Donations bring Red Bird school back from the brink; other mission schools adapt to survive

Red Bird Christian School, which is built in the shape of a cross, sits amid the steep hills near where Clay, Leslie and Bell counties meet. 11/20/2014 photo by Bill Estep
Red Bird Christian School, which is built in the shape of a cross, sits amid the steep hills near where Clay, Leslie and Bell counties meet. 11/20/2014 photo by Bill Estep Herald-Leader

BEVERLY — Things looked bleak for Red Bird Christian School five years ago.

Donations had dwindled for the historic school, a mission founded in 1921 by a forerunner of the United Methodist Church in what was then an isolated spot in the steep hills where Clay, Leslie and Bell counties meet.

The school was operating in the red and had dipped into investment funds for several years to keep going. In spring 2010, directors voted to close at the end of the term.

But after the vote, a board member contacted O. Taylor Collins, a Red Bird graduate, and asked him to consider leading an effort to turn things around.

Collins took on the job, cutting staff and programs to get the school back in the black and focus on core academic goals. And he rebuilt fundraising efforts.

Red Bird made it through the rough patch, reopening its high school boarding program this semester for the first time since 2010 with more than 20 students.

More boarding students are due for the spring semester, and there are plans to expand the boys' dorm and try to build a sizeable endowment.

"We are just so proud to have been able to save the school," said Collins, 67. "We've been very blessed."

Red Bird is one of the scores of mission schools, settlement schools and academies established throughout Appalachia in the late 1800s and early 1900s, some church-run and some secular.

Church officials and progressives from outside the region led the facilities, drawn by an interest in trying to improve education and living conditions in a region where public schools were sparse and hard to reach for many.

The need for the schools waned with the spread of public education and construction of better roads beginning in the 1920s and '30s, and many closed.

Others, however, found ways to adapt to changing times and continue serving students and communities.

For instance, Pine Mountain Settlement School, in Harlan County, developed a nationally known environmental education program attended by thousands of students annually.

Hindman Settlement School, in Knott County, is known for its arts programs, writers' workshop and dyslexia education.

Some schools began accepting students from elsewhere in the country, and foreign students.

One example is Oneida Baptist Institute in Clay County, founded in 1899, which started taking international students in the 1950s.

The school would not have survived if it had continued serving only local students, said President Larry A. Gritton Jr.

Oneida, which has grades 6 through 12, has 315 students, including 230 boarders. Most of the boarding students are from other states and countries, Gritton said.

And the school is growing, with 50 more students now than a year ago. The school started running two bus routes this year to pick up children in the area — the first time it has done that in 35 years, Gritton said.

"We're more relevant now than we've ever been," he said.

Many of the boarding students at Red Bird also are from other states and nations — one way for the school to reinvent itself while continuing to serve its home area.

It's likely many young people will have to leave the area for work, so greater diversity at Red Bird will give them a taste of what they'll experience elsewhere, Collins said.

"These kids in the mountains need to experience that," he said.

Students from other countries are interested in attending American boarding schools as a step toward getting into college in the United States, Collins and others said.

Red Bird had survived lean times before 2010, including a fire that destroyed the facility. The mission rebuilt, finishing a school in the shape of a cross in the early 1980s.

But with the recession that hit in 2008 sapping donations, directors were concerned that propping up the school was taking too much money away from the rest of the Red Bird mission, said Lois Smith, the current board chair.

The mission also includes medical and dental clinics, a clothing center, a food pantry and several other programs.

The thought of closing the school after generations was heartbreaking, but directors felt they needed to stop the bleeding, Smith said.

"The school was taking up so much money," she said.

After the vote, however, a director appealed to Collins, who was then superintendent of a school district in Texas but had deep ties to Red Bird.

Collins was born in the old mission hospital, graduated from the Red Bird high school in 1966 and had served as principal of the school.

He decided to come home and try to keep the school going. The board was divided on whether to take another chance, and he had to sell some members on the idea.

"I just felt in my heart I could do it if they gave me a chance," Collins said.

He decided the school was overstaffed and trying to do too much, driving up costs.

He combined classes in the elementary school and cut high school classes such as business, industrial arts and home economics to focus on core college-preparatory subjects such as the sciences, math and language arts.

The school opened in fall 2010 with fewer teachers and students than before, and with no boarders.

Collins, a Leslie County native who started his education in a one-room school and went on to receive a doctorate from Vanderbilt University, said his concept was "let's have the school we can afford and build the school that we want."

Toward that end, he also focused on boosting fundraising, working to find new individual and corporate donors.

Red Bird is a private K-12 school, and also has early childhood education programs.

It charges tuition to day students from the area and to boarders, but the cost is based on a family's income. Many don't pay full price.

The school's main source of money is donations.

"When I got here, the hardest thing was to ask for money. Within one year, I got to where I could ask anybody," said Collins, who is head of the entire mission.

Longtime highway contractor Leonard Lawson has been a prominent benefactor. Lawson and his wife, Bonnie, are Red Bird graduates.

Collins said Lawson gives the school $100,000 a year, and in October gave an additional $260,598, matching what other donors had given in a challenge from the Lawsons. That meant the drive brought in a total of more than $520,000.

"I received what amounted to a college education in high school at Red Bird," Lawson said in a news release. "This generation of young men and women there deserve the same kind of education."

Collins said Red Bird works to provide high-quality teaching underpinned with Christian instruction and values.

There are daily devotions and a requirement for two years of Bible study.

"The spiritual is equal with the academic here," Collins said. "We want to focus on developing ethical and moral leaders."

Several boarding students said classes at Red Bird are harder than at their old schools, but they also appreciate the focus on spirituality.

"They will always bring God into any conversation," said Seth Carroll, a boarder from Colorado.

"The school is very strong in faith. Everyone here cares for you and tries to help you," said Anmol Kaur, a student from New York.

Things are looking better at the school these days.

It has operated in the black the past three years, and revived the boarding program this year. The girls' dorm, named in honor of Bonnie Adams Lawson, is newly renovated. Enrollment has reached almost 200, up from 160 in the fall of 2010, and more boarding students are due after Christmas.

But there is more work to be done, Collins said.

He would like to have 60 boarders at the school, equaling the number when he attended Red Bird high school in the mid-1960s.

And there is a more ambitious project in the works — an effort to build an endowment of $20 million by 2021, the school's 100th anniversary.

"I have faith that we can do things that will ensure that Red Bird will last another hundred years," Collins said.