Tate’s School goes full speed into the future

Tracy Haun OwensOur Town Stories, West Hills

Having just celebrated the 50th anniversary of Tate’s School, founder Lou L Tate is used to being asked about her decades of milestones.

But, she confesses, “I’m always thinking about what we are going to do tomorrow, not what we did in the past. You look around and see what needs to be done and you do it.”

Tate’s is a private school serving children from preschool through eighth grade. The school occupies 54 acres off Bob Gray Road near Cedar Bluff Road. Offices, including the foundation office, are in a restored Civil War-era farmhouse on the wooded grounds. Instructional buildings wind around the campus, from the first one built, which holds a primary school, to a new literary arts building that has the feeling of a treehouse. (There are no concrete-block walls on this campus, Tate points out.) The grounds hold the middle school, an art building, an amphitheater, a pond for science class, a music building, a technology building and much more. There’s a forest used for outdoor classes and camps, and a couple of pools, ziplines and other ways to get children up and outside.

“There’s plenty of room to expand,” Tate says, and there are current plans for a new science building on a previously unused tract. “We’re always in flux.”

Full speed ahead: Lou L and Joe Tate with daughter Jodi at the Founders Day celebration at the beginning of the school year. Jodi and her sister Paula were the first students at the school. (Courtesy of Tate’s School of Discovery Foundation)

Tate and her husband, Joe, a retired public school principal, have their own home on campus. The grounds, which bloom in native trees and flowers, are the pride of their daughter Paula Tate, who is also the school’s director of wellness. (“If you have a skill and you are a child of the Tates,” she says, you get to work.) The Tates’ youngest daughter, Tracey Van Hook, now heads the Tate’s School of Discovery Foundation, after having worked in not-for-profits in Florida for many years. A third daughter, Jodi Geschickter, lives in Charlotte, N.C., and is the only active female team owner in NASCAR.

Paula and Jodi were the original force behind Tate’s School. Lou L and Joe Tate moved to Knoxville from Jonesboro, Ark., then shuffled to a couple of U.S. Army posts before coming back to Tennessee permanently. Lou L Tate is from a family of educators, including her mother, her aunt and her grandfather. She taught here at Pleasant Ridge Elementary School before she resigned to stay home with her baby girls. Knowing she needed to go back to work as a teacher, she started looking for somewhere to enroll them.

“I couldn’t find anything I would be happy with,” she says. Instead of taking a classroom job, she went to her church, Erin Presbyterian, and asked if she could rent three rooms to start a school.

“No students, no teachers, no equipment,” she says. She began hiring degreed teachers and spreading the word about the school, driving the girls around in her station wagon and stuffing mailboxes with flyers. After Tracey came along, the school had classes for smaller children at Westminster Presbyterian. Then, in the early 1970s, the Tates bought the first parcel of land off Bob Gray Road.

Over the past 50 years, the principles on which she founded the school have stayed consistent. There’s a lot of hands-on learning, particularly outdoors. Character education is a huge component. Academics are very strong: Tate’s was the first STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) elementary school accredited by the state.

She now has many alumni parents, who are always eager to show their own children the place that was so special to them. Although many things have changed in the past five decades, children have not.

“Children are children,” Tate says. Her secret is to treat them with kindness and sensitivity “and allow them to be excited about learning.”

There is a balanced approach to education, Tate says, “because life is a balance.”

A spirit of adventure permeates everything she does, as she leads by example, letting her students know that it’s safe to explore the world. Last fall, for Founders Day, she surprised her students by driving a race car on campus to show them “They can do anything new.” (It helped, she says, that she knew how to drive a stick shift.) She took a turn at the bulldozer that broke ground for the school’s new event venue. (That was scarier than the race car, she says.)

The event venue, called The Barn, is 8,500 square feet. It will be available to rent for weddings, business retreats and more. Revenue from the rentals will fund the First Responder Student Scholarship, which is the first full-tuition scholarship offered by the school.

Tate and her family and staff announced the scholarship as the 50th “act of service” in an anniversary campaign called “50 Acts of Service.” Sheriff Tom Spangler serves as honorary chair of the scholarship. He was joined for the announcement by Knoxville Fire Chief Stan Sharp, whose own three children attended Tate’s on partial scholarship. (Student applicants for the 2019-20 year must have a parent who serves as a first responder in fire-rescue, law enforcement, EMT or military personnel. Deadline is May 28, 2019. Info: here.)

As she looks around at all that Tate’s has grown to become – and what it will be – Lou L Tate is typically gracious in sharing the credit.

“I feel God has directed us,” she says. “He’s sent me wonderful people over the years. It’s not all been me, for goodness’ sake.”

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