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Private school to open in Sylva

Journeys School for the Gifted and Talented, located on Skyland Drive,  is set to open in the Fall of 2025. Journeys photo Journeys School for the Gifted and Talented, located on Skyland Drive, is set to open in the Fall of 2025. Journeys photo

A new independent private school is set to open in Sylva by fall of 2025, with a focus on serving gifted and talented students. 

“Our goal is to meet gifted and talented students’ unique needs holistically, meaning academically, socially and emotionally through personalized learning plans,” said Brianne Hudak, Founder and CEO of Journeys School.

In May, the Town of Sylva Board of Commissioners received a zoning map amendment request from C and J Properties for a micro-school. Hudak requested property located at 414 Skyland Drive in Sylva, which used to be the Smoky Mountain Fitness Center, be rezoned for the private school. The board unanimously approved the change from general business district to professional business district. Now, construction and renovation are underway on the property.

“Sylva is optimal because of its proximity to Western Carolina, as well as Southwestern Community College,” said Hudak. “Sylva is advancing and embracing the same mission and vision of Journeys, creating leaders and appreciating diversity.”

The old Smoky Mountain Fitness Center sits on 13 acres. The school, which will serve an estimated 60 k-8 students, is designed to be biophilic, organic and nature based. It will utilize the entire property for outdoor learning spaces and expanded learning opportunities.

Hudak has worked in education for over 16 years, serving in public, private and charter schools. She has taught gifted and talented students in preschool through fifth grade, STEM, theater arts and global studies. She has also worked in curriculum and instruction, student activities, served as dean of students, assistant principal and k-12 school leader. Currently, Hudak is pursuing her doctoral degree in educational leadership focusing on combating underachievement in the gifted and talented population; she works as an educational coach and consultant.

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Now, she is also working to develop Journeys School for the Gifted and Talented. Hudak will be the founder and head of school.

“I became interested in gifted students when I taught them. I was really intrigued by their unique ideas and ways that they solve problems, their abilities and precocious nature in general make diving into content really meaningful and comprehensive,” Hudak said. “As an educator, I saw gaps in equity, and I really became a passionate advocate of the gifted and started supporting educators, specialists and families in the gifted community to close those equity gaps, motivate students and help gifted and talented individuals reach their full potential.”

Journeys will welcome families across Western North Carolina, with applications opening Nov. 1. According to Hudak, exact tuition has yet to be determined.

“We want to be affordable to families, but with our mission and vision, we want to be able to provide that exceptional education and opportunities to students, and also recruit exceptional staff,” Hudak said.

The school aims to offer financial assistance in order to create its goal of a sustainable, equitable, diverse, inclusive environment.

In the recently passed state budget the North Carolina General Assembly expanded the Opportunity Scholarship program allowing more families to qualify for publicly funded private school vouchers. The Opportunity Scholarship program previously served mostly low-income families and some middle-income families, by providing applicants with a voucher to help pay for tuition for a private school. With the new expansion, families of all incomes are eligible for the voucher.

“Now, literally any family in Western North Carolina can consider Journeys as a school of choice and get financial assistance for tuition, so it’s really advantageous,” said Hudak.

The application process will require families to fill out an initial interest application, after which there is a formal application process that involves providing transcripts, academic history and other information. There will not be testing requirements, though test scores can be provided to the school as part of the application.

“When we get further down the line, we’re going to allow families to tour the school, meet the staff, all as part of the application process to determine if they think that this school is a good fit,” said Hudak. “Then families will be interviewing with me ... to have a deeper conversation about what they see as their priorities or needs for their child and education and if Journeys can fit that.”

Hudak plans to offer before and after school care from the outset and hopes to be able to add preschool after the first or second year of operation. As far as extracurriculars, students will get art, music, physical education, foreign language and STEM classes, once per week outside of regular education in the classroom.

“I tell people, I feel like being gifted and talented is a superpower; it’s really valuable and useful in moving society forward,” said Hudak. “It’s those that think outside the box who are going to offer broader solutions to challenges we are facing in this ever-changing world.”

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