. The group formed the Lake Lure Educational Foundation (LLCEF) with the goal to cultivate a nationally recognized learning community in Lake Lure and Hickory Nut Gorge.

Fortunately, with financial and professional support from the Challenge Foundation (a national network of tuition-free, public charter schools that helps new charters gain access to startup funding, grants, training and services) along with a newly “schooled” group of volunteers, things quickly started happening.

And that’s fortunate because Lake Lure didn’t receive their school charter until March 2010, which left only six months to design and build a new school campus. 

“With such a demanding timeline, the only solution was to build a temporary campus based on modular design,” says Mr. Pitts. “Thanks to the unending bottomless support of many local businesses, leaders and volunteers, the dream came to life. 

“Making Lake Lure Classical Academy (LLCA) a realty was an adventure that began more than 11 years ago in December 2007,” says Mr. Pitts. “It required a lot of dedication and passion on the part of many folks; it was truly a community effort.”

Vision for the Future

Now fast forward to the present. Lake Lure Classical Academy is poised to graduate its fourth class of seniors on June 6th — the first major milestone to be celebrated in the brand-new Gymnatorium. These students have enjoyed the benefits of four years in a beautiful, purpose-built educational facility, the largest contiguous building of its kind in North Carolina. This learning experience has given them a solid foundation and boost towards a successful future.

But our journey has just begun. LLCA — with the support and visionary leadership of the Lake Lure Community Education Foundation — has a plethora of projects in the pipeline. All will enhance the educational experience of our students; many will enrich the quality of life and experiences of Lake Lure and the Hickory Nut Gorge residents.

The new Gymnatorium is a prime example. Community residents and LLCA students will now have a local venue for theater, concerts, speakers, sporting competitions, and more that can seat up to 1,300. Plans are already in the works for exciting summer events and activities the community will definitely find of interest. Stay tuned!

One high-priority objective is for LLCEF and LLCA to jointly research grant options to fund the creation of a community kitchen, as well as organizations to partner with to operate and staff it. This would enable us to serve healthy and nutritious meals to area residents in need, as well as provide hot breakfasts and lunches for our students. It would also qualify us for the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch Program, from which about 50 percent of our student body would benefit.

We’re also brainstorming ways to expand our School into an adult community educational and recreational site during non-student hours — everything from yoga to pickle-ball and basketball to knitting groups, book talks and personal finance classes. The Lake Lure Community Education Foundation will coordinate these events. The Foundation will also plan and organize fundraising for future projects for the school and community.

Be sure to check out the May/June issue of The Breeze to learn more about what wonderful things await our school and community!