Closer Look

Remote school striving for excellence

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Christopher Hedden

While most Macon County schools are located in and around the town of Franklin, two schools in the system are at least a 30-minute drive away and both are increasingly rare K-12 schools. One is Highlands School. The other, nestled in the remote and mountainous area of Topton, is Nantahala School. 

Although Nantahala School serves roughly 85 students, it provides a unique, impactful, and necessary educational experience. 

Since 1951, Nantahala School has operated in the northeastern sector of Macon County, between Swain and Cherokee counties. Prior to the establishment of Nantahala School, smaller subsequent communities, like Otter Creek, provided their own school houses and education. Nantahala School is considered a “geographically isolated” school and is protected by North Carolina legislation to guarantee one full-time teacher per grade level. 

SUPERINTENDENT JOSH Lynch is pictured with Nantahala School’s graduating class of 2024.

Principal Andrew Pyle explained that students of Nantahala School are given a support system of teachers from the moment they enter kindergarten. Most students meet and know their upcoming teacher years before they are enrolled in the teacher’s class. This unique relationship grows over time, allowing for a personal educational experience. 

Additionally, students at Nantahala School do not have to experience the anxiety of switching schools as traditional students do. Class sizes are inherently smaller, allowing teachers space to tailor curriculum based on individual students’ needs. Using an analogy, Pyle explained, “It does not take much to change the direction of a small ship.” 

The greatest challenges Nantahala School faces is scheduling and staffing. All classes are conducted on one consecutive hall with teachers that instruct multiple grades and multiple classes on a daily basis. In light of this reality, teaching students in multiple grades makes teachers more conscious of areas requiring academic growth in a student’s education. The only department with a teacher designated for each individual grade is English and Language Arts (ELA). ELA is said to be the scaffolding that is used to build a quality education. 

Sports are just as important at Nantahala School as at any other school in the Macon County School system. Depending on the number of students enrolled each year, athletes compete in varsity and junior varsity sports such as golf, basketball, volleyball, cross country, and track and field. Although maintaining a sports team can be difficult, especially with small participant numbers, it often gives students a chance to try a sport they would not have otherwise. 

“If you want to play, you will play,” noted Pyle, about athletic opportunities. 

2023-24 Progress

Nantahala School is often misrepresented statistically within the state because of the low number of students and sub-groups from which to extract, informed Pyle. The crowning academic achievement of 2024 is that six of the seven graduating seniors are leaving Nantahala School with their high school diploma, plus an associates’ degree from Tri-County Community College, in Murphy. And, the class of 2024 has a 100% graduation rate. 

“Since we are a statistical anomaly because of size, I will take a 100% graduation rate every day, and I will take seniors graduating with an associates’ degree,” said Pyle.

Career and Technical Education (CTE) Teacher Eli Mauck helped initiate the inaugural season of Nantahala School’s Electronic Sports (E-sports) program. Students compete against others in the region in various video games requiring different skills. The E-Sports program is fortunate to have high-grade Alienware game-operating systems to compete on, said Mauck. Even though Nantahala School is geographically remote, WiFi connectivity is up to par with surrounding areas through local internet provider BalsamWest. 

Additionally, all seniors have been actively involved in various facets within the Nantahala community, such as with the local volunteer fire departments, church groups, and sport teams. Such involvement shows promise for students’ integration as future leading citizens, noted Pyle. Pyle indicated that while Nantahala School may be geographically isolated – compared to other schools in the Macon County School system – that remoteness does not impede the fact that students attending there strive for excellence personally and for their school.